Nalini Sriram
Interviewer : Daya Kingston | Coordination : Venkatesh | Camera : Balaji | Text : Daya Kingston
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Ace designer Nalini Sriram has Kollywood dancing to her designs. The designer who has dressed up the biggest stars and directors in the industry opens up on what makes her tick and her up-close experiences with them.

Did you have any formal training in fashion design?

No formal training. I came into it just by accident. I graduated in English Literature and also post-graduated in the subject. There was an opportunity to get into it and bang I just got into it.

Tell us about your debut film Roja

I was young and I did not know the job. I just got into it because they were friends and they asked me to do it. I just felt that I had an eye for color and detail and started this very casually. I did not even realize it was a profession. I used to freelance as a copywriter and then kind of did this as a great experience. I didn’t think it would lead me to where it has led me today.

How was it working with director Mani Ratnam?

I have done 3 films with him and it was a great experience specially to start off to green light my career. I had absolutely no background so I had to learn everything the hard way, which meant that the director and actors had to be more patient with me. If I had to work backwards, I think now, it’s impossible to come into this profession with the skills I had. It needs more professionalism. I learnt through trial and error. I somehow muddled my way through.

What kind of research do you do?

To call it research is giving too much weightage to it. There are backgrounds we check when the character is playing something other than what we normally see in our lives. However, I have not sat down with magazines or researched on the net. It’s not like researching for say a period film that requires constant study.

How do you strike the balance between fashion and character?

It’s a tightrope. It’s not like we always do everything that’s fashionable. Sometimes fashion does not lend itself to practicality. You can work the ramp but if one has to dance for 3 days in an outfit, you have to think differently yet bring in the polish or style of fashion. It’s tough! We have to figure out whether it will work in different lights, rain or sun.

Do you find people wear the designs you create onscreen?

I am fairly certain people are wearing things once they see a film. A few years ago I went into a retail store in Pondy Bazar and we were looking for saris for something. I came across polyester saris called Titanic saris. That was my first experience of how these things filter down to common life. Nobody wore a sari in the Titanic nor anything resembling this sari but the name has caught on so quickly that they think name alone is enough to sell. Sometime ago, Chandramukhi saris were the rage. Everybody is still wearing them. I don’t know if what I have done has come into the market place but am positive it has.

How is your experience working with director Gautham Menon?

I think Gautham has in recent years become one of my favorite directors because of the freedom he gives his technicians. Normally, we would discuss the script and he would indicate what he had in mind and we would do a trial and if it works he would let us handle it. We would take the progression of the costumes and the character to where it needs to go. What is important is the trust he has in his technicians and this translates to professional liberty you can take. So you have greater responsibility which comes with the freedom and so I work harder and want to do my best.

How was it working for the period portion of VA?

It was not like a film form the 13th century. We saw a lot of old films of that time. We experimented a lot for Simran and it was more a gut feeling, more of what people remembered. I still have the pictures Gautham sent of his parents at that time, we followed the glasses, the collar, and the kind of saris his mother wore. It was more personal, everyone looked at their personal album and wanted to figure who was wearing what. We did not want it to be too cinematic and it was fun.

How did you feel about the response to VTV costumes?

I am very happy and thrilled. I have never had that kind of response in the past 18 years of working in the industry. The costume aspect became a talking point. We started working based on how real people look, what would a Syrian Christian girl in a conservative family wear. What would Simbu’s character be wearing? Middle class, not earning money living off his father. What do we know of youngsters of that age who are hanging around, would they repeat costumes?

For Trisha and Simbhu we decided to break what they looked like in other films, we wanted a fresh new look and a natural look. Would a girl earning 25000 a month dress in more stylish saris? Would she change jewellery in every scene? Would she match her slippers to her clothes? There was thought that went into it. What looks casual on screen was not really casual to work with, we went with the flow. After the first rush, we knew we were on the right track, the cotton saris were working, Simbhu looked fantastic, and I was so surprised with his look! I had a great experience then and even after the film was released, for the first time in my career!

In a flashy industry, how did you convince directors about a simple, elegant look?

I have done the sequins, beads things too. However, I have been lucky with the fantastic directors and artistes. Mani Ratnam, Dharani, Gautham. Palaniappan. Rajeev Menon - people with their own sense of aesthetics which has coincided with mine. Therefore the films I have worked with them, I am very proud of. They let me flow with what I thought was right, what I thought worked for the character using natural fabrics, using subtle colors, not going cinematic. Parallely, I have also done films that required overdoing. I have done flashy colors, sequined fabrics. The thing is to find the balance between what your heart wants and what you have to stay with. If you get a chance to do 1 film per year that appeals to your aesthetics you are lucky.

Your experience of Asal

It was fun. Saran is somebody I really like personally, a man with a very calm center as a director. I have done some very nice projects for him like Jay Jay, Gemini; these are all for me memorable experiences. He is fine tuned to what will work on screen and has an element of popularity, yet not compromising on aesthetics. For instance, for Kiran’s character we had bright colors and sequins but he allowed me to do it aesthetically.

In Asal, he gave me very clear instructions on what he was looking for in Bhavana’s and Sameera’s characters. He told me the difference between the two and wanted this to come out in their costumes, body language, make-up, hair, in every way. If you look closely you will notice that we split the color palette between the two, this was the idea of the director and Yugi Sethu. Sameera was to have come from France and the costumes needed to speak that language, we bought brands, we hit bull’s eye.

Have you had clashes between 2 heroines in the same film?

When I have done 2 heroines films, it’s been very peaceful. Big example should be Kandukondein Kandukonden where I did both Aishwarya and Tabu and then in Asal both Bhavana and Sameera. I have never faced any problems; it really depends on the artistes. If they are confident with themselves it does not happen.

On working with Suriya

Suriya is someone who works harder on the costumes than I do! Normally he will do a lot of research; he would have even tried out many different ways of wearing a shirt. Normally, it’s a combination of his defining his own character and how we are defining it. For instance in Ghajini, a lot of what he wore was what he worked over, he thought he should wear some colors and we got it okayed from the director. Usually with his costumes it’s a lot of team work. He would have thought about the character a lot more than I would. We do listen to him whenever we work with him.

Suriya is someone who works

harder on the costumes than I do

How is it working for Tamannah?

I have done only one with her – Ayan. As far as Ayan is concerned, it was the whole film I was handling. Then everyone gets important, everyone has to be looked after and catered to, Jagan, Prabhu... You need that much more energy going. Some of the looks we created for Tamannah were very cool. In many, the direction was pointed by KV. Anand. The hippie look we generated for Tamannah in a song made her look very cute, The look throughout the film was that of a middle class girl who would wear unusual combinations – T-shirt and pavadai, formal shirt and wrap-around skirt. Just an ordinary girl caught in an extraordinary situation and we managed that.

Nayanthara’s costumes recently are quite similar. Any reason?

I don’t do all her films. In a sense, probably a smell of duplication comes from the kind of films you take up and characters you take up. If people have seen her in a certain kind of a look, they say that looks so good, why not we do something similar to that. So what happens is we come upon a kind of look that has worked for her and sometimes stay by that.

Vijay is ready to experiment, we

have tried new looks with him

How is it working for Vijay’s costumes?

Vijay hardly talks but when he gets going he is great fun. I have done 10 films with him. The first film was Pokkiri and I was afraid all the time. But it was Prabhu Deva’s show all the way. Vijay is ready to experiment, we have tried new looks with him in Pokkiri, Villu and Azhagiya Tamizh Magan but we try them out little by little. We won’t rush and create something totally contrary to what he was doing earlier, somewhere with the film; we have to keep to certain boundaries. Little experiments like getting him to wear wild shirts and different kinds of boots are fine. To Vijay comfort also matters a lot, we experiment only as long as the artiste is game. But he can surprise you, suddenly be game and in Pokkiri for instance he wore a full heavy Kavacham in a song and he danced with it, we were so surprised, it was cute. Or take the nadaswaram costume in Villu.

Which films are the best in your career?

With each director, I have one film that I feel strongly about and it’s changed my life. Bombay changed my life, it’s only after that I realized that this was the career path for me and I started doing outside productions for other people.

Kandukondein Kandukondein changed my life in a way I did not realize. It’s special to me because a cameraman who turned director can take your costumes to a level you simply cannot imagine. I saw the strong sense of aesthetics when Rajiv was directing the film, so many ordinary things were made to look so beautiful onscreen. It opened my eyes. Gilli with Dharani is one of my favorite films and a challenge as the hero and heroine are wearing the same clothes for half the film. Nothing can look boring but the film was taken that way. It was a fun team.

In Khakka Khakka, for the first time my costumes got noticed because it was such a makeover for Jyothika and Suriya. The contrast between what Jyotika had worn earlier and what she looked like in this film was obvious. I realized costumes could make that kind of impact in a film. It brought me in touch with Gautham as a director and we have stayed friends ever since.

On working for VTV

VTV the kind of a film where you did not even realize the strain of doing a film. It moved smoothly, no tension.

How do you handle last minute contingencies?

It happens day in and day out. We start a film thinking that we are prepared but there are many unexpected things that happen. Reshuffling of dates and cancellation - suddenly a Canadian visa gets sanctioned and a song sequence is to happen there. If you have to work in the industry you have to be prepared to handle chaos, last minute changes and think on your feet.

Any recent incident you handled?

On every film this happens. Even 5 days ago we had a party sequence, we knew it was coming but not confirmed, we scurried around and put it together. Every designer faces this.

What are the best costumes you have done?

Manisha’s in Kannalaney, Aishwarya’s white one in Kandukonden Kandukonden. In Khaaka Khaaka we did a white sari with a red print for Jyothika that’s not in the film but that image stays in my head. Vijay’s costumes - for the foreign songs in Pokkiri, we gave him printed flowered shirts with blazers. We felt it was something new and very young. For the first time we tried giving Nayanthara long gowns in Satyam, for the song in Turkey. We did a turquoise blue shot against a completely white background. I can’t forget that image of her in the blue flowing gown. I had fun designing Rajini’s Egyptian king costume in Kuselan and watching both Rajini and Nayantara performing in the Egyptian costumes.

I had fun designing Rajini’s

Egyptian king costume in


What are your current projects?

We are finishing Kaavalan and one schedule of Velayudam. We are doing some background work for VTV Hindi and Nadunisi Naigal is almost coming to an end.

What is your dream?

I am still waiting for a director to call me for a period film. Shobana and Harikesh without whom I cannot take credit for my work are dying to do so too. I am hoping before this time next year somebody calls me for it, that’s my dream.

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