After much controversy over the timing of its release, Prime Minister Modi’s biopic eventually made it to Indian cinemas on May 24th – one day after the declaration of the Lok Sabha elections. The Election Commission had pulled its release date, citing the electoral code of conduct, which ensured the production was a hot discussion topic during the elections. However, the film has another interesting story to it, which is that of its lead costume designer: Chandrakant Sonawane.
Fashion designing as a profession was unheard of where Chandrakant grew up, in the village of Bhagwan Nagar, located more than 400 km east of Mumbai, India’s financial capital. Yet, after reading an article written by Bhanu Athaiya, the renowned Bollywood costume designer who was the first Indian to win an Academy Award for her 1982 film Gandhi, he was enamoured by the profession. “I did not even know what the profession meant, or which education I needed to pursue it. But the word stuck with me as I grew up. Considering the lack of education in our village, I could turn to nobody for help,” he says.
However, as luck would have it, while visiting his relatives in Ahmednagar, he came across a neighbour who was already researching about college options for the same course. “I decided to tag along with her and soon realised that it would be an uphill task for me to pursue the course considering the educational expenses involved,” says Chandrakant.
Hailing from a poor farming family, necessities like electricity were also a luxury for them. Naturally when he shared his ambitions with his family, he received only negative responses. “My father wanted me to be a farm hand and believed that education would land me nowhere. The fees, the educational material - even expenses for something as basic as notebooks and pens were unaffordable for us, forget about staying in a bigger city,” says the costume designer, who is now an established name in the Indian film industry.
To sponsor his education, Chandrakant decided to sell off the small piece of land which was registered under his name. “I used this money very sparingly during my education. Moreover, the college and the professors where I studied were very co-operative,” he says.
Historic epic on Bajirao Mastani was his ticket to big budget films.
With no big-ticket Bollywood movie to his credit, bagging a magnum opus like Bajirao Mastani, which had a budget of Rs 145 crores and required him to create larger than life royal silhouettes was a distant dream for Chandrakant. His only experience designing for a high budget film prior to this project was the work he did as an assistant for Maxima Basu - an Indian fashion designer and assistant director of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Chandrakant had worked with her while she was designing for the film Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a prominent name in the Bollywood film industry.
So how did he crack this larger than life film, which narrated the love story of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao (a renowned royal in Indian history) and his second wife Mastani (who some referred to as his concubine) especially since the lead designer for the film was as good as finalized?
“I got an opportunity to make a presentation,” Chandrakant says. Although he was granted merely half an hour, the movie’s director was impressed with the 120 sketches of looks he had created for the characters, including the three leads - Peshwa Bajirao a brave general of the Maratha empire in India, his first wife Kashibai and his second wife Mastani. This meeting, he says, went on for more than five hours and he was asked to create live silhouettes for ten different characters overnight.
“From seeking help from all the people I know, to visiting lanes and shops known for period costumes, I spent a sleepless night to complete the task. My efforts paid off and I bagged my first big budget Bollywood film as a lead costume designer,” says Chandrakant.
Padmaavat was soon to follow
After the success of Bajirao Mastani, there was no looking back for him. He was also the lead designer for Padmaavat, a 2018 film with a production budget of $31 million. Its box office take was INR 5.84 billion.
The designer has many fond memories of working on this film. Sharing an interesting fact about the costumes for this film, Chandrakant recalls that he kept yards of cloth buried under ground – until they were full of fungus.
“Back in the era depicted in the film, there were no artificial dyes or synthetics available. But for the song ‘Khali Bali’ we wanted earthy tones. The cloth full of extricated fungus and coloured with natural dyes like turmeric gave it authenticity of look and feel from that era,” he says.
It is this willingness of going that extra mile for the perfect look which impresses the PM Modi biopic director Omung Kumar. “I have worked with Chandrakant on the film Bhoomi before. A similarity between both these films is that they are very character centric. Thus, authenticity, was of prime importance,” he says.
Kumar further adds that for the 2019 biopic, proving his track record, Chandrakant was able to keep many nuances in mind when he made a highly detailed presentation. He had even gone to the state of Gujarat to draw references on the silhouettes of the region for his research.
“He went through the pictorial and video archives to get a detailed vision of the place and the life history of PM Modi. Even the smallest things were addressed in the presentation and look tests of the film, right from the texture of his clothes, our Prime Minister wearing his watch with the dial facing down, to wearing that black thread on his hand,” Kumar said.
Chandrakant is currently working as the lead costume designer for the upcoming film Housefull 4.