Clothes make Neeta Lulla. They also help her bond with the best in Bollywood. She knows Aishwarya Rai inside out. Shilpa Shetty, for whom she designed clothes at 24-hour notice, is her bosom pal. She got Hema Malini to trade her Kanjeevarams for clinging georgettes with noodle strap blouses and helped Sridevi shed her thunder thighs image for a more sophisticated look.
There are no telltale signs of these makeovers in Bollywood’s most happening fashion designer’s erstwhile workshop, now converted into a living room at her home in Mahim, Mumbai. Apart from two laminated photographs of Sridevi and Juhi Chawla, who also happen to be Lulla’s clients, the room has a huge table with a rocking chair and sofas and is stacked with books, mostly on fashion. A Sony music system rubs shoulders with a 42-inch flat screen plasma TV. And there is an idol of Shirdi Sai Baba atop a ledge.
Neeta Lulla — after making news as one of the designers of Rai’s wedding and mehendi ceremony saris — sits in the midst of it all, in black tights with a broad pink border around the waist and a black spaghetti top offset by pink slip- ons.
“Ash was looking beautiful, all the guests liked the saris,” Lulla says. “Even if it is part of a bridal collection, I make it a point to design in such a way that it can be worn on other occasions too.”
Lulla has known Rai ever since the actress joined the film industry in Mumbai. “The saris with intricate embroidery were tailor-made for her. Comfort level, look and fashion statement — I prioritise all my garments in that order.”
Lulla’s passion for her work is evident. In her early 40s, she is a bundle of energy — attending to calls on her hands-free cell phone, answering the door bell, barking orders to the domestic help and being at her hospitable best, all at the same time.
She has always been a multi-tasker. Juggling home and work was child’s play — “I worked from home in the initial years, so I was able to give my son and daughter enough time.” These days, she is in the gym unfailingly every morning at 6.30 and she swims and does the salsa. When she has the time, she paints. “Two months ago I discovered my flair for it,” she says.
In Mumbai, and outside, Lulla, however, is better known for her flair for design. Her outfits can cost Rs 1,500 to over Rs 1 lakh. She runs a workshop near her home, a flagship store with her own designer label in Santa Cruz (West), a trousseau consultancy and has hordes of artistes at her beck and call. “They all look upon me as Miranda Priestly — the icily difficult fashion editor with outrageous demands in The Devil Wears Prada,” she says, laughing.
For two decades now, Lulla has used her warp and woof to good effect in the film industry. But her foray into the tinsel world happened by chance when a relative asked her to do the costumes for his film, Tamacha. The film flopped but Lulla moved on. She has designed costumes for 375 films, and worked for such directors as Yashraj Chopra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Subhash Ghai. “When I entered the industry, a costume designer was perceived as a tailor, not a technician, and most directors were offended if you asked them too many questions about the character, the backdrop and other details,” she says.
Now, she adds, costume designers are looked upon as technicians — those who know the technique of disguising figure flaws. Also, the director’s take in the matter is of utmost importance. “For me, the director is the painter and the screen his canvas where he paints his vision. The tools he uses are technicians like us. So the director’s perception is all-important and I merely look through his perspective. It’s not entirely my creative vision,” she says candidly.
The designer is on the verge of completing her costumes for Ashutosh Gowariker’s period film Jodhaa Akbar. She points out that in six months, she had to finish 2,800 costumes. “I am a little kinky for I thrive on work pressure. I constantly need to do something or else I feel down.” As she talks, her cell phone rings. There seems to be some problem with Hrithik Roshan’s elephant-taming outfit in the Gowariker film. “Bring the original salwar and crossover top along with the hand guards. We’ll see what we can do,” she says unperturbed.
The fussiness of Bollywood actors and actresses hardly ever irks her. “It’s different in Hollywood,” she stresses. She should know for she did the costumes for One Night with the King starring Omar Sharif and Peter ’Toole. “The actors would wear whatever was given to them without batting an eyelid.”
Lulla’s tryst with the needle and thread began as a hobby. A Sindhi, she lived in Hyderabad before she got married and moved to Mumbai. She was 16 and wanted to “escape” studying. But education enjoyed a high premium at her in-laws’ house. “Either take up cooking or tailoring,” her mother-in-law insisted after she had scored 55 per cent in her Class XII exams. Tailoring it was, and Lulla, the obedient bahu, enrolled for a course in fashion designing at the SNDT Polytechnic, Mumbai.
Today, even though she has big banners to flaunt, Lulla admits to not being a film person. But she holds that each film she has worked for as a designer has helped hone her creative skill. “Each time I thought I had peaked and I could hang up my boots, I realised I had still so much more to give,” she says.
But Lulla reserves her creativity for the ramp. This year, for the first time, she participated at the Lakme Fashion Week, having managed to take some time off her starry assignments. And the theme — female foeticide and the emancipation of the girl child — went down well with the spectators.
Of all her qualities, one that has made her Bollywood dalliance relatively easy is that she is quick to grab opportunities. As though to substantiate her point she reminisces, “For the climax shot of Sanjay Bhansali’s Devdas, we had worked on a cotton sari with a silk edging. But he felt it was too shiny. It was 11.30 pm and the shoot was at 9 am the next morning. I had just one night to work on it. I called up someone I knew, got his shop opened at 2 am, picked up the fabric, got the embroidery done overnight and took it for the shoot the next morning.”
The hard work paid off as she won the President’s award for the film in 2002. That wasn’t the first time. Lamhe helped her bag the national award in 1992. “Initially I thought it was like one of those Filmfare awards. So I asked my husband (a psychiatrist who is also her financial controller) to collect it on my behalf as I was snowed under with work in Mumbai,” she laughs. “But he sat me down and explained how prestigious an event this was. It was only then that its import sunk in.”
But Lulla is like that. She may be adept at bridal, diffusion and couture as much as ready-to-wear stuff and opulent, larger than life livery, but she takes life with a pinch of salt.
She did just that during a controversy four years ago on Aishwarya Rai’s outfits at Cannes. Rai was draped in Indo-Western kitschy apparel and India’s ace designers laughed out aloud. Lulla has put all that behind her but the bitterness, clearly, hasn’t gone away. “I wasn’t disappointed as much as I was hurt. Even if I don’t like someone else’s clothes I’d never condemn anyone as I believe in respecting the creative aspect of my contemporaries. Besides, I don’t think there is a single designer who has never ever made a faux pas,” she says. “And, anyway, when you buy something from a store, how you wear it is your business.”
But a recent outfit that she designed for Shilpa Shetty’s meeting with the British Queen makes Lulla break into a smile. Shetty called her one evening to tell her she had to have it in a couple of days. Lulla’s team worked round the clock — and the result was a white pashmina sari and an embroidered jacket, with a Sanskrit shloka lacing it. After the meeting Shetty called her to say it looked gorgeous and everyone commented on it.
Shetty and Lulla are good friends. Every Tuesday the two walk to the Siddhi Vinayak temple. “It was on one such occasion that she casually broached this business of participating in the Celebrity Big Brother show and had asked me to do her wardrobe. She’d said, ‘I may be out in a day or two, but I still need to be prepared.’ But I was sure she’d win. Somehow I just knew.”
Maybe just as much as she knew of her own strengths. An uncle used to call her kaddu — a pumpkin. Little did he imagine that his kaddu would, Cinderella-like, morph into a stylish fashion icon one day.