As a swift departure from the OTT depiction of historic costumes in Bollywood films, Nachiket Barve’s vision for ‘Tanhaji’ earned him accolades for his simplified approach. The designer who is popularly known for championing quiet luxury—applied the same formula while designing costumes for his first-ever big-budget Hindi film and was bestowed with the honour of a National Award.
Driven by curiosity and authenticity, Nachiket is a minimalist through and through. Ever since he launched his eponymous label in 2010, the designer has showcased contemporary collections rooted in art and history that transcend across trends. In an in-depth conversation with ELLE, Nachiket talks about cracking the art of costume designing without diluting its legitimacy and how working on this film has been a career milestone for him.
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ELLE: How does it feel like to win your first National Award for a magnanimous project like ‘Tanhaji’?
Nachiket Barve: “It’s amazing, to be honest. Sometimes, when things are unexpected, it’s even sweeter. Obviously, I work with a certain work ethic, enthusiasm and depth, but you don’t do it keeping in mind that you might win an award for it—so, it was just a very pleasant surprise. I also feel so happy because a vast amount of research and effort goes into a project like this and so many people are involved with it. There’s a whole army of people who produce costumes for something like this, it is like a pat on the back for everybody. And secondly, I also feel that all these technical aspects of filmmaking are something that is only now getting the kind of appreciation in our country. There’s more presence, visibility, and voices for the ‘behind the scenes’ departments. I think something like this draws attention and makes everybody appreciate it.”
ELLE: Working on a historic film; what is the process like and how much research does it take?
NB: It is very very exciting but challenging. Before we started filming, there were about two years of research and development. I like to do things with authenticity, especially when it’s steeped in history. A historical project like this, it’s depicting the life of people who were so iconic, that you have to get it right. There’s this huge responsibility. Also, there is such a massive amount of textile and historic heritage in our country, that a project like this gives us an opportunity to showcase it on a bigger screen. I literally went to museums across the country; like the craft museum in Delhi, Salar Jung in Hyderabad, CMVS museum in Bombay, Kelkar Museum in Pune and also multiple museums in London. I felt like a fresh student looking in complete awe and wonder. Apart from the research and the museums, I interacted with lots of families who had some archival textiles and studied from those. Even for jewellery, we discovered there’s a jeweller in Kolhapur, Maharashtra whose ancestors used to create jewellery for Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. We tracked down those moulds which were more than 100 years old, resurrected them and crafted gold jewellery using those moulds. It was as authentic as it gets!
ELLE: What are the various textiles and handcrafts you worked with? And how did you narrow it down specifically for this film?
NB: “I wanted to keep it authentic but I also wanted it to be cinematically stylish. If you look at it, there are 3 broad clans in the film, there are the Marathas who were based in Maharashtra, and then there was the Deccan region, for which we looked at textiles from those states. There’s also an overlapping of Madhya Pradesh. Chanderi, Maheshwari, Dharwad and Ikat Saris were worn by Kajol. For Chatrapati Shivaji, who was a warrior and a ruler, there had to be an element of rusticity and home spun-ness to the textiles. I’ve done a lot of hand-spun Khadi and a lot of textured cottons. In terms of the colour palette, I’ve worked with a lot of natural dyes; you can look at madder red, marigold for yellow and indigo for blue. Coming to the Rajputs, there’s the Rajasthan area. You see a lot of colour in the desert like whites with Saffron or rust so those kinds of spice desert colour palettes are what I chose to work with. The Mughals have a much deeper palette because they came from outside. There were a lot of indigos, blacks, and blues and the only one who was a special kind of character who wouldn’t fit with the Mughals was ‘Aurangzeb’. I gave him a lot of white-on-white cut work textile, very beautiful tonal cotton, then just an overcoat kind of a jacket with pure gold and silver zari woven into brocade.”
“A lot of people have asked me, how did you design for a period film and I said, a period film doesn’t have to be about obnoxious opulence. Not like every square inch of textile has to be covered with embroidery. As a fashion designer, I work so much with surface embellishment for my label. But for a film like this, you have to stay true to the script and director’s vision, you have to make the actors look good and then have your own creative take on it. For example, when you look at something as simple as all the headgear in the film, I wanted to be a purist and drape all the headgears. There’s nothing pre-stitched or stuck on the head like a hat. We had like dozens of ‘pagdi masters’ as they are called in Bollywood, who would come and drape every single actor.”
“I have literally designed everything, footwear too. Unlike a contemporary film, you can’t run to the mall, get something and put it together. Hence, everything from head-to-toe has to be custom created. Plus, you’re not creating it for a museum, you’re creating it to be worn by an actor for an action film. There is harnessing, shoes have to be comfortable so the actor can run in and not slip or injure themselves—there are so many of these aspects which come into play, hence it’s technically challenging as well.”
ELLE: Maratha costumes have been showcased in historic films multiple times, was there something you wanted to do differently?
NB: “Yeah, a lot depends on the director you’re working with because they have to give you the freedom and I was very lucky I had a free creative hand from Om Raut (director) because he believed in my vision and what I was trying to do. Ajay Devgan was the producer of the film and he had complete faith in me. Secondly, for me, like I said opulence isn’t the zenith of creativity. In fact, as Coco Chanel said in fashion, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” It’s about where to stop, how to stop and what needs to be highlighted. And, I’ve always been a student of history, craft, fashion history as well and this is the era with no photography. If it’s a painting, it’s an interpretation, if it’s a sculpture, it’s an interpretation. So, it’s up to you, how you want to take it forward. Also, there’s a misconception, that if it’s a period film, it’ll be over the top, which is not true. Look at Gandhi, done by the legendary Bhanu Athaiya, for which she won an Academy Award. According to me, the challenge as a costume designer is to make the audience step into the world of the film and stay put there during the duration of the film. So in turn, the actors we know and love feel the character they are embodying and for that, you don’t need to glitter them in stardust.”
ELLE: What are the next projects in terms of films you are working on?
NB: “Tanhaji was my first Hindi film. Before this, I’ve done two Marathi films which were very well appreciated and well received. And they got me the state award and the Zee Award. So, post-Tanhaji, I’ve again collaborated with the same director, Om Raut, and we just finished shooting for AadiPurush which is a very eagerly awaited, re-telling of the Ramayan. It stars Prabhas, Kriti Sanon and Saif Ali Khan. Again, it’s a cinematic universe which is spectacular and majestic. It’s the first time I’ve worked on a project where there are VFX characters and we are designing costumes for VFX Characters, which is unreal and unheard of.
ELLE: In terms of your label, what can we see next?
NB: “In terms of the label, it’s been a full house. As disturbing and tragic as COVID was, it gave everybody a pause because priorities were way different and we also realised there’s a growing demand and appreciation of the work that I do across the world it was not necessarily available everywhere. So, we went online like a lot of fashion labels did during the lockdown and now we ship Internationally, so that’s been wonderful. Plus, we might be launching Menswear on a bigger note in the coming season, which should be exciting. We are also planning to launch a more moderately priced line. There’s a lot of balls juggling here and there so not a free moment, but I’m not complaining.”
For more on fashion history, read here.