A Suitable Boy, the screen adaptation of Vikram Seth’s acclaimed novel of the same name, has arrived in India to a mixed response. Mira Nair’s mini-series for BBC Studios was first broadcast in the United Kingdom in July and August and is now being streamed on Netflix. The English-language show has been criticised for its stilted dialogue and sketchy characterisation and its divergence from its source material. But there is unanimity on one of its brightest spots – Arjun Bhasin’s gorgeous costumes.
The reputed costume designer has dressed every single one of the characters in the sprawling cast. Bhasin’s clothes display fidelity to the story’s period setting as well as judicious anachronism – a fashionably mismatched blouse-and-sari ensemble, for instance, or a daringly low-cut blouse to bring out a character’s flamboyant personality.
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of newly independent India’s first general election in 1951. As the country gets ready to vote for the first time, Rupa Mehra hunts for a groom for her daughter Lata. There are other, unsuitable suitors before Lata finds her match.
Two other families, the Kapoors and the Mehras, feature prominently in the novel. In the series, the desire of Maan Kapoor for the vastly older courtesan Saeeda Bai is given greater prominence than in the novel.
Bhasin’s credits include Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), The Namesake (2006) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). Bhasin has also worked on Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006), Luck By Chance (2009), Life of Pi (2012), Gully Boy (2019) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019). The 47-year-old member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences spoke to Scroll.in about the looks of four key characters – Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala), Saeeda Bai (Tabu), Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter) and Meenakshi Mehra (Shahana Goswami).
On Arjun Bhasin’s decades-long association with Mira Nair
”Mira and I go back many years. I have trained, I feel like, with Mira. My first real film job was as an assistant in the costume department of Kama Sutra.
We have developed a language that works for the both of us. We see eye to eye on many creative things. Mira is a deeply aesthetic person with amazing and beautiful taste. The thing I find most special about Mira is in that in every project I have worked on with her, the costume design has advanced the story.”
Was this the biggest project the Nair-Bhasin duo have worked on?
”A Suitable Boy had the largest volume of costumes of all the projects we have done together. Monsoon Wedding was shot in 22 days, and we had a minuscule budget on that. When we did The Namesake, we were shooting in New York and moving clothes from India to New York, and that was tricky. When we did Monsoon Wedding the musical in 2019, it was all about learning the language of theatre. With this project it was the scale of it.
I had 10 weeks to prep for the shoot. There were at least 105 speaking parts and hundreds of extras, and I dressed every single one of them. Each character had 35-40 changes. Lata had about 68 changes or something ridiculous like that. Thankfully, I had the most perfect team of people working on the project.”
How useful was the source novel as a reference?
”The honest-to-god truth is that I had tried to read the novel many times and hit a wall and had kept it aside. When I got the script, I went back to the novel and relived moments I had missed.
We did crazy amounts of research. I always start with the script, the page, and then load up on research. Some of the research translates directly into costumes, and some of it just situates you in the period. You familiarise yourself with the rules. Then you start playing with the rules, start creating characters and character arcs.
Every garment, every costume, every fabric is a choice. Nothing is by and by. Nothing is not discussed. This isn’t design for design’s sake. There is beauty, but it has to be meaningful.”
”Mira and I also talked about not having a dated look. Even though it is a period show, you want everything to feel modern to the period. All our references are modern. Mira and I both love anything that was modern about ancient India, so we pulled out a lot of references in terms of things we found exciting, like colour and geometric patterns.
You want to excite people to watch your show. You are doing research that is based on black-and-white photographs and you are presenting a project that is in colour. So you do take liberties with the period.
Also, all this is happening in pre-Bollywood, pre-embellished India. So we loaded ourselves up with beautiful textiles from everywhere. It was all about textiles and drapes and layers. We stayed away from ornamentation and were very careful about not using any zari or zardozi. We didn’t want it to feel heavy. Also, these characters were nor royalty.
We wanted it to feel classic and elegant – what India used to be before we started flaunting. Any embellishment we used was part of an ancient tradition. For instance, the badla – beaten metal work – on Saeeda Bai’s red sari the first time you see her.”
Colour-coding the viewer
“As the costume designer, I also supply the jewellery. The shoes, bags and accessories are also a part of it. I work closely with the hair and make-up departments as well as the production design.
The production designer, Stephanie Carroll, and I created these colour palettes for certain things. We wanted to differentiate the two weddings in the story. The first wedding you see in the first episode is more silks, Banarasis and brocades. The last one, Lata’s wedding, is red and white and yellow – a magical, cotton wedding.
We wanted the Holi ceremony to be pink, so we took all out the whites out and used a pink base. Whatever whites there are have a bit of pale pink. Those subliminal things make it exciting for me to design and for people to watch.”
A suitable wardrobe for Lata Mehra
”We wanted to start Lata very innocently and then develop her as the story went along. Everywhere she goes is an influence on her – when she falls in love, travels to Calcutta. Her style of dressing changes as she starts realising things about herself that make her stronger.
The fabric changes too. Cottons, handlooms, mulmul are all very much a part of her early life in the story. As we go deeper, she becomes more organza, more transparent, more aware of her body and herself.”
Styling the May-December romance between Saeeda Bai and Maan Kapoor
”This track feels like the deep, poetic romance of the show. I wanted to be in that mood.
Saeeda Bai is so interesting. She is a courtesan based on several real-life characters, including Begum Akhtar. When you research these women, you get their public personas but not their private lives.
Saeeda’s private life to me was secretive and guarded and hidden. I went further back into Mughal cultural references, like miniature paintings and Company paintings from the royal court of Awadh. The idea was to create these diaphanous layers.
All of Saeeda’s costumes have layers – there is something peeking through them. There is always something hidden about her, some secret she isn’t telling. There is a quiet, sad, mysterious and romantic angle to her.
But you’ve got to take risks. Mira was very excited about the Mary Quant-meets-Saeeda Bai ensemble. It’s a chevron brocade blouse with striped brocade pants.
There is nothing mysterious about Maan. He has all the romance of youth. He is a poet and a dreamer, and I wanted to be able to touch and feel that. Maan wears his heart on his sleeve, he is open in his awe and his love, and that is probably what attracts Saeeda to him.
I cut up a lot of old saris and made shawls for Maan. A patterned shawl that he is seen wearing was a woman’s dupatta we found in this incredible chikankari shop in Lucknow.”
Meenakshi Mehra, the wild card
”Meenakshi is from Calcutta, which was the epicentre of British India at one point. We wanted Meenakshi to have this modern sensibility. She is modern, urban and hip, and wears chiffons and gauzy fabrics with plunging necklines.
We wanted Meenakshi to tango in a sari for one of the sequences, but we didn’t want it to look obscene or weird. We thought of an outfit that she might have created for herself – trousers under a sari.
I have made a career out of mismatching things. I hate things that are matched. I don’t think the world is a matching place. I like the contrast of things, the way fabrics play with each other, just in the way characters play off each other.”
No, nobody got to keep any of the costumes
”The costumes have been boxed and sent to the BBC. We decided to archive them in in case we want to do an exhibition later.
There were hundreds of extra costumes, which were donated to charities. Lydia Dean Pilcher, who is Mira’s long-term producer and a real humanitarian, created a donation drive.
Not a single actor got to take anything home. I didn’t keep anything for myself either, but I did go home with a trunkful of textiles that I bought in Lucknow.”
As told to Nandini Ramnath.