Designer Eka Lakhani on what sets apart Aishwarya Rai’s Nandini, Trisha’s Kundavai in Ponniyin Selvan: ‘Mani Ratnam has…’

Costume designer Eka Lakhani on designing the looks of Ponniyin Selvan characters

One of the many interpretations of this popular Tamil adage is that half of a person’s quality is ascertained by their look and the rest by what they are wearing. I don’t know how true it is — we have the great ‘Mahatama’ Gandhi, whose clothes invited the tasteless ‘half-naked fakir’ comment from Winston Churchill. Yet, the proverb holds water as far as Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan is concerned. The widely appreciated costumes of the characters were designed by Eka Lakhani. Lakhani, who has previously worked with Mani Ratnam in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, O Kadhal Kanmani, and Kadal, has used her expertise to recreate the heroes and villains of Amarar Kalki Krishnamoorthy. In this interview, she answered questions about the research work, usage of authentic ornaments, the toughest look, her favorite real-life personality, and more…

Excerpts from the interview:

What sort of research went into coming up with era-specific costumes for the film?

It started with us visiting Thanjavur — going to temples and studying the sculptures and getting an in-depth understanding of what every symbol or emblem meant. I ended up reading only two parts of the novel, and then I had the script. The novel had a lot of written descriptions of each character. Then there were Maniam’s (illustrator of Ponniyin Selvan series in Kalki magazine) illustrations that portrayed each character in a particular way. Besides that, we researched the weavers across South India and the trade route to understand the silk and the material used at that time. The evidence and the temple archives we have are only from the 12th century, but the film is set in the 10th century. So, we had to make an understanding of what would have been there. Besides that Mani (Ratnam) provided us with a lot of material that was put together by historians. We also had a research guide, Jay Kumar, who helped us understand everything confusing. Then there were a lot of books on sculptures, Indian textile books on the trade route, the invention of cotton, the use of silks, and all that. So I guess this is what we researched to put together our understanding of the era.

Whose character was really hard to design and why?

Karthi as Vanthiyathevan in PS 1

Though all the characters were difficult and challenging in a way, Karthi’s was a bit tough. While his character looks the simplest in comparison to other characters, his was the most difficult to crack. He almost has just one look throughout the film. He’s a messenger on a journey. In that one look, you see him on a horse, underwater, climbing trees, in the forest. There is a lot of activity and action that he is doing in this one costume. Also, his costume is there throughout the film, and the audience shouldn’t get bored of it. So, we wanted to make sure that we do something which is period appropriate, which is comfortable, that withstands all seasons and something that looks and feels practical. We tried a lot of stuff on him and then we realized that we needed something with more gravitas, an armour. But armor is something that people usually wear for war. So, we gave him protective armor using soft leather. His shoulders are guarded, he has ankle guards and wrist guards, but it is softer than war armour. I would say this was one of the most complex looks I have done so far.

What are the do’s and don’ts that Mani Ratnam was specific about with the costumes?

I don’t think Mani Ratnam has specific do’s and don’ts. But there is a general note that you follow. The do’s would be to do everything that you can to make it look real yet magical. And the don’ts would be very simple. Do not do anything that proves that you are wrong in terms of culture and history, or if its is tacky. It’s a beautiful world that we were trying to build together.

How hard it is to get appreciation from Mani Ratnam?

Mani Ratnam with Eka Lakhani Mani Ratnam with Eka Lakhani

It’s very difficult to get appreciation from Mani Ratnam. He is not very verbal with it, but every time he smiles or you get a nod from him, your day is made. You know you have made something he is happy with.

Your favorite character in the film based on her/his look and why?

Kundhavai and Nandhini showdown Kundhavai and Nandhini showdown

It’s difficult to pick a favorite character, but I have a favorite look of each character. For example, my favorite looks of Trisha and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan are from the face-off scene between the two. With Poonguzhali, it’s the one she is wearing in the boat song, and there is a red costume of Vaandathi that’s my favorite look of her.

What are some of the styles from that era that you still find in use now?

The way we still style our jewelery and the way it was done back in that era share a similar grounding – though there was an overt use of jewelery back then – like the matha patti and the waist belts that are used to hold the saree pleats together . So, the jewelry of today and back then share a kind of similar style. However, I can’t say the same for the costumes. Maybe, the silk of Kanchipuram back then and now share the same grounding.

Why use real jewelry for the characters?

In Mani sir’s films, they keep everything real (laughs). I have noted that whenever fake or imitation jewelery is used in films and shows, it shows. The shine of the gems and gold (fake) is not something you want to see on screen. We wanted to keep it different from the usual mythological shows and films where you see yellow gold jewellery.

Can you tell me about the subtle distinctions between Aishwarya’s Nandini and Trisha’s Kundhavai – nuances that the normal eyes can’t note?

Kundhavai vs Nandhini Kundhavai vs Nandhini

Mani sir had certain adjectives and phrases for Nandini and Kundhavai. Trisha (Kundhavai) is someone who is born into royalty, a princess by birth. She has been adorned with jewelry from childhood. She’s a strong and courageous woman and has a voice among men. She’s authoritative and beautiful, and one should glean all of this from her look. When we speak about Aishwarya, Nandini, she was a very beautiful girl. She was an ‘Andal’ girl (a devotee of Krishna) who eventually acquired royalty. She used her beauty to reach here and is well aware of her strengths. She has an underlying gray side to her as well. They both had to look like royalty and princesses but still different. We did this by choosing colors and silhouettes wisely. Their signature hairstyles also really helped in conveying their traits.

Kundhavai has the top bun you… it kind of makes her stand tall. Mani sir told her to hold her head and chin up. For her, we used outfits that had clean lines. If you see the pleats on her shoulder, they’re very well done. So, you see the little discipline in everything that she’s worn. Her jewelry is worn in a way where there’s layering in it. There is a little geometric approach to her look. All of this makes her look very authoritative. We wanted to lighten this authoritative and strong personality a bit because she was beautiful as well. So, we used some softer colors for her, but we kept the silhouettes strong. That’s what we did for Trisha. With Nandini, Mani sir said that every entry of hers should be very magical and it should have a little mystery around her. She had to look like she is pompous. To achieve this we gave dark jewel tones like burgundy, emerald greens, and sapphire blues. We made her ornaments glossier. We’ve used softer and transparent drapes, and see-through drapes, so one can see jewelry beneath them.

In an interview, you said you don’t create “costumes but characters”. Can you elaborate on this?

My love for films is way bigger than my love for fashion. I like being part of the bigger picture. I always say that I am more of a director’s costume designer, than an actor’s designer. This is because I want to take the narrative forward in whatever way I can through the means of costumes. I don’t dress characters for them to look beautiful or grand. I dress characters for them to look correct and real for the parts they are playing. I do that by asking questions about the character’s likes, dislikes, economical background. While I feel that ‘real’ can be beautiful, a lot of people confuse ‘real’ with ‘poor’.

Your favorite real-life personality and her/his style and why?

It’s Ranveer Singh. He is very honest, bold, and playful with his choices. There are no qualifications about who he is and what he wants to be. He dresses to his mood and to make himself happy, which in turn makes us happy.


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