Aki Narula on “What Not to Wear - India” and finding a polite way to tell some bitter truths

At the ballroom of The Oberoi in New Delhi, the press conference for TLC’s new show What Not to Wear – India has just concluded. Aki Narula, stylist/ designer and the show’s co-host — actor Soha Ali Khan being the other — is onto a series of interviews with the Press. “You know what I think? I think you should cut this T-shirt up to a little below the waist. You’re short, so wearing such a long T-shirt is going to make you look shorter. Do that, and if you stand in front of a mirror you’ll get what I’m saying,” he tells the reporter who goes ahead of me, who’s furiously jotting down notes to hide her logical discomfort. Welcome, tough love.

After more than a decade of telling people what to wear, as a stylist in films (Monsoon Wedding, Bunty aur Babli, Tashan, Rockstar, et al) and as a clothing designer, Aki’s now having fun telling people what not to.

Mostly following the format of the original UK series, What Not to Wear – India sees the hosts ambushing women referred to them by the latter’s friends or family, letting the participant do some guided introspection on her wardrobe, “trashing” her wardrobe (tossing away clothes that do not work), handing her a sum of Rs.30,000 to shop and snooping on her while she does that, and then ending the episode with a “ta-da!” makeover moment in front of the aforementioned family/ friends.

But then, rudeness hasn’t worked too well with Indian viewers in the past, case in point being the Neena Gupta-hosted game show Kamzor Kadii Kaun, which was based on the format of Weakest Link. So while Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine made a career out of planned rudeness on What Not to Wear (U.K.), prodding people’s tyres, chubby knees and jiggling cellulite mass, the same might not apply here. Will there be kid gloves?

Aki explains, “It is obviously an international format, but everything else about the show is Indian. From dealing with personal problems and professional issues to the kind of setups they have, what parents want them to wear or what housewives are wearing… they’re intrinsically Indian issues. We’re doing one Indian garment in every episode and yes, it is about tough love. I was caustic, I can be a little aggressive. There’s a point that you’re driving home because I know it’ll work, and I know it’s all about honesty. And the contestants would realise it within 24 hours the next day when we start going shopping.”

Citing an example, he elaborates, “There was this contestant who was really short and overweight but would wear red-orange-pink, red-orange-pink… The pink had to go on the clips, on the belt…I mean, the whole point is you’re not advertising the colour pink! You’re not in a candy store. Why can’t we grow up a little bit! It’s dealing with that. Sometimes you have to be a little strict to get the point across.”

He insists the idea is not to turn people into fashion victims or push them towards brands. “If somebody’s still wearing flared jeans, and it’s doing nothing for that person’s body, I would suggest you take this to your tailor and make it straight... It’s the simplest of ideas, and you just have to work on it. I think it’s all about celebrating and understanding your body.” Also, contestants are encouraged to try on clothes before purchasing them, helping them understand how “hanger appeal” is different from the actual wearing of an outfit.

Coming to his own projects, has there been an instance of dissatisfaction? “Absolutely not!” Aki replies. “I just think I’m really fortunate to have worked with the best actors, the best projects, the best directors, and with every single film there has been a fashion statement, whether it was a Bunty aur Babli or a Tashan or a Don or Jhoom Barabar Jhoom or something as recent as Rockstar.” Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Barfi will soon join the list.

(What Not to Wear starts on TLC on September 3, and airs at 10 p.m. every day.)