Exclusive: Ponniyin Selvan: I costume designer Eka Lakhani on styling characters, working with Mani Ratnam

Exclusive: Ponniyin Selvan: I costume designer Eka Lakhani on styling characters, working with Mani Ratnam

The much-awaited movie of the year, Ponniyin Selvan: I, by cult-favourite director Mani Ratnam, has hit the screens. The reviews of the movie have been great and fans are loving the glorified version of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan on the big screens. The historical fiction movie features an ensemble cast of Vikram, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi, Trisha, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Sobhita Dhulipala and several other veteran actors. 

Costume designer and celebrity stylist Eka Lakhani and her team have been the brains behind the extravagant and glorified looks of the characters. Teleporting us back to the 10th century in a form of storytelling with fashion, jewellery and makeup, Eka Lakhani has achieved her goal! In our exclusive tete-a-tete with Eka Lakhani, she shares her experience working on a large-scale project, her favourite looks and the whole effort in building a narrative for each character through fashion and styling.

1. Tell us your experience working for this star-studded historic film. 

It was a beautiful experience for me, but it was also a nerve-wracking experience. The fact that it is a Mani Ratnam film, his dream project, and I was a part of it made me feel quite excited. Also, I started my journey with Mani sir on Ravan and Ravana with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Vikram and to be working with them again on a film which is as grand as this was thrilling and exciting.

2. As it’s a movie based on a fictional novel by Kalki, in what ways did you seek inspiration to style each character? 

This film is about the Chola Dynasty. A lot of the characters are people we know from our history. A lot of them are fictionalised by Kalki as well. The evidence of this era that we have are the visual evidence that comes from the Thanjavur temples or sculptures and all these pieces of evidence are there from the 12th century, whereas the movie that we did was from the 10th century. So while we have evidence and statues and temples and engravings on the walls of these temples, we still do not have a very visual description for them, but Kalki has given us a lot of details in terms of how each character looks. He has described each character very prominently in his books. At the same time, we also have Maniam’s illustrations which show what hairstyles and jewellery were adorned by the princesses, the queens and the war scenes. So there was a lot of detail that we’ve gotten from these illustrations. We’ve kind of mixed that with the notes from the novel, and Mani sir’s adjectives to define each character.

3. Kundavai and Nandini are two pivotal roles in the story with contrasting characters. What was your conceptualization while costume designing for each of these strong female roles? 

Kundavai (played by Trisha Krishnan) is a born princess. She is royalty. Mani sir described her as someone who is courageous, strong and as a woman with a voice. She had to be authoritative, so we chose silhouettes that were very sculpted, with strong lines. The pleats were done well, and her blouse had pleated lines. Overall we kept her very proper to soften her look, we used softer colours with strong designs. Her hairstyle was such that it kept her standing tall. This helped us get that authoritative look we wanted. We adorned her with a lot of jewellery which she wore (body language wise) with such ease that it looked like a second skin on her. Since she was born into royalty, it had to look like it all came very naturally to her.

Nandini (played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) on the other hand, wasn’t born royalty. She was an Andal girl and she later acquired royalty. She’s beautiful and is aware of her mesmerising beauty and uses it to her advantage, to acquire Royalty. So when it came to her, we wanted a mystical look, every entry needed to be mesmerising and mysterious of sorts. We used deeper royal colours and black on her. Her jewellery was more pronounced as she had acquired royalty and wanted to show she was now on par or a step above. So we made sure our drapes and jewellery showed that. It was very interesting to dress both of them.

Exclusive: Ponniyin Selvan: I costume designer Eka Lakhani on narrating Kundavi & Nandhini through fashion

4. They say fashion tells a lot about one’s personality. How have you made Nandini’s complicated character speak loud with elements of fashion? 

The silhouette, hairstyle, colours and jewellery were chosen to match the characteristics. We wanted her to own her beauty and own her acquired royalty. Aishwarya Ma’am has done period roles earlier, but this was the first time it was a south-based one, so we used the purest and finest Kanjivarams silks and South Indian jewellery to make the difference. Her signature hairstyle is also very different from that we have seen her wear in previous films.

5. Who were your personal favourite characters that you loved the most styling/designing for? 

I have enjoyed dressing each of them. But Nandini and Adithya Karikalan have been my favourites.

6. You have worked with director Mani Ratnam several times before. How different was it this time considering the time period of the movie and the vast array of complicated characters?

Yes, I have worked several times with Mani sir and each time has been a very refreshing and new experience. For each movie, we begin with the references he gives. And it’s so different from what I get when I’m working on other movies or with other directors. Mani sir speaks of references in terms of art. There are times when he’s asked me to study Michelangelo’s paintings for reference and for inspiration, sometimes I’m studying Rembrandt, so it’s very different, like each time. The beginning of this journey also started with art. And this time around, it was the first physical visit in terms of a recce, when I had to go to Thanjavur and see the temples, study the sculptures and just embrace the world that we were going to dive into. 

So this journey was very different from the other films right from the beginning. Also, this was the only film where the research was so heavy. He wanted me to understand the culture, understand the fabrics, understand what world we want to go into in terms of what Kalki’s novel had, what Maniyam’s illustrations had, what history has for the Cholas, and then what Mani sir’s vision was. So I had to study all of this and then we put something forward. 

7. We think costume designing for movies has a great impact and we have already hearted of the few looks that are out from PS- 1. What would you say are the key points you consider to make the costume resonate with a character’s personality?

Any movie, be it period or be it a contemporary film, the job of a costume designer is not only to beautify artists. The job of a costume designer is to make the character come alive whether it is in the way of beautification by giving extensive glorified costumes and jewellery or whether it is downplaying in terms of the outfits and letting the character’s personality shine. 

What the film requires is what a costume designer needs to do. In Ponniyin Selvan, there are many characters and we had to ensure that we don’t end up making each look like the other. So we’ve taken special care and made sure that everyone’s personality types of the character shine brighter than the actor. And we kind of forget the actor for who they are or forget the actor for their body of work and remember them by the personality of the characters that they are playing. 

8. Working in the artist space where your thoughts need to be driving into different directions in designing/styling for multiple characters yet bringing in unity as a film, how strenuous/fun can this process be? 

Every time we work on a film, there are multiple ways to approach the film. It’s the prep period which decides what zone you are going to go into. So, for me, the prep period is really, really important. That is when we form the language of the film. And this time, when I felt the multiple meetings and brainstorming sessions with different HODs of the film were really important, and Mani sir also believes in it. 

We’ve had extensive brainstorming sessions and meetings with Ravi sir (Cinematographer) , Mani Sir (Director), Brinda Master (Dance Master), Me, our jewellery designer Pratiksha and so many others. And it’s only when all of us agree and come to a common understanding or are on the same page in terms of the colour palette, the language of the film, and the textures to use is then we all go ahead and make it work in our own film. Even if one of us is not on the same page, you will be able to see the lag, and there will be something missing. Also, in a film like this, where there are so many actors and each of the characters has been given their own colour palette. 

Vikram sir plays Adita Karikalan and his character is a little on the dark side, you know, a little aggressive and there is vengeance. And so for him, we have taken, you know, the deeper colours. You’ve gone with blacks and burgundies and purples and blues. 

For Jayam Ravi’s character. He’s a king of the people. He’s someone who’s very kind, who is very loving. So we’ve taken a Buddhist influence in life. So we’ve taken softer colours for him like ivory and gold and off-whites and peaches and stuff like that. And the same goes for the other characters. For Nandani and for the Kundavi, we’ve given all of them a certain colour palette and with them, their whole lineage follows that colour palette: their handmaidens, their army, their security, the guards. 

So on a film where you have such a large scale and so many people and often there are so many people in one frame, it’s very important that even if they all have their own colours together, they don’t look mismatched. So these were the bigger scenes where all of us have really come together, be it the song sequences or the war sequences, and we discuss in detail what the zone or what the colour palette of the film should be. We need to work as a team for it to look like it’s all coming together. 

9. What do you love the most about costume designing for films, especially for big-budget historic movies like PS-1 that really test one’s skill?

I feel that my love for film is way bigger than my love for fashion or my love for costumes. It’s because I love films, the process of filming, the larger picture that you get to see on the big screen so much that I have chosen this route in a way of my participation in a film. It is because of my love of film that I have, I am a costume designer today, and for me, costume designing gives me the most joy because I feel that I am, in my own way, being able to put something forward in the narrative. I’m able to add to the narrative. I’m able to do something to take the story forward, to help in characterization, to help in conveying a visual to what is written. And it’s what I love the most about my job. 



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