Costume designer Sameera Saneesh on what it is like to dress the stars of Mollywood

It seems that jute silks and Pashmina silks in pastel shades are the rage in Kerala again. And that's probably because of Grace, Jayaprada's character in Blessy's Pranayam, who wore these elegant saris throughout the film. The credit for setting off the trend goes to the film's costumier – young Sameera Saneesh, who judiciously choose combos of pastel colours – light greys, dusky blues, soft browns and fresh greens, black, and so on, to outfit this poem of a character.

“Everything about Pranayam was subtle and elegant. Therefore, Grace needed to be in saris that defined modern, understated elegance. If she had worn bright colours she would have upset the balance of the film. It's essential that the costume blend into the frame or enhance it rather than overwhelm it,” says Sameera, whose keen eye for fashion and design has helped her make a mark in Malayalam cinema.

Ever since her debut in the industry with Aashiq Abu's Daddy Cool, 27-year-old Sameera has designed costumes for some of the most talked about films in Malayalam of the recent past such as Pranchiyettan and the Saint, Salt n' Pepper, Chappa Kurishu, and Kadha Thudarunnu, to name but a few, and has even won an award for her work in Pranchiyettan...

Selecting costumes

“While selecting costumes, I generally tend to avoid primary colours because they stand out in the frame. I only use tints and shades of the same. Only in Best Actor did I use loud, kitsch colours, and that too only because the characters had that kind of vibe. As a costume designer it's imperative that you keep in mind the character and the mood of the film, the best/worst features of the actor you're costuming, and so on,” says Sameera, adding that the key to ‘good' costume designing is understanding and working with the vision of the director, the cinematographer, and the art director too. “Some directors/cinematographer's insist on contrast colours, while others are partial to soft shades. Most of them, apart from a few such as Satish Kurup and Sameer Thahir, do not like white on the frame. However beautiful a costume may be, it does nothing for the character or the film if it doesn't suit the background. Most directors are clear about what they want; some like Blessy sir and Ranjith sir have an idea of what they want to the minute detail,” says Sameera. And the toughest character to design for so far? “Actually, it was the costume for St. Francis of Assisi in Pranchiyettan! Director Ranjith sir briefed me that he wanted the costume to resemble every fold in the dress of the statue. That was a tall order getting the texture and folds right, and so on,” says the Kochi-based costumier, with a laugh.

Into the industry

After completing her undergraduate degree at Bharat Mata College, Sameera studied fashion designing at the National Institute for Fashion Designing, Panampilly Nagar.

Post her diploma, she went to work as an in-house designer for Raymonds. She then progressed into costuming for ads and had a successful run in the ad world with some noteworthy ads such as Soundarya silks, Bhima, Alukkas, Kalyan Silks, and Josco, to her credit, before filmdom came calling.

“My entry into films was quite accidental, via ad world connections really,” says Sameera, whose first film as costume designer was The White Elephant, an offbeat Hindi film set in Kerala, and directed by Aijaz Khan.

“I had no clue about the working of the industry. It was only when I reached The White Elephant's location that I realises that you needed a union card to work and even then you had to assist on at least three movies before you could get credit for your work. Yes, it was a struggle in those initial years. Thankfully, those challenging days are behind me,” recalls Sameera, adding: “Malayalam cinema is becoming more professional and is in the process of change and that's not limited to costume design. For example, quite a few films now have professional hairstylists. It's exciting times ahead indeed for young professionals like me,” she says.

Up next for Sameera is Ranjith's Indian Rupee, where she has dressed lead actor Prithiviraj predominantly in dhoti and “ordinary” shirts, and Rima Kallingal in “simple salwars” that befit the rustic character of Kozhikode's angadi.

Reel Sameera

I've dressed the stars of …Indian Rupee, Pranayam, Pranchiyettan and the Saint, Kadha Thudarunnu, Agathan, Malarvadi Arts Club, In Ghost House Inn, Best Actor, Arjunan Sakshi, Salt n' Pepper, Chappa Kurishu, Payyans, Dr. Love

My favourite designer is…Sabyasachi Mukherjee because I love the way he uses colour, and the elegance of his designs. I'm inspired by his collections in my use of colour combos and simple, but impressive borders.

My anchors are…My husband, Saneesh K.J., a software engineer, and my parents, Ibrahim and Jameela – especially my late mother who always encouraged me to follow my dreams, right from the time I used to go for painting classes at Jawahar Bal Bhavan. Without their encouragement I would not be where I am today.

I've got no Bollywood dreams…Because I can't bear the thought of staying away from home for too long. While the shoot for Indian Rupee, was going on in Kozhikode, I used to rush home whenever possible; so much so that whenever its star Prithiviraj saw me, he used to ask: ‘When are you going home?' And The White Elephant may have been a Hindi film but it was shot in Ottapalam!