How can a Bollywood film become such a personal memory that even after decades we still remember Chandni’s white saree, Pallavi’s gota patti ghagra and Paro’s simple cotton and dhakai nets. These visions impact our wardrobe, reflect the ongoing era and colour characters and stories. And the woman behind the canvas is none other than Neeta Lulla. A story-teller through garments and conjurer of design, Neeta celebrates her 30th year in Bollywood as a national award winning costume designer. YFLO Kolkata, at the last event in Shraddha Agarwal’s tenure as Chairperson, invited Neeta Lulla for throwback moments and how ‘glam’ came about.
The designer’s huge celeb clienteles and list of over 350 Bollywood films include Chandni, Lamhe, Khuda Gawah, Khalnayak, Taal, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke, Darr, Mission Kashmir, Devdas, Jodha Akbar, and Balgandharva among many other.
How was it like to dress actresses 30 years back and now?
Back then, costume designing was done according to the whims and fancies of the actress and today the designing is done according to the scene, story, character, setting and so many more significant factors. Every mother, sister, agent was a stylist and a designer but not the designer themself. The first time ever I made a dress for Kim Katkar, her mother was so angry with the final outcome that I thought my career has ended there. But that entire night I sat with a tailor who told me ‘aapka princess cut yaha nahi chalega’ even though technically the dress was perfect and I finally gave it to Kim in the morning. She shut the door on my face and tried it on; a minute later her mother came to me and gave me a tight hug and also said ‘you will make it big in the industry, this dress is impeccable’.
Dressing up 5 top league actresses at the same time must have driven you crazy. Were there any cat-fights?
Yes all these things would happen a lot back then, minor issues though such as ‘uski kameez zyada safed kyu hai’ and in Devdas the earrings kept getting bigger. But thankfully I never had a cell phone so I got saved from crisis situations and constant throwing of weight around.
Did you face the glass-ceiling?
I think everyone does, especially a woman in some way or the other. I went to meet Yasha Chopra wearing an Armaani Jacket and boots; he immediately saw me and concluded I would never understand Chandni’s character or make Indian clothes at all. After Sri Devi’s iconic look he signed me for Lamhe next.
Talking about Lamhe, was that your most memorable work till date?
Even though Lamhe was my 10th-12th film, it was only through this film I got recognition. For the first time, print media published an article just on the clothes of ‘Lamhe’ and then there was a flutter where fashion was discussed as much as the stars, plot etc.
Did Bollywood learn from you or you learn’t from Bollywood?
It was mutual. That time even if its a sober scene where the character is in a grey saree, suddenly we would see a pop of pink lipstick. But slowly the directors started realising something is amiss. As visuals got more real, very few people, educated in the field of fashion were called in the forefront and handed over the reins of creativity. My focus was on characterisation and they started understanding that their fancies are restricting the impact of the character. I never gave up explaining my technical philosophy. I always maintained sticking to my work, even Bonnie Kapoor once said ‘why don’t you hang out, you finish and take off?’
How did you manage so well?
How to manage is the key. Do your work so well that you are not required, only your work is. Staying out of redundant situations is imperative and work was always in my mind, even now I work 15-20 hours in a day. And don’t submit your work if you’re not happy with it.