Movies

Handloom at the movies

From Nayanthara’s Chettinad checks in Viswasam to Keerthy Suresh’s khadi in Mahanati, why costume designers are going back to roots South of the Vindhyas

Just a couple of days after Viswasam released in January, Anu Vardhan was fielding calls from fans who wanted the vibrant checked handloom silk-cotton saris that Nayanthara wore in the family drama. She couldn’t place orders fast enough with weavers in Kancheepuram and Periyapalayam to recreate the six yards in combinations of fuchsia and purple. “The same people who I had trouble convincing to make Chettinad checks earlier [they claimed the saris wouldn’t sell] were now getting orders from big stores. That’s the impact of what you see in movies,” says the stylist/designer.

Then, in February, Seenu Ramasamy’s Kanne Kalaimaane brought the spotlight back on handloom. Tamannaah, who played a Saurashtrian hailing from a family of weavers, was turned out in elegant saris sourced from Co-optex, the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society. It was a conscious choice, says the director, who grew up among weavers. “I wanted to encourage handloom, and I thought this was a great way to do it. Did you know a person has to move his feet and hands 18,000 times to weave a garment? I wanted to showcase the result of that hard work, which is why the camera focusses on name tags — who wove it, how many hours it took,” he says.

Anu Vardhan

Anu Vardhan  

Six-yard statement

Handlooms aren’t new in Tamil cinema — we’ve seen gorgeous cottons and silks on Balu Mahendra, K Balachander and Mani Ratnam heroines. But in the last two years, the choice seems to be more mindful. At a time when sustainability is the buzzword, it is perhaps a reflection of the bigger trend we are seeing in fashion, one led by social media campaigns like the #100sareepact, revival of weaving traditions, and sustainable fashion sessions at Lakmé Fashion Week. “There has been a general revival of handloom culture, with initiatives by the Crafts Council of India,” says Poornima Ramasamy. “Celebrities across industries, from Vidya Balan to Jyotika and Nayanthara, are wearing a lot of handloom, and in the corporate world too, women are wearing saris. So real life is influencing the reel.”

The National Award-winning designer has been pushing handloom’s case for a while now. Jyotika’s chosen stylist, she outfitted the entire cast of Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (2017) in organic cotton dyed to suit the tone of the film. It helps that she used to work with weavers in the Coimbatore and Erode belt before entering films. “Handloom cotton looks lovely on screen. It has a depth and texture unlike any other fabric,” says Ramasamy, who also shops at Tüla, a social enterprise in Adyar, Chennai, that works with cotton farmers. Her most recent outing with Jyotika was in Kaatrin Mozhi, and she is now waiting to see how Vidya Balan’s look, in her début Tamil film, Ajith-starrer Nerkonda Paarvai, is received.

Poornima Ramasamy

Poornima Ramasamy  

Conscious change

Needless to say, the character’s role in the film influences the costume designer’s choice. “In Viswasam, Nayanthara played a doctor from Mumbai, who comes down to conduct medical camps. I felt she must be a socially-conscious person,” says Vardhan, who began looking at handloom because she feels strongly about sustainable, environmentally-conscious fashion. “When [director] Siva narrated the story, he talked about the joint family culture and that brought to mind my early days in Pudukkottai, when my grandmother dressed in Chettinad checks. So I chose colours and saris that connected with my roots.”

The 2018 Vishal-Samantha starrer, Irumbu Thirai, was as loved for the fact that it did not force-feed audiences a romance angle, as for Samantha’s (who played a psychiatrist) impeccable linen and cotton weaves. “Earlier, these fabrics were reserved for older characters. But cotton has a certain appeal,” says Hyderabad-based designer/stylist Neeraja Kona, who shops mainly in Jaipur, for its easy access to block printers, and in villages near her home town of Bapatla, Andhra Pradesh.

Indrakshi Pattanaik

Indrakshi Pattanaik  

Then there was Hemanika, the Bharatanatyam dancer (played by Trisha) from Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Yennai Arindhaal (2015). Her stunning look was courtesy the director’s sister, Uttara Menon. “We had time to ideate the character. I made dresses out of Kanchi cottons and used retro brocade for her dance costumes,” she says, while Gautham adds, “For Hemanika, I visualised a mild arrogance — this is a girl whose life is dance. When she was written, I wanted to model her on dancer-actress Shobana, and my cues were all that.”

Local considerations
  • In the Malayalam film industry, Sameera Saneesh, who dresses up Manju Warrier for her film and private appearances, is working extensively with handloom. The stylist behind the 2014 film, How Old Are You, started using cotton because it suits the local weather. Shopping trips to Kochi and Chennai help her curate the outfits (from a ₹150 cotton sari in 2017’s Udaharanam Sujatha, to a ₹15,000 silk drape for a wedding scene). She also designed Soubin Shahir’s handloom shirts in the recent hit, Kumbalangi Nights.

A natural fit

This quiet focus on handloom is being seen across the border, too. In Telugu, Indrakshi Pattanaik’s work in Mahanati (2018), Nag Ashwin’s biopic on actor Savitri, came in for a lot of appreciation. The Delhi-based designer did much of her sourcing from the Telangana State Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society (TSCO). “I used organic cotton and khadi for saris, and also for the background,” she says, adding that she prefers handloom because “it has a certain purity that’s endearing. Nandita Das’ Manto looked gorgeous; nothing was artificial. Even in Bollywood, the directors I’ve worked with, such as Ashim Ahluwalia, love the texture”.

While using handloom might increase the costumes budget (often between five and 10 times), directors and producers are slowly opening up to the idea. “It also helps that the artistes cooperate. They want to wear something they know will make a positive impact, and when they showcase them, it creates a new market for natural fabrics,” says Vardhan, who is styling Nayanthara in her upcoming films with Rajinikanth and Vijay. And yes, we will see more handlooms.

- Neeraja Kona
stylist-designer

In films, I’ve been using handloom extensively for two years now. I gravitate towards cotton, khadi, mul and linen. Earlier, cotton were reserved for older characters. But it has a certain appeal, and Samantha, Nayanthara and Trisha have been at the forefront of showcasing handlooms beauty in films

- Aparna Rajagopal
Founder, Beejom

Seed saving is a science and we try to use only indigenous seeds, so that we can save and propagate them year after year. They are sturdy, resilient and consistent in their yield. I recently saved 1.5 kg of seeds of a unique swan-shaped bottle gourd variety. I started with four seeds, and managed to increase it in just one season. All serious farmers have to carefully cultivate and create bulk quantities for themselves.

With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2020 6:02:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/handloom-at-the-movies/article26676934.ece

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