It took Neeta Lulla and her team nearly eight months of planning and production to design more than 3,000 outfits for the entire cast of the mythological drama Shaakuntalam. Directed by Gunasekhar, it stars Samantha Ruth Prabhu in the title role. The Telugu film is an adaptation of Kalidasa’s play Abhijnanasakuntalam and is scheduled to hit theatres on April 14, in multiple languages.
For Neeta, who has been designing since the mid-1980s and has to her credit more than 300 movies, Shaakuntalam prompted her to dip into childhood memories. “We had a few five-feet tall paintings that depicted the story of Shakuntala, in our home while growing up. I distinctly remember the ethereal images of Shakuntala and another image of the fish and the ring from the story,” she says.
Neeta had worked with director Gunasekhar for his 2015 Telugu period drama Rudhramadevi starring Anushka Shetty and was familiar with his penchant for larger-than-life period and historical dramas. Since Shaakuntalam has its roots in mythology, she referred to volumes of Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha. “It was fascinating to translate those fairytale-like looks on screen for the romance drama. The research was not tough, unlike a period-specific historical drama.”
Some of the period dramas that Neeta has designed costumes for include Devdas, Jodhaa Akbar and Thalaivi. Her work for Devdas and Jodhaa Akbar fetched her the National Award for best Costume Design in 2002 and 2008. Unlike those films that required opulent costumes to befit a royal and an aristocratic setting, Neeta says Shaakuntalam warranted her to keep things simple yet alluring.
For the portions that unfold in the forests, Neeta sourced flowy fine count organic cottons and muls from weaver clusters near Visakhapatnam, Pochampalli and Kanchipuram. Fabrics that employed vegetable dyes were preferred. “We wanted to recreate the look of a bygone era and at the same time make it appealing to a contemporary audience. We designed such that the silhouettes add to the sensuality of Shakuntala for the portions where she meets King Dushyanta (Dev Mohan) in the forests. “For Samantha, Dev and everyone else, we did not use any fabric dyed in factory-made chemical colours since it would have been too attention seeking and glaring for that era. We used vegetable dyes even when we wanted vibrant, jewel-toned outfits.”
Neeta’s team kept sketching the different looks for Samantha and Dev both in the forests and the court. A factory-like production followed to check the fittings for the outfits for every member of the cast. Simultaneously, a team was involved in making floral jewellery for Shakuntala and her friends. “The fresh flowers would arrive around 5.30am and one team would make floral jewellery — garlands, flowers for the hair, armlets and other accessories. I would do some of the complicated patterns myself,” adds Neeta.
Neeta coordinated with Hyderabad-based Vasundhara Jewellers for the adornments. “For Dev’s outfit, we wanted lion motifs on his shoulders and jewellery that appeared like body harnesses. Pearls and gemstones were bejewelled on the garments along with hand embroidery”. The jewellery team came up with sketches and prototypes that went through modifications. Neck pieces, hair accessories, bejewelled blouse buttons, tassels, armlets, bangles with motifs of animals and birds were designed. “It required technical finesse and the team was receptive to suggestions,” says Neeta.
Neeta’s association with the Telugu film industry dates back to the time she designed for Sridevi for the fantasy drama Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari co-starring Chiranjeevi and Ram Gopal Varma’s heist thriller Kshana Kshanam starring Sridevi and Venkatesh. “The directors are very aware of what they want from the costume department and there is a smooth coordination in the visualisation stage. It is an industry that respects its technicians,” she says.
In recent years, Neeta had also designed for Krish Jagarlamudi’s Telugu period drama Gautamiputra Satakarni. She is now working on Pawan Kalyan’s new Telugu film directed by Samuthirakani.
Simultaneously, she and her team are busy coordinating for the Kangana Ranaut starrer Chandramukhi 2 in Tamil. Broach that topic and Neeta says it is too early to discuss it.
Ask her how she has managed to design for more than 300 films and if there is a method to choosing her work, she says with a laugh, “I am a greedy technician who wants more work, and luckily challenging projects that are research-worthy kept coming my way.”