A Saga of Suitable Costumes

A Saga of Suitable Costumes

In his costuming of Mira Nair’s adaptation of A Suitable Boy, Arjun Bhasin restrains the exotic, strips away the spectacular and opens a passage to India

Often enough, we look at designers or fashion houses for their influence on an era, a people, for fashioning a style. Yves Saint Laurent as the designer who put women in trousers, the lasting legacy of Chanel’s Little Black Dress and pearls, Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s magnetic influence on bridalwear or Raw Mango founder Sanjay Garg’s on making the handloom sari attractive and aspirational for women of different persuasions, ages and styles.

Some costume designers and stylists cast strong imprints too. Their work may not be studied with enough depth as of designers, but over the years, their influence becomes undeniable. Manish Malhotra may be a bridal couturier today but his first call to fame will remain that of a “Bollywood designer”, who ushered in heroine makeovers and clinging, lace and net saris. On the other hand, the costumes of filmmaker Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi will always sit atop the late Bhanu Athaiya’s sturdy body of work.

Arjun Bhasin is firmly in that territory. Stylist, costume designer, aesthete—given his many splendoured work with films, actors and fashion magazines—for stretching the desirable arc of the handloom sari from India. For creating a story plot by mixing textures, handwoven textiles, silks, cottons and jewellery for Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. For curating “Indian clothes” in a manner, that they argue for a range of socio-personal struggles mirroring those of a young nation. Rebellion, identity politics, caste, self-reflection, romance, sexiness and ambition. For putting together a visual and material album of modernity in the India of 1951-1952 through garments and aesthetic touches that signal to the country and to other cultures. For making the sleeveless sari blouse a bold and beautiful character artiste. Especially in a series, that drags its feet with its narrative, stumbles often and stereotypes with exasperating fervour. The mini- series produced for BBC One is currently streaming on Netflix India.

Bhasin is no newcomer to critically appreciated work. In his stacked closet of costuming achievements sit Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), The Namesake (2006), Rang De Basanti (2006), Life of Pi (2012), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), Gully Boy (2019) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019). He also dressed American actor Sarah Jessica Parker for the 2016 film Divorced. Now word is out that Bhasin is in the US, working on one of the most ambitious cinematic projects.


Actors Ishaan Khatter (left) as Maan Kapoor and Tabu (right) as Sayeeda Begum in A Suitable Boy.

Yet his costuming of Tanya Maniktala as Lata Mehra (more than 60 costume changes), Ishaan Khatter as Maan Kapoor, Shahana Goswami as Meenakshi Mehra and Tabu as Sayeeda Begum a courtesan among 105 characters (according to previous interviews) for A Suitable Boy opens a passage to India. Bhasin restrains the exotic, strips off the spectacular and reveals the sociological.

Want to make woven saris look stunning; master the duel between mismatched textures and colours? Watch the way they are worn and styled in the series. Lata’s orange cotton sari paired with a black and white checked blouse or a lavender Jamdani with a pale blouse, dainty oxidised silver bangles, her black stone nosepin, the keen prettiness of mismatched salwar-kameez-dupatta sets across the series, stoles, shawls, scarves and cravats for male characters, humble khadis, Maheshwaris and everyday handlooms…this is homage to our cotton country.

The fare is versatile. There are resplendent Banarasis, fetching organzas, printed silks, Tabu’s flamboyant wardrobe that includes a black and gold chevron bustier with wide mustard bottoms; Lata’s diaphanous pale yellow sari with embroidered flowers worn with a velvet handbag with silk patchwork flowers (reminding us of Good Companions, the unique store in Kolkata that sells hand-embroidered fare made by Catholic nuns). If the fictitious town of Brahmapur has white fenced homes and students in local cottons, there is Calcutta with its club culture, blingy hairpins, lal paad saris, well-meaning jewelers and busy markets. There is a Lucknow shoe factory too, stinking animal hides and all.


Actor Tanya Maniktala, who plays Lata Mehra, in a still from the series.

The wardrobes of Lata’s three suitors take us right into their lives. Kabir Durrani (Danish Rizvi) wears his handsome looks and hurt heart with pastel shirts, baggy trousers and cricketer sweaters. Poet Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen) wears front-buttoned, half-sleeved, checked sweaters with ties. For New Year’s Eve, Chatterji combines a suit, a bowtie and a stole! Whereas Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), the shoemaker seldom turns up without a multi-decked combo of a shirt, buttoned vest, a jacket and a printed tie.

Of course, there are costuming clichés. All professors wear specs, political party workers wear Gandhi topis or khadi saris with full-sleeved blouses, Meenakshi Mehra who lives her life lite loves plunging necklines; the Nawab wears a black sherwani and a former Raja clinging to fading glory wears big jewels on his fat fingers…

But it is the busting of the expected with unusually clad mindsets, the pink of a Holi scene, the yellow and red hues of Lata’s wedding (with a stand-out red and gold, bridal Dhakai) and Bhasin’s selection of stoles for male characters that makes him look so good..


(L to R): Danish Rizvi as Kabir Durrani, Mikhail Sen as Amit Chatterji and Namit Das as Haresh Khanna, in a still from A Suitable Boy.

If you watch the six-part series right to the end (even with reluctant persistence) the India of the early fifties in its khadis and chiffons may engross you. Nationalism with newness. Thick knits and light drapes. How a lovelorn, privileged young man like Maan Kapoor is styled (a blue-grey embroidered Lucknawi stole soon catches your fancy). If a rebellious and sexy woman is synonymous with plunging necklines and an extra-marital affair, how does the flirtatious Meenakshi look when she wiggles out of her saris? From Ram Kapoor’s khadi bandis (he plays Mahesh Kapoor, the Revenue Minister) to Arun Mehra’s colonially hungover suspenders holding baggy trousers, the clothes are more than suitable.

The series holds some gems for clothing commentators. Haresh Khanna is colour blind! “What a lovely pink sari,” he compliments Lata while she is wearing a green. If that isn’t a delightful little nugget, there is another, also by Khanna: “The British left us free but barefoot. India needed shoes.”

Three cheers though for this one by a harangued Varun Mehra (Vivaan Shah), Lata’s younger brother, fond of whiskey and K.L. Saigal’s love-lament songs. “What is wrong with Indian clothes?” he yells back at a reprimand by his older brother for being in kurta-pyjama while a gora couple are home for dinner. “Don’t Ma and Lata wear saris all the time?”

Oh yes, they do. Ask Arjun Bhasin.

Banner: (L to R) Actor Ananya Sen as Kakoli Chatterji, Tanya Maniktala as Lata Mehra and Shahana Goswani as Meenakshi Mehra, in a still from the series.