Neeta Lulla has been Bollywood’s popular costume designer for over two decades, especially for historical films and costume dramas. Her designs were part for movies like Khuda Gawah, Chandni, Lamhe, Devdas and Jodhaa Akbar, and she has won both praise and awards for her projects.
Lulla’s last film from the Bollywood period was 2016 Mohenjo Daro by Ashutosh Gowariker, and she has recently returned with another film set. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi shows Kangana Rananut as the fiery and brave Queen Laxmibai of Jhansi from the 19th century. The cast for the January 25 publication, led by Kangana Ranaut, includes Jisshu Sengupta, Atul Kulkarni, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Ankita Lokhande in their feature film debut.
Lulla and her team spent over two months researching costumes, followed by four months of testing. “I had previously been approached by two other production houses,” Lulla told. “One was led by Sushmita Sen, the other one I can’t really remember. So I was not new to the subject. When Manikarnika approached me from the production team, I started working with a new perspective. “
Lulla began with the information in libraries and museums. “There are many visual references and historical documents that give us an idea of the Queen – what she looked like and how she dressed,” Lulla said. “There are paintings, illustrations and fabric patterns that give you a good impression of the royal clothing of the time. I have also worked on the script that will guide you through the different stages of the Queen’s life. “
It was a challenge to create designs for a warrior queen that had been immortalized in image references and texts. The designer used her experience as a drama specialist to determine the different looks of Laxmibai’s avatars. Laxmibai, or Manikarnika as she was known in her youth, is portrayed as a warrior, bride, queen, widow and finally as a revolutionary. Each step is marked by its own colour palette. We see Ranaut in an emerald green, nine meter long sari in one of the sequences. Green is the colour of abundance and property.
“I had the task to record the different moods of the figure, but also to give her figure a definition,” said Lulla. To create a sense of authenticity, Lulla used only natural dyes on hand-spun fabrics and lots of khadi, especially in the second half of the film. Here the color palette includes more subdued beige and ivory tones and becomes darker and gloomier, corresponding to the turmoil in the lives of the characters. When a part of Laxmibai’s life as queen is marked by joy and prosperity, which is reflected in the rich reds, oranges and greens, the tragedy that unfolds later is conveyed by a darker colouring.
Manikarnika in White Dress & Antique Jewellery
One of the outstanding images of the promotional material Ranaut has dressed in an Angrakha Kurta for the battlefield. “Most pictures and paintings show Maratha warriors dressed in white, gold and red, and so I wanted to dress Kangana,” Lulla said. The armor and vest that Ranaut wears in the war sequence is made of leather and was hand sewn by Lulla. The design is “strong and elegant,” Lulla noted, preferring to cut certain accessories and garments herself.
Apart from the clothes and colour palette, Lulla of Amrapali worked on the jewellery to give Laxmibai her distinctive look. Since Manikarnika was a Maratha princess before she was married to the royal family of Jhansi in central India, the jewellery she wears before her wedding is the way women of the upper caste and kings like the nose ring and the chushi wear. After her wedding, Laxmibai wears kundan and pearls with elaborate headgear, bracelets and necklaces, as the royal families of the time had access to this type of jewellery, Lulla said.
Manikarnika as a Bride
The elaborate planning was extended to the other characters of the film. For example, Jansi’s ruler Gangadhar Rao, played by Jisshu Sengupta, was an “understanding and sensitive king”, which is why he was given a softer palette. Lulla also played with the styles of the turban for the different male characters in harmony with their backstories and traits. Gangadhar Rao has structured jackets and suits, while the more reliable loyalists wear solid colours and robust, basic silhouettes.
Lulla finished college after the 12th standard and says that she has never been interested in conventional education or history. The costume designer has earned more than a hundred film music credits and believes that her coveted work in time dramas should be done in exotic worlds.
Kangana Ranau in Red Saree
“I’ve always believed in creating a look that carries my signature while paying attention to detail and authenticity,” Lulla said. “I like the process.” In Manikarnika, for example, Lulla has provided Ranaut’s clothes with her own little details. While Ranaut becomes from careless to royal to gloomy, a headdress remains a constant in her life. We are told that there are some more hidden clues to the inner life of the lively queen.
“Kangana has done an excellent job. She effortlessly wears the most elaborate and complex costumes and can immerse herself in the role she plays” Lulla noted. “When I saw the rushes, I had goose bumps.”
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