If you are loving Rani Mukerji’s resplendent sari look in Ashima Chibber’s Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, thank costume designer Sheetal Iqbal Sharma for it. Sheetal also has a slew of other important recent films like Gangubai Kathiawadi, Mimi, Sita Ramam and Bhediya under his belt. The Telegraph Online caught up with Sheetal about his experience of collaborating with Rani for Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, and what we can expect from him in upcoming biggies like Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Animal and Allu Arjun-starrer Pushpa- The Rule Part 2.
The Telegraph Online: Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway is inspired by a real-life story. What kind of references did you have for Rani’s look?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: Sagarika Bhattacharya (on whose life story the film is based) went through an ordeal. It was our only reference point for the story. We fictionalised Debika Chatterjee, the character played by Rani, a bit and gave her some more regional traits and style. The director wanted a feel that would connect with and communicate what the mother must have gone through, so we took the route of colours.
What was the brief from director Ashima Chibber?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: Ashima Chibber wanted the film to look authentic yet beautiful. Her brief was to make the characters look real while adding a subtle colour. Rani wears the maximum colours in the film. We have used hints of colours because the film has a tough narrative, and a lot of emotions are involved.
Was it easier to transform Rani Mukerji into a Bengali homemaker as she is Bengali too?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: Rani Mukerji is a powerhouse of an actor and an amazing human. Of course, her being a Bengali helped. I have visited Calcutta several times since childhood and my very close neighbours are also Bengali, so I am well-versed in the customs, culture and range of textiles that West Bengal has. Rani has a very strong eye for detail, and she added a lot to how the drapes could be worn in different scenes. Even with accessories, she told us how and where we can add a bit extra and where we can go minimal. We had a great understanding with her, and the process was fun. Her being a Bengali and knowing every bit of textile helped us in getting the right saris for her. She has mostly worn Jamdani weaves. She did give us leads for sari vendors in Calcutta and we ended up making use of three of her mother’s saris which are 40 years old.
What kind of discussions did you have with Rani?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: Rani was a great help with costumes and character building. Our major discussion was to kind of crack that one textile that looks stunning yet can scream Bengali. In the East (eastern part of India), there are so many textiles, and each weave is so unique, whether it’s Bomkai, Dhakai, Bhagalpuri or kantha. To stick to one textile in a very understated way was Rani’s call. We weren’t making the film to be costume-heavy, so it was a conscious decision to make use of Jamdani for Debika. As seen in the film, it flows beautifully and yet has a cool statement.
Can you decode Rani’s look in the film for us...
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: There’s a flashback of her character through a song where she’s shown as a young woman who has just shifted to a new country. She sports a bindi and sindoor with western wear and she isn’t comfortable with the length of her top. She wears a few basic colours till she becomes pregnant; that’s when she starts to wear comfortable clothing and kind of comes out of her shell. Her hair remains natural with the sindoor as an integral element throughout. The motive is not to make the costumes overpower the emotion in the scenes. For the courtroom scene, beige and earthy colour tones bring out the pensive mood of the character.
Where did you source the beautiful saris from?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: A lot of her saris were all from Calcutta. One day we reached Rani’s place for a basic discussion and fittings, and to our surprise, she had separated around two to three suitcases and a rack full of stunning saris from Calcutta. She has a beautiful collection of vintage and rare Baluchari and Banarasi saris.
Your other recent work, Gulmohar, is being highly praised. How was the experience of working with Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee and the rest of the cast?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: Gulmohar is one of those projects that’s close to my heart. It has a storyline that’s so easy to connect with, yet it brings that smile to the face and a tear in the eye. If I say working with Sharmila ma’am was an amazing experience, it’s way too little. Imagine I am working with a legend who is known for her elegance and the strong characters she portrayed on screen! It’s surreal to meet her. She’s stunning.
Manoj Bajpayee is a performer and made Arun look so real and adorable. In the cast in Gulmohar, whether it’s Simran Bagga, Suraj Sharma, Utsavi Jha or the others, every actor has a beauty of their own. Director Rahul V. Chittella wanted the film to have a colour palette and vibe that looked real and yet had everything for a beautiful frame with everyone together.
Sharmila Tagore in a still from Gulmohar
Going back, how did you become a costume designer for films?
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: Since childhood, I was inclined towards art and craft such as the artworks of the Renaissance period, Victorian art and clothing, and the beautiful depiction of sari drapes in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. During my time in fashion college, we were introduced to the beauty of world cinema and its power to bring art forms alive. After a three-year course in fashion technology and a top-up MA in London on costume designing, I met a college senior who introduced me to filmmaking and costume designing in films. Miss Lovely was my first project. It showed me the potential to explore art. I loved it as it was a film based on the backdrop of the 1980s. Getting to work with director Ashim Ahluwalia was a great learning experience for a first-timer. The rest just followed.
You have an interesting line-up of upcoming films such as Animal, Pushpa-The Rule Part 2, and Emergency…
Sheetal Iqbal Sharma: I feel grateful for the fact that a lot of new-age directors consider costumes as an integral part of their narrative and character building. The look is given utmost importance. A lot of discussions and presentations take place to make the characters look believable before we get into making costumes and look tests are done.
There are a few upcoming projects that I am very excited about. In Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal, the lead actor, Ranbir Kapoor, has a very cool urban look. The film has an amazing ensemble cast and superb emotional as well as action sequences. There’s director Sukumar sir’s Pushpa – The Rule Part 2 with Allu Arjun. I am working with Allu for the second time after Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India, and we all know the impact of Pushpa- The Rise Part 1. This has an out-of-the-box look with crazy action sequences and a very entertaining narrative.
Kangana Ranawat is a terrific actor and a very cool director to work with in Emergency. The film is based on the life of Indira Gandhi, and it’s shot very stylishly. In Amar Kaushik’s Stree 2, there will be a few fun looks and horror sequences with the same cast. We are prepping currently, and it will have a fun and quirky storyline. Nikkhil Advani’s Mumbai Diaries Season 2 will be a gripping watch too.