Neeta Lulla on the national award for “Jodhaa Akbar” and her work in films over the years

While one national award would count as a substantial yardstick of success and critical acclaim, Neeta Lulla has three, the latest being the Best Costume Design award for “Jodhaa Akbar” – the previous two being for “Lamhe” (1991) and “Devdas” (2002).

“Not wanting to sound modest, I don't work on projects expecting an award. It's a very personal bond that I share with each of my projects,” says Neeta.

Period films, particularly must be hard work, involving creating past heritage with materials available at present and when reference material can mostly show the ‘what' of a process but not ‘how'.

“It took eight months of preparation (for ‘Jodhaa Akbar'), which included fabrication and research. The challenge was to create the fabric of that time – the fabric had to have a feel of Dhaka muslin. The thing with the big screen is, if synthetic is used, you can instantly make it out. I wanted to achieve the ‘matt-ness' of that era, recreate the textures,” says Neeta.

Neeta has to her credit the costume design of more than 350 films, from “Chandni”, “Darr” and “Virasat” to “Hum Aapke Hain Koun”, “Maachis”, “Yuva”, “Taal”, “Jhankaar Beats”, “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” and “Baghban”.

Ask her to pick out films that stood out in terms of the enormity of the challenge or quality of result, something Neeta says she's gotten used to, she replies, “It's difficult to answer when you work on projects like that. I kept getting better and better with the quality of films I got. When I got ‘One Night with the King' (the Biblical saga that starred Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole) I thought that was my most difficult project. Then ‘Jodhaa Akbar' came. From a young apprentice at 21, things kept getting better.”

Besides film costume designing, Neeta also has a thriving career in fashion designing, with couture being her USP. Does character ever play second fiddle to fashion in her films? “Not at all. The most imperative part of film clothing is character. In fact, I've lost out on a couple of films because I'm someone who works on both character and design,” she says.

In fashion, Neeta feels it's still a long way till prêt-a-porter replaces couture. “Pret-a-porter is one aspect of fashion, couture is another. There are two or three elements because of which fashion changes. First is the financial situation of a country, second the socio-economic situation, and the third being environment change. While in the last couple of years prêt has become popular, now people are slowly going back to couture. Especially in the area of bridal wear, couture can't go away,” she says.

Aishwarya Rai's wardrobe at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 as a jury member was one rare occasion when Neeta received brickbats for her creations. “Aishwarya's appearance at Cannes had two aspects. One was for the premiere of ‘Devdas', which was well-appreciated. For the other part, people gave me a lot of flak. If there is flak like this, you have to take it in your stride. You're in a field where you can get acclaim and get criticised. If after 25 years in the field someone criticises you, you have to take it with a pinch of salt and also probably analyse what went wrong,” says Neeta.

Trend -setter

In India, Bollywood has been the biggest influencer of street trends and what the darzis in the smallest towns are asked to churn out. Ask Neeta about what she considers her most influential outfits and she says, “‘Chandni' was a big hit on the streets. Then I remember Juhi's off-shoulder blouses in “Aaina”. The costumes in the song ‘Ghoonghat ki aar se…' from ‘Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke' were extremely popular with college students.” Also on the list are Aishwarya Rai's ghagras from “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”, antique saris and jewellery from “Devdas” and Tabu's white churidar-kurta with saffron dupatta in “Maachis”.

Talk about industry favourites, and Neeta says she admires the work of Bhanu Athaiya and Shalini Shah. “They created a large body of work that other designers follow and even the streets.” Among films which scored in the costume design department, “Rudaali” stands out as her favourite.

How much has Neeta evolved as a costume designer? “In my films, what you see in one film is a complete change from the other. I like to innovate. My clothes are feminine, inspired by the 18{+t}{+h} Century, the Renaissance, the Romantic era. Those have been constant,” Neeta says. “My essence is sensuality, to add more character to a woman. There is a lot more to women than is perceived. That should come out.”