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HomeEntertainmentNeeta Lulla takes Vogue India inside her couture archive of iconic film...

Neeta Lulla takes Vogue India inside her couture archive of iconic film costumes

Vaishnavi Nayel Talawadekar

There’s a song in Darr, the 1993 Yash Chopra-produced megahit, where Juhi Chawla peacocks about the pool in a shocking pink swimsuit. The colour, mind you, isn’t what’s shocking. “You have to zoom in to find it,” deadpans Neeta Lulla. “I mean, really zoom in.” By “it”, she means her logo, which, at no more than a fingernail large, has taken me twenty attempts and my toddler’s toy microscope to locate. “It was a dare,” continues the 4-time National Award-winning couturier and costume designer, whose 400-film-strong, 40-year-long curriculum vitae—if she had such a thing—would be headlined by such blockbusters as Devdas, Taal and Jodhaa Akbar. “Yashji wasn’t sure if I could make it. He said, ‘What if you can’t?’. I said, ‘What if I can?’.” She presented the producer with a caveat: if she did, the garment would have her logo. He approved, and then approved again when she presented him the final piece a few weeks later.

Image may contain Body Part Finger Hand Person Adult Wedding Accessories Jewelry Ornament Face and Head

Devdas, 2002

Courtesy of Neeta Lulla

Image may contain Aishwarya Rai Silk Adult Person Wedding Accessories Jewelry and Necklace

Devdas, 2002

Courtesy of Neeta Lulla

Image may contain Black Hair Hair Person Adult Face Head Photography Portrait Accessories Jewelry and Ring

There’s something disarmingly irreverent about Neeta Lulla. She’s dressed in a brown flannel shirt, hair down, her signature fringe grazing the top of her eyebrows. And though we’re separated by a screen (she’s in Mumbai, I’m in New Delhi), I can sense an abiding placidity. She adjusts her tortoiseshell glasses before continuing, “I never aspired to be a designer. I wasn’t interested in studies so I married at sixteen, had a baby soon after, and enrolled in a course at SNDT to pass my time.” But films were written in her stars long before she knew it. “I remember seeing the famous Xerxes Bhathena gold outfit on Parveen Babi in the Jawani Janeman song from Namak Halal, and thinking, I want to do that someday.” And so she did, thanks to an offer from a cousin to help with costumes for his film.

She also started a workshop of her own after getting her film break, one nary too fancy, where she began experimenting with fusion garments. And while she was careful to keep one foot in fashion, the other foot, the one in films, was, as she puts it, “always the busier one.” Her car was a Wunderkammer of jewels, accessories, lingerie, boots, shoes, needles, threads, tape measures, hand machines, and even a small refrigerator with an emergency stash of comestibles. So when director Subhash Ghai challenged her to create an ivory satin sarong set for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for the song Ramta Jogi in Taal, in one day flat, she didn’t have to hold her breath.

Plaudits came and went, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that people started writing about her work. “Not until Devdas,” she reflects. “That’s when people started recognising it [designing] as an art.” For good reason. The movie kept viewers in its thrall, the chief attraction being, a cobalt blue, now-famous sari on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, “a labour of love,” as Lulla calls it. She emblazoned it with intricate wool skein embroidery, pearls and a rare combination of red-and-green kundan. As for the blouse, she conjured up motifs inspired by Qum carpets and added details that made you wonder if the piece took a detour through Edwardian-era England on its way in from Persia.

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