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EXCLUSIVE! Hailing from Kolkata, costume designer Subarna Ray Chaudhuri embarked on her career with British, German and American films before carving a niche in Bollywood with 'Parineeta', for which she won Apsara Critics Choice Award and IIFA. Authenticity, historical accuracy and staying true to the characters lives is her calling card so it's no wonder she made headlines for her work in 'Gunday','Eklavya,' 'Laaga Chunri Mein Daag', 'Bajrangi Bhaijan' and much more. Here, she takes us into the fascinating world of costume design.


''I hail from Kolkata; that's where I grew up and graduated in Fine Arts. However, I had been experimenting with Fashion since a vey young age; I used to drape a swath of fabric on me and make it look like a garment… and that's how I started out as a young designer, experimenting on my friends, my sisters and myself. When I graduated from college, I worked as a programmer in Zee TV Kolkata. I used to advise production houses and costume designers on how to style shows, as per the story line. And, one day, it dawned on me that I should consider costume designing as a profession! Pretty soon, I got an opportunity to do costume designing for 'Night Fall', offered by art director Nitish Roy. Following that, there were several foreign films before Bollywood beckoned.


Personally, I learnt a lot from German designers, one of them being Lizzy Krystal. She taught me how to be meticulous and precise with the design and not go overboard. In Bollywood, styling and design goes overboard — they don't know where to stop! That said, as a female costume designer in Bollywood, there are challenges; 'you have to be a climber' or 'fast girl' they advised me but I don't believe in that path. I believed in just one thing — have patience and work hard. Am never happy with my results though — I always want more and may be that's the key!! As such, there were no major mistakes in my career because I believed in showing my work to seniors, getting their opinion and advice, and working on it. I send a lot of time doing in-depth research of costume history spanning eras. The sets of a film will always be indicative of a certain era and the characters must blend in; to achieve that, a costume designer must do intensive research of that particular era and character analysis. My forte is period costumes and now I realise that all of the homework I did over the years is what made me a perfectionist. Another challenge as a young designer back in those days was to handle actors and their mood swings. Well, I guess one simply has to be diplomatic and a sweet talker..!!


Speaking of my work, when working on a period film, the director briefs costume designers about each character, the ambiance, the location and the set.Then we are required to do intensive research. In those times, we didn't have search engines for research and references. So, I used to go to British Library and pour over books from that period — I, along with my assistant, would study pictures and illustrations, and make notes. I also visited relatives, friends and others who lived in that era and poured over their photo-albums. From there we used to learn about the lifestyle of that era. For 'Parineeta', I picked raw material for costume and accessories like the banarasi saree, vintage clips and brooches from Calcutta. The stitching is important, however, which we did in Bombay and then brought the finished looks back to Kolkata for filming. PS Did you know costume designers go through scripts and make notes about the dialogues, the depth and intensity of the scenes? We have to keep changing the attire to be in sync with the flow of the script and dialogue… so the role of a costume designer is as important as that of art director. Everything must blend in with the other, in one frame. These days stylists collect designerwear and try to make an ensemble look like it may be from a certain era, without doing the proper research; according to me, we need to design the costume keeping the era in mind. One needs vision, an eye to design the set costumes. It shouldn't be picked up and assembled from pieces!!


I've worked in several films. Be it 'Gunday', 'Lootera' or 'Eklavya', my inspiration is research and history. It's important to do your homework. I always instruct my assistants and juniors to read the script thoroughly, understand the story line and then begin research on place, time, ambiance and character. Inspiration doesn't come overnight, it comes from communication. A lot of the inspiration is based on real people, in real life. We just take it to a heightened level. For 'Eklavya', I did extensive research in Rajasthan, visited palaces and had in -depth interactions with designer Raghuvendra Rathore. For 'Gunday', I spoke to my uncle who rocked the Eighties — I derived inspiration for thugs Vikram and Bala from 'Gunday' from his gang's look. They used to wear flared pants, safaris, linear and double checks! That said, there have been several memorable moments. I would like to share an instance involving Saif Ali Khan, who is a well dressed man. We used to discuss costumes for 'Parineeta' and he always gave inputs which I transformed into his costume; ultimately actors have to be comfortable during filming. If they don't like the look, they wouldn't perform well. Likewise, Priyanka Chopra's comments are sharp and smart. One thing she was very particular about was that the garment must be well finished. It should look like a piece of art, inside out. Take John Abraham, he is very tall. I took his athletic look into consideration in 'Dishoom' and stitched garments according to his body type. Vidya Balan is willing to experiment. During the shoot of 'Ghanchakkar' she told me, 'Don't think you're styling Vidya; I don't want to look like Vidya Balan but like my character, Neetu'. She gets into the skin of the character and is a method actor!


From my experience, I would like to share advice with youngsters considering costume design. If you're good at your work and do your research, there is no doubt that you will do well. You have to be observant, proactive and dedicated. Research, observation, patience and dedication are the keys to success. If you commit to anything then it has to be done within the deadline! There is no other way!! Professionalism is key! Looking forward, I aspire to see my brand go global. I am trying to change the general perception of the sari by bringing in a new era of saris draped vintage style. I also look forward to styling celebrities and new age actors with my creations! Wish me luck!''

Subarna Ray Chaudhuri
Subarna Ray Chaudhuri
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