Eka Lakhani on designing costumes for Mani Ratnam’s PS2: Took 20 people, trip to…

It took a diligent team of around 20 people, a trip to Thanjavur, and a collaboration with a noted historian for costume designer Eka Lakhani to create the opulent costumes for Mani Ratnam’s two-part period action epic “Ponniyin Selvan”.

Based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s popular 1955 Tamil book series, the movies chronicle the story of the early days of Arulmozhivarman (Jayam Ravi), one of the most powerful kings in the south, who went on to become the great Chola emperor Rajaraja Chola I.

As a designer, Lakhani said her job is to understand the story, characters and make the narrative relevant for the audiences who are going to watch the film.

“I first read the story before I read the script, they sent me the five-part novels at home. I was on the second part where I got a call saying that Mani sir would like you to go to Thanjavur on a costume recce.

“‘Go and see the temples, understand the history’. I was like ‘Wow, I’ve never done this. Do I really have to?’ They said ‘Why don’t you just go? It might be a new experience.’ And, I’m glad I went,” she told PTI in an interview.

Historian Jayakumar Sundararman helped Lakhani decode the temple sculptures in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur, an important centre of south Indian religion, art, and architecture.

“He explained every sculpture, every motif. It became a base for what I was going to do. If I have designed an armour in the film, the motif has come from the pillar of some temple. It kind of became the base of understanding the roots, the art of what we are trying to do.

“We met a lot of weavers, who had been in the industry for generations. Their forefathers made silk for our kings and queens back in the day. They were telling us stories about their great grandfathers,” the Mumbai-born stylist said.

Praised for its aesthetic value and well-rounded characters, the first installment was reported as the highest-grossing Tamil film of 2022. The second part hits the screens Friday.

Initially, Lakhani said she couldn’t understand the popularity of “Ponniyin Selvan” novels. But, then she finally understood “what the craze was all about”.

The upcoming movie also stars Vikram as Aditha Karikalan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Nandini, Karthi as Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan, Trisha Krishnan as Kundavai, Prakash Raj as Sundara Cholan, and Aishwarya Lekshmi as Poonguzhali.

The fandom of Kalki’s novels traversed generations, the designer said, adding that she wanted to strike a delicate balance between honouring the collective memory of the Tamil people and create something of her own.

“Generations have visualised these characters in a certain way, it was important for me to not take that away from them. I didn’t want to change them and give them something fully new, but at the same time I wanted to make them in an aesthetic that matches Mani sir’s and my aesthetic,” she observed.

Apart from Lakhani, her secondary costume designer and her team of assistants of 15-20 people, the costume department of “Ponniyin Selvan” consisted of several weavers, embroiderers, tailors, dyers, and drapers.

“They went with us wherever we would go. In a scene, where the number of extras was the largest, my team alone was around 120 members. I’ve never had a team like that. It was a never-ending process. We’ve had lots of difficult days but now when we see the end result, it makes us very happy,” she said.

She was equal parts excited and scared when she boarded the magnum opus.

“It is a very scary movie to be in. I was new to this world, the characters of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’. I hadn’t read the original novel by Kalki. It was a bit overwhelming for me in the beginning but the journey started off pretty well,” she added.

Her team had “8-10 months of prep” and the designer said every time a character came alive, it was a celebration day on the film set. “The characterisation took care of the colour palette. In terms of fabrics, we had to use Kanjivaram silk, silk organza, and cotton to keep it raw and real,” she recalled.

For the mystical Nandini, Lakhani opted for layered clothes with blacks and deeper jewelled tones. When it came to Kundavai, she went for royal colours red, purple, and metallics.

While the passionate warrior Aditha Karikalan is represented through the tiger motif and dark colours like red and black, Arunmozhivarman alias the peaceful Ponniyin Selvan is presented in softer colours like white.

All of the jewellery was real, she said.

“When I visited Thanjavur, I noticed that there were clothes on any of the sculptures but they were loaded with jewellery. I went up to Mani sir and said I really want to bring a jeweller of my choice on board. I could only see Kishandas & Co, (known for making royal heritage jewellery).” It has been a beautiful 12-year association with Ratnam, who gave her a break in films with “Raavan”, said Lakhani.

The designer, an alumnus of Premlila Vithaldas Polytechnic, SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, did a short course from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Upon her return, she worked as an intern with fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee during the making of the bilingual film “Raavan” (2010). She was just 22 at the time.

“Once I started working in films, my film school was Mani Ratnam. Mani sir has taught me everything that I know about films, costumes, and how things look on screen. I was an intern on his ‘Raavan’ in 2008-09. It was a big deal for me because at that time I was very young and it was really exciting.

“I was living in a dream at that point. After ‘Raavan’, he gave me his next film (‘Kadal’) and I have done all his films since then. It has been a beautiful 12-year association with him. All my life I’ve lived with fabrics, colours and dyes, and I’m happy my career helps me use all of this every day,” said Lakhani, daughter of textile designer father and store manager mother.

Her upcoming projects include Karan Johar’s “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani”, “Dunki” directed by Rajkumar Hirani, and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s “Leo”. PTI RDS BK BK

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