Threading into history

Threading into history

This young designer is going places, the latest being London. Well, Chennai-based Poornima Ramaswamy has just bagged Film Fest International-London’s Best Costume Designer award for the Tamil period film Paradesi, that tells the heart-wrenching story of enslaved tea plantation workers in pre-Independent India. A few months ago, her work for the same film had won her the National Film Award for Costume Design. Incidentally, Paradesi happened to be Poornima’s debut work.

“It was Bala sir’s clear brief that made it possible,” Poornima says, obviously grateful to Paradesi’s talented director Bala. She is also thankful to Paradesi’s cinematographer Chezhian Ra. “He gave me a lot of feedback on what worked on screen,” she adds.
Being set in poverty-stricken, pre-Independent rural India meant that Paradesi offered very little room for manoeuvring and less margin for error with regards to costumes, as most of these people had just two or three sets of clothes to wear day in and out. But Poornima managed to bring off the costumes seamlessly, thanks to critical research into the dressing style that prevailed then. “Castes and communities were clearly segregated by clothes and jewellery and even hair styles then. Thankfully, today, we don’t dress according to caste,” remarks Poornima.

The fabric of pathos

For Paradesi, Poornima used dark tones to highlight the poverty and pathos that the film narrates. Handloom fabric was sourced, and unstitched garments were fashioned as was the manner of dressing then. To bring out the ragged and much-used look, Poornima even had lorries driven over the clothes! For the few accessories sported by the people in the film, Poornima had them polished dark and copper-sprayed to bring forth a weathered look.

Little by little, the characters in the film came to life — Rasa (Adharvaa) the young protagonist of the film in his dhoti and sleeveless jacket pulled together with thin cloth ropes; Angamma (Vedhika), the village girl who falls for him in her simple half-sari; the numerous tea planter-slaves with their jagged dhotis; the British plantation manager; the newly Christian-converted Indian doctor from Madras and his English wife…and the others in the film.

“The weather was a big challenge, as the clothes had to be sun-bleached to arrive at the natural look of the fabric that has been used repeatedly. We had to work against rains that the hills saw often, Paradesi being set in tea plantations in the hills,” remarks Poornima.

A learning experience

Working with director Bala has been an invaluable experience, Poornima avers. “I was no good at drawing and so I couldn’t get into the National Institute of Fashion Technology. But I loved working with fabric, and I was surrounded by all kinds of fabric right from childhood,” shares a modest Poornima, who comes from the textile chain Naidu Hall family.

“I could say that I learnt the elements of film costume designing from Bala sir,” she says. One of those lessons happens to be understanding that the key to good costume design is in getting the characters to stand out in the film, not the clothes. “So, rather than giving the lead characters clothes that stood out, we differentiated them by subtle changes, through the use of a higher collar or some such subtle touch,” Poornima shares. The only flaw raised by critics is the fact that there was no concept of a ‘half-sari’ then, as sported by the film’s heroine Thangamma. “That question had come up,” Poornima concedes, but adds, “But we decided to take a little creative liberty, as giving her a sari would have made her look old and clash with the storyline.”

When she eventually saw the completed film, was Poornima satisfied by the output? “Nothing registered. The only thought that ran in my mind was that I should not let down Bala sir, who had given a novice like me such an opportunity,” Poornima reminisces. Paradesi has brought her compliments, awards, and even an international project — costume designing for Mon Spouse by French director Michelle Spinosa, apart from Tamil films like Nan Than Shiva directed by Paneerselvam and Vai Raja Vai directed by Aishwarya Dhanush.

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