In the epoch of her career, veteran actress Savitri brought to life by Keerthy Suresh in Mahanati (Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil) is seen radiating a golden aura – there is a golden sheen to her clothes and in the title song of the film. It moves to blue when we see her succumbing to alcoholism, and the colour red, the colour of love and strife, when she is sharing screen space with Dulquer Salman, who plays Gemini Ganesan. The frames are a visual treat and the attention to detail goes beyond the protagonists.
What we see, however, is a culmination of hardwork by the team behind styling and designing for the movie which spans four decades, from 1940s to 1980s.
While cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez brought to life the mood on screen, vintage costumes designed and sourced by Gaurang Shah and Archana Rao brought back the era on-screen. The producer duo, Swapna and Priyanka Dutt, and director Nag Ashwin left no stone unturned to get the ‘look’ right.
“The extras in the film were equally important for us as the actors. If we were to focus on the actors alone in a room full of people living in 2018, it would resemble a costume party. We took immense care to get the dress right, from that of a bookseller to women lining up for a photograph near a fountain,” says Indrakshi Pattanaik who styled the movie.
While she was helped by Vijaya Chamundeshwari, daughter of actress Savitri with access to family photographs, the stylist had to rely on scouting people who worked in the era to understand what the common folks wore back in the day.
“Both Keerthy and Samantha’s character arcs follow similar patterns in the movie – both craved acceptance from their fathers and were shy and hesitant to begin with. While the former marries a man much older than her, the latter finds a ‘big break’ in her career. I had to reach out to a friend’s father who worked as a journalist with The Hindu in 1960s to understand what the photographers wore back in the day, how were newspaper boys dressed,” says Pattanaik.
To portray the super star status of Dulquer Salman, vintage T-shirts were sourced from Los Angeles by designer Archana Rao who also crafted the high waist trousers, the bell-bottoms and other details which went into the men’s clothes. “ANR (Akkineni Nageswara Rao) was a dapper man and would wear a bow-tie even to an audio launch. The style which actors had back then was impeccable, and wasn’t reliant on a stylist. We had to portray a man with taste who shopped abroad and was in-sync with fashion. Similarly, it was customary for directors to wear a new veshti every day with hair combed with oil. Hats off to the men of those days,” says Pattanaik.
Recreating a bygone era which has the top actress of the times at the heart of the story needed meticulous research. Sourcing vintage watches worn by Dulquer Salman’s character as well as sarees worn by women of the era lent authenticity. Some of the accessories and sarees used were family heirlooms, belonging to Priyanka Dutt’s mother-in-law and director Nag Ashwin’s mother.
A large number of creations were handmade by designer Gaurang Shah who has designed for a film for the first time. He got the brief to recreate the wardrobe for the ‘Meena Kumari’ of Southern cinema for Mahanati. Incidentally, he is the man who designed producer Swapna Dutt’s wedding trousseau.
“Thankfully, I was given well-researched material and had my loom and weavers ready. I was given usually two to three months notice by Priyanka and Swapna to recreate a piece of fabric, especially for stills of movies from Savitri’s repertoire. There were no shortcuts and even for the half-sarees which are a part of Savitri’s life as a young girl in the village, a full length ghaghra was stitched,” says Shah. He adds that about half of the fabrics were ready to source from his retail store and the rest was re-created especially for the film.
“I did not have to take time out to research on the film and we have worked on it for 14 months. Some of the chiffon and organza sarees were sourced from antique dealers in Hyderabad to create the look,” says Shah.
Actress Savitri’s character in the film which traces her growing up years in a village to her epoch and a losing battle with alcoholism required the character to gain weight in the later stages. All of this, keeping in mind the style of almost elastic and fitted blouses popularised by her. “All the Kanjeevaram and Benarasi blouses were fitted to the character’s stage in life and this is what I do. Some of my clients who have seen the movie rang me up to ask for pieces similar to the ones worn by Keerthy Suresh in the movie,” he adds.
From details on the jewellery to the aura of the times gone by, Mahanati takes you back to a time where grooming was important and dressing up for work and events involved a discipline. The good old times come alive in each frame of the tragic story of the rise and fall of the super star that was Savitri.