To style the birth of a nation is no small feat, particularly when it has been as painstakingly envisaged as the film version of Salman Rushdie’s allegorical tale of Indian partition Midnight’s Children, released on December 26 in the UK.
“To bring Salman’s words to visuals was a very tough task,” admits Dolly Ahluwalia, one of two seasoned costume designers who worked on the film. Ahluwalia was charged with creating more than 600 costumes for Rushdie’s 130-page script, which tells the story of two Indian children, Saleem Sinai, the illegitimate son of a poor Hindu woman, and Shiva, the son of wealthy Muslims, both born at the stroke of midnight on the date of India’s independence – August 15 1947 – and switched in their cribs.
“It was a journey from 1917 to 1974, so that meant that, from the material to the design, every period had to look different,” Ahluwalia tells me by phone from India, where the film’s traditional dress was manufactured. “Chinese linen that came into vogue during that time, it doesn’t exist any more. Getting the right look of the fabric was a struggle,” she adds.
To represent India’s inception, Ahluwalia created garments in “life-signifying” colours, as seen in one spectacular “victory” scene featuring more than 3,000 dancing extras (and turban-wearing snake charmers), who wear blood red saris, deep sky-blue cholis and sea-green dupattas. Plain muslin saris were sourced from Rajasthan, and subsequently hand-printed and dyed, among them a vivid turquoise and white leheria, a traditional Rajasthani striped-print material that was the style for Muslims during the pre-partition era, worn by Saleem’s lover Parvati.
The main female characters – three sisters, Emerald, Jamila and Alia, known as “Teen Batti” (three bright lights) – model some of the most impressive creations. The sisters’ shalwar kameez are printed in variations of blue – the hue that links them as part of the same family – but Ahluwalia altered the way fabrics fell and played with necklines to reflect each girl’s personality.
For example, the delicately layered blue muslin collarbone-grazing shalwar kameez worn by Emerald (Anita Majumdar) when first meeting General Zulfikar is finished with a shoulder-hugging peacock-blue wrap that adds to her allure so much that he declares his marriage intentions at first sight.
Stopping time altogether are the film’s wedding outfits designed by Ritu Kumar. A white handwoven chanderi silk cotton tunic with an angarkha cut full worn by Jamila (Soha Ali Khan) stands out among the vibrant three-piece bridal poshaks worn by her sisters, as does a particularly vivid emerald-green design worn by Emerald with a saffron-yellow dupatta, or veil, and split-skirt pyjama pant, amplified with metallic gold brocade trim.
The concept of class is expressed through the feet. Thus, the same leather-shod crescent-pointed shoes, known as mojaris, are worn by the bulk of the cast members, but modified to distinguish status via hand-stitched golden embroidery and faux-jewel beading. The shoes are actually “a trend in the Indian marketplace at the moment”, says Ahluwalia. Watch now, buy later.