Monday, July 22 2019


Decking up the Stars

Neeta Lulla
Her costumes depict life. The clothes become an indispensible part of the narrative and an essential agent of storytelling. From screen to red carpets, she is everywhere. India’s original Bollywood designer Neeta Lulla shares with Medha Shri her journey from a teenage bride to a tailoring student to the most coveted designer to the stars.
With more than 350 Bollywood movies to her credit and several awards in her kitty, Neeta Lulla definitely knows what women want. The fashion designer, known for her meticulousness in understanding her subject before working on a design, has made a formidable reputation for creations that are a happy communion of fashion, colours and grandeur.
“If I’m designing for a film, I need to have the script narrated to me, which helps me understand the character, his or her life, and the setup,” explains Lulla, who has various period dramas in her repertoire of film costume design. Her designs are remembered as much as the characters of the films themselves. After Jodhaa-Akbar, Jodhaa’s jewellery and saris became every bride-to-be’s trousseau wish. After Devdas, Paro’s (both roles played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), detailed saris became a cult too. But not many know the mental, physical and emotional labour on Lulla’s part that went into creating those masterpieces. For instance, she scanned several Bengali movies, visited museums, read through the script several times and had hours-long discussions with the creative team to develop costumes which were magically periodic yet acceptable to contemporary audiences. About 600 saris were brought from Kolkata, which were later mixed and matched to create memorable costumes – light and simple in the first half of the film when Paro is a wilful young girl, rich and detailed once Paro marries into a wealthy household. Each sari was also about eight to nine metres long, and took at least three hours to tie.
With that kind of effort, it comes as a surprise that Lulla didn’t really start out as a designer; she was a trained fashion choreographer. “It was never planned. I feel God had a plan for me. I had a fashion choreographer background and experience, since I worked a lot with friends like Hemant Trivedi. Thanks to them, I got introduced to fashion and designing.” Her initial films like Lamhe and Chandni got great reviews and the films themselves were box-office hits, but she never really realised where this path was going to lead her. “At that time, it was just a Bollywood project for me. It was much later, after the film turned out to be a hit and I got more offers, did I understand the challenges, work and art of this field,” she reminisces. Lamhe also got her a National Film Award for best costume design in 1991. Later, she also won the same for Devdas, Jodhaa-Akbar and Balgandharva (2012).
Looking back at her youth, it does seem as if her career path had been a result of divine intervention. A rebel child, Lulla quit high school as she had ‘no interest in books and studies’. Her parents threatened to marry her off if she didn’t get back to her studies. Lulla didn’t take up the alternative option. Instead, she was married at the vulnerable age of 16. Her in-laws, however, forced her into another school. By the time she reached class 12, Lulla had her first baby. Talking about those times, she smiles, “I loved each and every part of my life. I don’t regret any decisions I made. I had a whale of a time growing up and I always had fun in doing what I did. Given a chance I would want to repeat some of the crazy things I did!”
Later, her in-laws and husband suggested she go for a tailoring and designing course. “I have very supportive, loving in-laws. They let me do what keeps me happy,” she says. As Lulla’s brand grew stronger and bigger, her family became a part of her happiness. “They were always happy for my growth. In fact, it was my husband who received my first national award with me and even explained to me the magnitude of the same, as I was ignorant of its prestige and value at that time,” she shares with ATELIER, adding that her family is very close-knit and her parents and in-laws have been her support system all these years.
Though she didn’t appreciate studying, she emphasises the importance of following the heart backed up by excellent skills and knowledge. “The choice of a course for your career has to be studied honestly in order to grow and develop yourself as a person. One needs to have certain skill sets even to utilise one’s talents,” opines she Lulla’s client list includes Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Shilpa Shetty Kundra, Juhi Chawla, Sridevi, Dia Mirza, Sushmita Sen to name but a few. That’s many generations. What remains unchanged? “The only factor that remains unchanged is that they all stick to their signature style and personality, and I have to design outfits keeping in mind their distinct style factor. I am a versatile designer, reinventing my style and creating new innovations in my costumes in each film,” she shares. She likes to experiment with colour, cuts and design and has noted that her client’s preferences are also changing. “Every actor today needs to look their best and at the same time have an outfit that looks different. I guess that’s where a designer needs to understand the fashion trend and help the celebrity,” Lulla explains.
Celebrities are known to throw tantrums, but Lulla say she has been lucky so far: “By the grace of God, I have faced no tantrums. Besides, I believe they all have a right to look their best and ask for the best since they work in an industry that is very competitive and very tough. Their films go down in history; their roles are forever. No wonder they want to look perfect.” She refrains from naming any personal favourite star, of course. “Each one that I have worked with has been a beautiful experience,” she quips diplomatically, while pooh-poohing popular notions that the industry is ‘fake’. “It is a very warm and affectionate world. People are very real and dedicated,” she says, admitting that she herself is an affectionate and a very emotional person.
Lulla’s timeless designs rooted deep in cultural heritage have helped India leave a mark all over the world. Her shows in the UK, Monte Carlo and Canada besides other international destinations, and film projects such as Pride and Prejudice, Provoked, et cetera, got appreciative reviews and proved that, besides blingy Bollywood designs, she is equally adept at crafting prêt, couture and Western masterpieces as well.
The three-time President’s Award winner’s daughter Nishka Lulla has also picked up designing. “Nishka is one of the youngest designers we have in the industry. She is full of energy and creativity,” says the mother with pride. “I enjoy working with her. Her designs have a young, vibrant Boho touch today.” The mother-daughter designer duo share notes all the time. “I'm playing mom and she keeps saying, ‘Don't be a momma,’ when I do,” she laughs. Is this the culmination of her dream? Lulla pauses before she responds, “I dream every day and that’s what really keeps me going on an everyday basis.”
An anarkali sketch by Neeta Lulla.
Neeta Lulla in a black ensemble after one of her shows.
Shriya Saran showcasing Neeta Lulla’s creation.

Write to us at