One look at Eka Lakhani’s career graph and you realise that she has been juggling diverse genres. She’s worked on films like Jug Jugg Jeeyo, which was a family drama; Shershaah, a biographical war film; and most recently, Ponniyin Selvan: I which is a Mani Ratnam period drama about the Chola empire, demanding opulence and attention to detail. Her work in Shershaah was applause-worthy and she also got a Filmfare nomination for Best Costume for it. She’s collaborated with ace directors such as Mani Ratnam, Karan Johar, and Rajkumar Hirani. Hence she has an innate sense of visual storytelling that seamlessly blends with the perception of the director. It’s these learnings that she cherishes the most. Excerpts from an in-depth interview with the designer:
1. You’ve worked in Bollywood and the south film industries. In that sense, you’re a versatile costume designer. How do you see yourself?
I’ve just been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. I was working in Raavan (2010) as an intern when Santosh Sivan sir and Mani Ratnam sir, noticed my work and gave me a break in Urumi (2011) and Kadal (2013), respectively. That’s how I started working in the South. It was only when my South work was noticed that I got my first project in Bollywood. I’m a director’s costume designer, if I feel that I can help enhance the director’s vision, I take on a film. I think it’s been a beautiful journey so far.
2. Was costume designing always the plan?
No, costume design was never the plan. Neither was fashion. When I was in college, I took up science because I had the percentage to get into a science college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. And this was the time when my dad took me to NID. And he said, “Eka, I see you doing something in art, something in fashion.” And I was like, “Why is my dad saying this?” Two years into science, I came to him and said, “Dad, you were right. I want to study art and I want to study fashion.” So I shifted to SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai for three years, and then spent a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City. After finishing college, I got a call saying that Sabyasachi Mukherjee was looking for an assistant in a Mani Ratnam film with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan. That’s how I reached the sets of Raavan. It’s there that I realised I had a rooted love for fashion.
3. How would you say Bollywood fashion has evolved and what is your favourite trend right now?
Bollywood has opened up a lot more now. We see all sorts of fashion being accepted. My favourite trend right now would be oversized clothing. Ever since the pandemic hit us, oversized clothing has just become a second skin for me. It’s comfortable. It looks great.
4. What was your experience like working with actresses like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Kiara Advani, Anushka Sharma, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas?
Kiara wants to try new things. She’s beautiful. She carries everything so well. Aishwarya ma’am loves her classic style. She’s the epitome of beauty. Anushka wants her comfort but at the same time, she wants a statement. Priyanka is a diva. She’s gorgeous. She likes her outfits to have a lot of style and grace.
5. You are a go-to stylist for Karan Johar and Ranveer Singh as well.
I look forward to getting Karan and Ranveer ready each day. It is so much fun. They understand fashion probably more than I do. I’ve said this before but the biggest challenge for me to style Karan is to show him something he hasn’t seen before. As for Ranveer, he is a magical boy. He’s like a canvas. You can paint anything on him. You can make him wear anything. He carries everything so well. And he’s always been someone in India who, in terms of men’s fashion, makes the norms, he breaks the norms. He tops every chart when it comes to fashion for men in India.
6. You’ve worked with the biggest filmmakers, from Mani Ratnam to Raju Hirani to Karan Johar. How would you define the differences in their working styles?
I feel blessed and grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with Mani sir, Raju sir, and Karan. It’s because of Mani sir, that I realised that I wanted to be a costume designer. To keep things real, not get influenced by what is in trend, and be true to the spirit of the film – all these things I’ve learnt from Mani sir. When it comes to Raju sir, his manner of approach is different. He wants the audience to connect with the character in the first shot itself. If you see his films, whether it’s Sanju, or the Munna Bhai series, he has a simple and clear-cut way of presenting his characters. Karan wants to wow the audience. He wants to give them something new. He loves fashion. He’s amazing with clothes, with beauty, with brands. That’s his narrative. He likes to wow the audience with every frame.
7. Share some insights on the research that had to be done for PS: I.
Mani sir first sent me the novels. I’ve read two parts of the novel. And then I went to Thanjavur, where Mani sir wanted me to just see the temples, and the art all around, meet weavers, talk to them, and understand the world that I was getting into. He sent Jay Kumar, who was one of my research guides and helped me understand the motifs I was seeing. We had a group of historians and researchers who helped us at every stage. I decided that we are going to use only silks and kanjivarams, and we won’t use surface ornamentation like embroidery too much. We reduced that and let the silks and the real zari, gold and jewellery speak volumes. So that we’d be true to the culture. We didn’t want to just make things look grand.
8. Was it intimidating to design for such a magnum opus where era authenticity is essential? Also, there was Aishwarya Rai Bachchan to top it all off?
There was a lot of pressure on me because this world was new to me, being from Mumbai. I had a lot more to learn, and a lot more to understand. I wanted to make sure that the representation of the culture never went wrong. Especially when you’re working with Aish ma’am. I started working with her as an intern, and to come back and work with her as a costume designer was an honour indeed. I was pressured but I think it’s been a good ride.
9. Fashion is a cyclic process—while doing your research for PS: I, did you come across fashion trends from that era that has come back into the modern landscape?
For PS: I, what we studied was the beginning of fashion. That was when the cloth was introduced. Dyes started being made during that time. This is the era when the trade route was just starting. In the beginning, when I was making costumes, instead of using dyes, we used kitchen ingredients like Haldi and kumkum. We just mixed them with hot boiling water and dipped the fabric. We saw the effect that it had on the fabric. Of course, we couldn’t do it on a large scale. So we used dyes, natural dyes and vegetable dyes. We tried to get the result that we got from using the kitchen ingredients in a lot of costumes. Even in terms of makeup. We saw what a beet stain did instead of using a makeup stain, what the hairstyles would bring in, and so on.
10. Shershaah was a patriotic film, and then you did Jug Jugg Jeeyo, which is a complete family entertainer. What challenges do you feel as a designer when you switch genres?
When I was doing Shershaah, I just wanted it to be an authentic representation of our army. I didn’t want to do anything wrong because I have read articles where uniforms are represented in the wrong way. I don’t feel that I face challenges as a costume designer for different genres, I just feel that whatever genre I’m doing, I try to represent it correctly. Jug Jug Jeeyo was a complete riot for me. The cast we had was fun. The clothes we used were fun. Do you want the audience to be surprised, or do you want them to be able to relate to you? Whichever genre you are doing, you ask these questions and then you plan according to the answers you get.
11. Which character has been your favourite to design for so far?
Surprisingly, both my favourite characters to design for are from Mani sir’s films. Tara from Ok Kanmani and then OK Jaanu. I’d say Nithya Menen was my favourite character in Ok Kanmani. And after that, Aditi Rao Hydari from Kaatru Veliyidai. These two have been my favourite characters. And I’ve gotten good feedback from the audiences and from Mani sir himself as well.