For a little over a year now, Indrakshi Pattanaik has had just one obsession: Savitri. So much so, that the renowned stylist who was roped in as the costume stylist for the legendary actress’ biopic, Mahanati (Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil), has not just met her in her dreams but often confuses Keerthy Suresh for Savitri even as she speaks.
It’s interesting how all this happened considering Indrakshi had no previous inkling of south Indian cinema as she mostly grew up on a dose of “vintage Bengali films by the likes of Satyajit Ray”.
“I first met Priyanka and Swapna Dutt for another project when I happened to stumble upon Savitri’s photo. At that point, neither did I know who she was, nor did I know about the biopic that was in the offing,” she recalls, adding, “I was genuinely interested in the fashion of those times and briefly discussed it. The truth is, though I am a stylist in Telugu cinema, I have never quite explored the past of cinema here. I always wondered why NTR was referred to with the Jr prefix and came to know about his grandfather. I knew that Nagarjuna’s father was a legend, ANR. I also knew that Gemini Ganesan was Rekha’s father. My only knowledge of south Indian cinema of the past was through these links. In the eventual days after that meet, Mahanati happened and the film has not just made me wiser but opened up an entire other world for me.”
Real life Savitri
Keerthy Suresh playing Savitri in Mahanati
At first, Indrakshi wasn’t sure of handling such a huge project.
“I thought I wasn’t ready for this and I said I’d do one character. But the film has no single lead; Samantha, Vijay, Keerthy and Dulquer are all as key as every other character in the film and it all had to come together as a single entity. I had studied the history of fashion and had always had a keen interest in it. Not everyone gets an opportunity to work on it and deliver it through a film made on a massive scale. This was the moment for me to grab,” she reckons.
Even though it seemed like just any of her other movies at the outset, the scale of the project didn’t strike Indrakshi till she started the actual work.
“Though it seemed like all I had to do was make banks of clothes era-wise, I didn’t realise what I was taking up. I thought ‘how bad can it be?’. Well, I didn’t think then that we’d be shooting back to back, every day would need changes. We had crowds of around 400 people sometimes, where everyone had to be registered. The film’s background is the its skeleton and it was important that everyone looked as perfect as the leads,” she recalls, adding that the toughest part, and also the most exciting one on this project was the research.
Indrakshi on the sets
As much as she was enterprising from the word go, it was no easy task for the stylist to bring to life the bygone era majorly because of the lack of documentation. “Extensive research had to be done because of the lack of documentation of the fashion trends in south India in those times. There are just some cryptic black and white images of erstwhile Madras online, where we just got tiny glimpses of people of those times. But it was quite tough,” she shares.
In fact, Indrakshi’s major inspiration for almost everything that was worn by the characters in the film was pictures sourced, through an online campaign, and of course her group of resourceful assistants (some of them shopped for her in the bylanes of Kolkata, while others joined her in Charminar), and several of the crew members who pitched in.
Hundreds of photos flooded them with people excited to share a glimpse of their family’s history.
“With the kind of photographs I collected, I could probably publish a book, and maybe I will! Because what I have with me is real fashion trends of several decades that have had no documentation whatsoever. And in the film, I’ve made a serious attempt to bring the photos alive,” says Indrakshi, who took over around three months to put together a database that would help her work on the film.
What’s more, she had great support in the form of designs by Gaurang Shah and Archana Rao and producers Swapna and Priyanka Dutt.
Shares Indrakshi, “My producers went all out for the film, compromising at no level in terms of the costumes and giving it their all. In fact, collaborating with such able designers was quite the advantage they gave me. Each of them put in their own research, even as they gave me the best of their designs making my job easier. They were the two pillars of strength for the costume department. Gaurang’s beautiful handlooms and sarees and Archana’s perfect finish to the costumes was such a boon for me.”
Indrakshi and her team
Elaborating on the research, Indrakshi reveals, “India has always lagged behind in comparison to international fashion trends. And south India was a step behind again and we needed to reflect that. While we had some sort of documentation with regard to what stars wore at that time courtesy the pictures they clicked for themselves or on film sets, dressing up the common people, who are in a large number in the film wasn’t going to be easy. It’s not easy to know what a newspaper guy, a milkman or even just a random bystander on the road dressed like in those times. And we used the photos as reference points to create the looks.”
While crowdsourcing pictures was one task, the next step was going all out to recreate looks of the stars and their contemporaries of the time.
Samantha and Vijay in Mahanati
“A major archival research had to be done, visiting various production houses because we wanted to recreate real moments. Then, there’s of course the few and far videos online and a few behind the scenes of films of other actors too. We reached out to veteran photographers, and sometimes their sons for pictures from those times. I also interviewed several actors from those times. And then, I met Savitri garu’s daughter and she was a major information bank, because she has seen a lot of this for real. We just needed a hang of what the period was like and this research was a major revelation.”
And what she learnt through the research is interesting. She reveals, “I realised that unlike the casual dressing style on the sets of film today, in those times discipline was key and there was a proper uniform for people on the sets of films and the hair had to be neatly combed. White on white or white and khaki. Wearing ties, with rolled up sleeved shirts that were neatly buttoned, people of those times were very impeccably dressed. Even journos and photographers dressed in dhotis, suspenders, bowties and the lot. There was some British influence. With passing time, you notice how style became more casual.”
Pointing out to an interesting fact, she reflects on how there never has been a film that has shown the sets of south Indian films of the past. “We have had movies in Bollywood that have taken us to that era but it isn’t the case here and that’s one reason this film will make an impact. It will be a trip down the lane of nostalgia for an entire generation,” Indrakshi states.
Sailing through various fashion developments from the sudden body consciousness to conical bras, to an interest in the lingerie to tight fitting clothes, was quite a task in the process of recreating those times.
As much as importance was given to the look of every single character seen on the screen, Indrakshi’s priority was obviously the lead actors, and of course several other stars who made key cameos in the film. From the '40s to the '80s, every decade had its own set of fashion trends and the onus was on the stylist to ensure authenticity.
“The characters played by Samantha and Vijay are seen in the '80s. What I understood as I worked on styling for this period was how people’s fashion sense transformed due to the sudden influx of technology. Radios, TVs and telephones became the order of the day and more accessible. People were suddenly spoilt for choices in everything. There were advertisements and jingles of various products. And people became familiar with colours with suddenly several options becoming available for everything. And with so many choices at their disposal, it made the generation laidback. The '80s are the modern aspect of the film and represent the present in some way. In the mood of the film, they are today. You are seeing it through their point of view,” she explains.
She reckons it was fun to style this part of the film because she could make some decisions on her own. “It was complete fiction and it was great fun playing with the characters,” she says.
Elaborating on styling Samantha’s character, she states, “She’s a reflection of feminism in times when western fashion was evolving in south India. In the earlier eras, you never saw women reporters or photographers but that wasn’t the case anymore. Earlier, only Christians wore skirts but by the '80s, the rest were trying them out too. Samantha’s wardrobe consists of skirts and blouses when she’s out to work, and saris at home. She is the nerd and her fashion is minimalistic with chiffon type sarees and small blouses. I was inspired by the photo of a friend’s mother and partially from Rekha too. As for Vijay, he’s the cool dude and it totally reflects in the denims and t-shirts he sports and his style reflects iconic shirts of the '70s with materials like corduroy.”
Keerthy Suresh in Mahanati
Styling Keerthy Suresh was obviously the most important and challenging part of the job. Recreating several of the actor’s iconic film sequences and public appearances, Keerthy had a total of around 130 look changes. “I believe when we are recreating something, we have to do it better. If we do not have the exact looking version of something, we have to get a better looking version of it. In today’s times, it’s tough to get a hang of what a particular actor’s fashion sense is like because of their heavy dependence on stylists. She wasn’t a stylish lady, but had a personality that reflected in the clothes she wore. That according to me is style.”
As much as Savitri’s life is partially documented, it wasn’t easy.
“How would she dress when asleep? You don’t know what she’s wearing when she fights with Gemini and walks off. We didn’t know a lot of things and these had to be decided by us, and it was a huge responsibility because it had to be real. I literally had to go in to the depths of her character to understand what she might wear at all such times. In very few instances in the film you see Keerthy in overloaded jewellery and her look mostly comprises of chokers, sheer saris, flowers in her hair, a bun, puffed sleeves and tight handed blouses. As she ages, she chooses to wear more silks,” Indrakshi explains as she shows us several reference images, adding that director Nag Ashwin and cinematographer Dani were a major support in terms of bringing out the best from her.
Personal learning curve and intricacies
Mahanati happened to Indrakshi at a time when she was going through a lot of issues on her personal front.
“It was a rough phase, with my divorce suddenly becoming a drama on social media and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. That’s when I read the script and I can’t believe how much I connected to Savitri’s life. When one’s life is being discussed and out for the public, it’s not easy,” says Indrakshi.
She adds, “Her story gave me the confidence that I could do anything and now, nothing feels difficult. It’s not one of those films where you just go to a shopping mall and pick up stuff. You literally have to make everything. Gaurang and Archana were a major help, but my team had to look out for clothes worn even by a bystander in a scene. Every small detail had to be checked. The film’s intricacies are important and I had to ensure even a fringe on every of the background artistes was perfect. Accessories are key supporting elements and it might seem like not a big deal, but they are such important part of every frame. Can you believe accessories decide which year we are talking about because they are the fastest evolving fashion element, with developments almost every year. And sourcing them all, was another major task.”
Interestingly, accessories were sourced from as far as Florence in Italy.
Accessories used in the film
“Vintage flea markets in Florence, and of course Hyderabad and Mumbai chor bazaars. For instance, glasses were bought from an old Parsi shop in Dadar, Mumbai. And watches are from those shops that store vintage watches in chor bazaars. We’ve really made an effort to keep it real,” she signs off.