Mahanati designers Gaurang Shah and Archana Rao on winning National Film Award for Best Costume Design
While Gaurang Shah recreated the looks of Savitri, the actress on whom Mahanati is based, through handloom saris, Archana Rao made costumes for Samantha Akkineni, Vijay Devarakonda and Dulquer Salmaan by delving into fashion history — particularly America of the 40s and 60s
The film Mahanati, based on the life and times of iconic south Indian actress Savitri, was both a resounding commercial and critical success — a rarity in the Telugu film industry. While the film won accolades for its casting and performances, it also won rave reviews for effortlessly recreating the era it was set in (the 40s to the 80s). Little wonder then that the film won the 2019 National Film Award for Best Costume Design.
The team consisted of Hyderabad-based designers, handloom revivalist Gaurang Shah and pret supremo Archana Rao, along with stylist Indrakshi Pattanaik. While Shah designed the clothes for the lead actress Keerthy Suresh, Rao was responsible for the costumes of Samantha, Vijay Devarakonda and Dulquer Salmaan. In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, the designers open up about working on a period film, their experience of dedicating a year to the movie and their future plans.
For over 20 years, the Hyderabad-based textile revivalist has been working to make Indians interested again in traditional handloom and its magnificence. He produced dexterous weaves year after year, and now his first outing for the big screen has won the National Award, further cementing his relationship with saris and traditional weaves.
It took over six months of research and a year of weaving, texturing and coloring for Gaurang to get the look of the iconic actress Savitri right. The shooting of the movie took over a year, and the weaving process was continuous. The whole evolution took more than a year-and-a-half, from the inception of the costumes to the close of the last shoot.
“The challenge given to me was to make Savitri's looks to be pure handloom, to recreate the satin on handloom, and for the chiffons and georgettes. We had to ensure that actress Keerthy Suresh looked as regal as the star the movie was based on,” he says, “As a designer, Mahanati was a platform that further nourished my inner textile passion, the love for vintage fashion traditions of India, its ancient artistry, priceless heirloom, and treasures of history.”
It also helped Gaurang to capture ancient traditions of craft, antiques and architecture to create his own signature style of jamdani — a beautiful blend of the past and the modern using the jamdani weaving technique.
Since it was his debut film act, the designer confesses he wanted to ensure that nothing went wrong in capturing the director’s vision of authenticity. He adds, “For fashioning the design-to-life look of Savitri and capturing her journey in different moods and sequences in the film, my team and I kept in mind the sensibilities of the actress, including elements such as the choice of fabric types and the textures.”
Tremendous research went behind every costume created for Keerthy Suresh. Heavy silks fabrics were sourced from different parts of India like Kanchipuram and Benares which were enhanced and then handcrafted in Gaurang’s looms by a dedicated team of more than 100 local artisans. The designer adds, “While we used tones that exude radiance and are associated with awe, we also had to balance it with traditional colors, since Savitri’s outfits were all about simplicity and grandeur.”
Gaurang recreated textiles to weave Savitri’s journey from her childhood to her passing away. From mangalgiris and kotas with prints for the days when she was growing up; heavy brocades, silks, organzas, handwoven satins and chiffons for her golden era; to subtle renditions for her later life, his team travelled extensively to museums to understand the textiles of different time periods. Each and every detail of the textile, design, texture and color were studied and artisans were guided to recreate it.
Gaurang recalls, “We replicated Savitri’s look for the iconic Mayabazar song sequence, which was a heavy kanjeevaram lehenga and blouse with an organza dupatta. It took about three months to get the color, design and fabric woven.”
For someone who has worked on handloom for two decades, the award is a recognition of his effort and belief. "The initial days were challenging due to the fact that there were no weavers who had faith in change. They lacked motivation due to the fading love for handlooms. The traditional designs were saturated and I knew that for handlooms to sustain, the weavers have to challenge themselves each day to make something new and to implement new ideas.”
Currently in the closing stages of recreating 33 iconic paintings by Raja Ravi Varma on khadi, Gaurang has embarked on an international journey by opening stores in London and recently in SOHO Manhattan city – a multi-designer store called AVE which brings together the finest designer wear from India under one roof.
“I wasn’t really following the notifications, but I got a call from the producer Priyanka Dutt. It was a mind blowing moment,” says designer Archana Rao about her initial reaction to winning the National Award.
A popular designer from Hyderabad, Archana is well known for her ready-to-wear clothes which are chic. Mahanati came to her thanks to her love for all things vintage, which was noticed by Nagi (the director Nag Ashwin). She recalls, “I really enjoyed the script of Mahanati. The challenge was that it was a period film, and since I love anything vintage, it was a dream. Plus it involved designing for men, which was a bonus as I really enjoy doing it.”
Archana worked alongside Gaurang Shah and the stylist for the movie, Indrakshi Pattanaik, for two months to research and establish the mood board. “We went over every scene in the movie thoroughly to get into that time zone. We watched a lot of movies from that period too. We also collected a lot of photos of people from the 1940s to the 60s, to see how realistically we could portray the characters,” she explains.
The designer stresses that she didn’t want the characters to look like caricatures. “I didn’t want Dulquer to look like a caricature of Gemini Ganeshan. We wanted to bring a bit of Dulquer to the character he was playing. We did a lot of look tests and found a balance,” she says. The balance was found by creating a lot of dapper clothing for Dulquer, which drew inspiration from the West. Woolen fabrics for suiting, cotton shirts and vintage biker jackets from the thrift stores in the US ensured that he looked like an all-American hero. While some of the clothing was vintage, others were remade in different fabrics following the same cuts and patterns.
Archana has created hundreds of costumes for the team. She says that she felt very involved as the script was given to her, based on which she did a lot of research to ensure that the clothes matched the different moods of the movie.
Working on a movie set for the first time never made the designer nervous. “I felt very involved, it wasn’t just making clothes for the movie,” she confesses, “One year is a long time and each day was a learning experience. Indrakshi and Nagi understood that, so we built many things along the way.”
Archana, who confesses that she is obsessed with vintage fashion, says that it all comes very naturally to her. It also helps that vintage is back with a bang. She nods and says, “Most of what you see at H&M is retro. Vijay Devarakonda and Samantha’s story was set in the 80s, and everything from that era is back in fashion. If you look at Samantha’s character, the skirts/shirts are so in fashion right now. We had to make them look slightly different from today’s retro fashion, to make her look realistic and not current.”
Archana believes that all her hard work has been vindicated through the success of the movie and credits her director for his vision. The designer also did the costumes for Nani’s Jersey which released earlier this year and says that she would love to work on challenging characters. As for now, she is back in her atelier, preparing for the fashion week in September.
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