From whipping up clothes for friends and family to winning the Kerala State Film Award for best costume designer Siji Thomas Nobel has come a long way

Siji Thomas Nobel was in Class I when she saw her friend wear a lovely net dress. The dress swirled when the little girl twirled, and Siji wished she had one like that too. Although she didn’t quite know how to explain the dress to her mother then, the image stayed with her until she became a mother herself. “That net dress was the first I hand-stitched for my daughter,” says Siji. These early steps led to her becoming a professional costume designer, and today, Siji is the winner of the recent Kerala State Award for Best Costume Designer, for her work in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Amen.

From designing for her daughter, Siji graduated to whipping up clothes for her daughter’s friends, their mothers and extended family until her husband finally persuaded her to join a three-year diploma course at the Vogue Institute of Fashion Technology, Bangalore. She topped her class, went into teaching, freelanced as a designer for a few advertisements and then forayed into the Malayalam film industry with an unpleasant debut. “I was invited to a film, where every design I suggested was dismissed. I was about to quit, when a friend advised me to just keep turning up at the sets every day, because if I let go of this opportunity, I may never get another,” says Siji.

And sure enough, persistence paid off. Siji got to design for the heroines of Innanu Aa Kalyanam, and was later chief costume designer for director Anil Kumar’s Climax. Her big break, though, came with Amen, and it almost didn’t happen. “I met Lijo by accident at a museum, and that evening he called me over to read Amen’s script. I instantly knew the film’s potential but the plan then was to dress everyone in regular salwars and shirts.” A chance comment by Lijo, saying the film should transport viewers to another world, got Siji thinking and she suggested an old-world look, replete with all-white costumes for the villagers, and specially designed fat gold jewellery with chatta-mundus for the women. “I never expected the Award for Amen, but I’m happy that all the effort was worth it!”

Meticulous attention to detail, is the hallmark of good costume designing, says Siji. For Amen, Siji’s team of 17 ‘costumers’, stitched over 600 chatta-mundu sets , for them to survive the slushy monsoon the film was shot in, with 17 different band designs, for 15 band members each, German-inspired qurbana kurtas for the priests, and even a hakoba-laced chatta for the heroine. This work ethic is something she carried over to her other projects as well. Kili Poyi, called for a youthful, relaxed look for Asif Ali and friends, and later Mannar Mathai II, required Biblical-era references for costumes and props.

Siji has just completed work on the Mammootty-starrer Munnariyippu directed by cinematographer Venu, and is currently working on Salam Bappu’s forthcoming film Manglish, also with Mammootty. With each new project, Siji says costume ideas come to her as soon as she reads the script. “From the character of the person, I know how he/she would dress,” she says. The key has been to keep clothing throughout the film as realistic as possible.

The challenge, however, has been to rustle things up last minute. “Often, we’ve had to change fully-prepared costumes on the day of the shoot, because it clashed with the background then chosen!”

Experience has taught her the fabrics and patterns that show well on screen, and she has since nurtured a dedicated team that can design, purchase and stitch under tight budgets and short deadlines. “Even though most of our costumes are for one-time use, we never compromise on the quality it must reflect on screen,” she says. Costumes must also stay in line with dominant fashion trends that Siji keeps a constant eye on, but she says she adopts them only if they suit the spirit of the script. “Right now, neon is in, but we’ve hardly used it for Manglish because it just doesn’t go well here,” she says.

Over her years in the business, Siji says the industry has warmed up to women costume designers, treating them with more respect as their numbers have grown. “It still isn’t easy with a family because I’m away on the sets for days together, or back home at odd hours.” But with full family support and creative satisfaction from her work, Siji says things have been good. While she looks forward to soon opening her own boutique, she hopes for another Amen-like offer, “something that will really challenge my skills, again!”