Parts of Dhanya Balakrishnan’s account of working on location for Kayamkulam Kochunni are hilarious. Like how the team had to keep an eye out for ‘modern inner wear’ in order to ensure authenticity during filming, “but somehow, thanks to the junior artists, they always found their way in. That is all it takes for all our work to go down the drain,” she says, with a toss of her curly mop of hair.
When she signed on for the film , as costume designer, she knew it wouldn’t be easy. Rosshan Andrrews’ grand opus which charts the life of Kerala’s Robin Hood spans a large canvas, and life, in early 19th century Kerala.
And very often ‘modern clothing’ sneaked in and each time the team caught it in the nick of time, and as the film hit screens, the ‘what if we missed’ worries her. She counts the film among one of her toughest, followed by Mahesh Narayan’s Take Off . Incidentally, Rosshan approached her after seeing her work in that film. “He told me ‘it is a period film. Are you ready?’ I thought the call was a prank, only when the production controller called did I realise it was for real,” says the young designer, laughing.
For the 30-year-old Chemistry graduate from Palakkad, fashion design had been a long time dream; a choice her parents were uncomfortable with. They wanted her to get a conventional degree before turning to fashion. After her graduation she came to Kochi and joined St Teresa’s College for a fashion design course. It proved to be a turning point, she got into something that ‘never featured’ in her scheme of things.
The catalyst was one of her teachers, costume designer Praveen Varma. When he did the costumes for Sagar Alias Jackyy , she had assisted him and also did some work for Anwar . This threw open doors to ad films, which cleared the route to cinema.
Kayamkulam Kochunni may be her first huge project, but she has been in the industry since 2013. The films she has designed for include Adventures of Omanakuttan , Sakhavu , Anuraga Karikkin Vellam , and Mosayile Kuthira Meenukal . Her first film as independent costumier was Bicycle Thieves.
The unpredictability of her work as designer draws her to it, she confesses. Every day is a new adventure, and Kayamakulam Kochunni it started from the word go . The first hitch was that research was limited, especially when it came to costumes. A year’s work went into the film by way of research, in every department. The research wing collected material, “as there were no cameras, so no photographs, all we had were books, palace paintings and etchings.” She more or less stuck to the research, making only minor modifications. Like, for instance, men didn’t cover their upper torso in the early 1800s, they began covering up later but for the film it was tweaked.
Preparation and pre-production took two months. Separate units were set up for dyeing, stitching, and even one for dulling. Unprocessed fabric, cotton and khadi, was used; she sourced khadi from Kannur.
“All fabric was washed, dyed with chemicals and scrubbed with sandpaper to age them, to make them look well worn. The colour palette was earthy, no bright colours. We made 10-12 sets of Nivin’s (Kochunni’s) garments. More than a couple of sets for the others also from the same batch of dyed fabric for the sake of continuity. These saw a lot of wear and tear.” The garments were hand sewn for the ‘raw’ look.
Ithikkara Pakki’s (Mohanlal) costume was another challenge since there was no reliable source, so she took the fantasy route. She worked on the assumption that since he was a brigand, his garments would be a mish-mash of all that he laid his hands on. Hence the western silhouette, even the boots “which he may have stolen!”
Dhanya says Mohanlal and Nivin were very co-operative and had no qualms about the costumes. In fact Nivin would trudge around the sets in wooden slippers that his character wears for ‘practice’.
She is all praise for Rosshan, “He told the artists that my call was final, with that he left no room for any sort of interference. However, today actors are willing to become the ‘character’ rather than insist on wearing designer wear.” She took creative liberties like fabric she used for the uniforms of British soldiers, all the while sticking to the basic palette.
The film has a large supporting cast of junior artists and dressing them up was, literally, a mammoth task. More than putting the costumes together, it was getting the clothes back. Told to keep at least 600 outfits ready, she got a 1,000 sets ready, some of which the junior artists threw away. “If we gave them 200 pieces, we would get around 160 back. They looked worn so the actors would have thought they could be discarded.”
Of designing for Take Off , she says, director Mahesh Narayan was particular about what he wanted in Take Off . The difficult part was the uniforms of the reel Iraqi soldiers and police force. Getting the colours and the camouflage was difficult, so we got it printed. The uniforms are of more than one colour and I did so much research for it. Looking at photographs of soldiers, accessing websites so much so that people said I’d get arrested for terrorism! Even Parvathy’s character, her situation, the kind of person she is...I thought of all that when I designed her look. Even the colours were drab, a woman of the character’s means would dress that way. Observation is the key, in order to create a character through costumes.
Dhanya has in her kitty besides Mahesh Narayan’s next project, films such as Lonappante Maammodheesa and Irupathiyonnaam Noottandu .