Neeta Lulla has been Bollywood’s go-to costume designer for over two decades, especially for historical films and costume dramas. Her credits include Khuda Gawah, Chandni, Lamhe, Devdas and Jodhaa Akbar, and she has won both praise and awards for her projects.
Lulla’s last Bollywood period film was Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro in 2016, and she returns with yet another movie set in more recent times. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi stars Kangana Rananut as the fiery and brave nineteenth-century queen Laxmibai of Jhansi. The cast for the January 25 release, which has been do-directed by Krish and Ranaut, includes Jisshu Sengupta, Atul Kulkarni, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Ankita Lokhande in her feature film debut.
Lulla and her team researched for over two months to create the costumes, followed by four months of trials and tests. “I had been approached by two other production houses for the subject earlier,” Lulla told Scroll.in. “One was being helmed by Sushmita Sen, and the other I do not quite recollect. So I was not new to the subject. But when I was approached by the production team for Manikarnika, I began to work with a fresh perspective.”
Lulla began with the information available at libraries and museums. “There are plenty of visual references and historical documents that give us an idea of the queen – what she looked like and how she dressed,” Lulla said. “There are paintings, illustrations, and fabric samples that give you a fair idea of the royal attire of that era. I also worked around the script, which takes you through the different stages of the queen’s life.”
To create designs for a warrior queen who has been immortalised in pictorial references and texts was a challenge, Lulla admitted. The designer drew upon her experience as a period drama specialist to come up with the different looks for Laxmibai’s different avatars. Laxmibai, or Manikarnika as she known in her youth, is depicted as a warrior, a bride, a queen, a widow, and finally a revolutionary. Each stage is marked by a distinctive colour palette. We see Ranaut in an emerald-green nine-yard sari in one of the sequences. Green is the colour of abundance and property.
“I had the task of capturing the different moods of the character, but also giving a definition to her character,” Lulla said. To create a feeling of authenticity, Lulla used only natural dyes on handspun fabric and plenty of khadi, especially in the latter half of the film. Here, the colour pallette includes more muted shades of beige and ivory and becomes darker and gloomier, in keeping with the turmoil in the lives of the characters. If one part of Laxmibai’s life as a queen is marked by joy and prosperity, as reflected in the rich reds, oranges and greens, the tragedy that unfolds later is conveyed through a more sombre colour scheme.
One of the standout images from the promotional material has Ranaut dressed for the battlefield in an angrakha kurta. “Most pictures and paintings depict Maratha warriors dressed in white, gold and red, and that is how I wanted to dress Kangana,” Lulla said. The armour and vest that Ranaut wears in the war sequence are of leather and have been hand-stitched by Lulla. The design is “both strong and elegant”, observed Lulla, who prefers to tailor certain accessories and clothes herself.
Other than the clothes and the colour palette, Lulla worked on the jewellery, by Amrapali, to give Laxmibai her signature look. Since Manikarnika was a Maratha princess before she was wedded into the royal family of Jhansi in central India, the jewellery she wears before her marriage is the kind worn by upper-caste women and royalty, such as the nose-ring and the thushi choker. After her wedding, Laxmibai wears kundan and pearls with elaborate headgear, bracelets and necklaces since royal families of that time and place would have access to that kind of jewellery, Lulla said.
The elaborate planning extended to the other characters in the film. For instance, Jhansi’s ruler Gangadhar Rao, played by Jisshu Sengupta, was an “understanding and sensitive king”, which is why he was given a softer colour palette. Lulla also played around with the styles of the turban for the different male characters in keeping with their back stories and traits. Gangadhar Rao has structured jackets and suits, while the more dependable loyalists wear solid colours and rugged, basic silhouettes.
Lulla dropped out of college after the 12th standard, and she says she has never been interested in conventional education or history. The costume designer has notched up more than a hundred film credits, and believes that her sought-after work in period dramas set in exotic worlds was destined to happen.
“I have always believed in creating a look that bears my signature while being mindful about the detailing and the authenticity,” Lulla said. “I enjoy the process.” In Manikarnika, for instance, Lulla has added her own little touches to Ranaut’s attire. As Ranaut goes from carefree to regal to sombre to fierce, a piece of head jewellery remains a constant in her life. We are told there are a few more hidden clues to the feisty queen’s inner life that will reveal themselves only to the discerning eye.
“Kangana has done a brilliant job – she carries off even the most elaborate and complex costumes effortlessly and has the ability to submerge herself in the role that she plays,” Lulla observed. “When I saw the rushes, I had goose bumps.”