Designer Anju Modi and Deepika Padukone© Anju Modi, SLB Productions

Anju Modi Recommends Movies That Everyone Should See For Their Costume Design

Salva Mubarak
Senior Features Writer

Designer Anju Modi is turning introspective with her upcoming showcase at India Couture Week. Her collection ‘The Road Less Travelled’ has been inspired by the designer’s three decades in the industry, her travels across the country, and her mulling over questions about her identity as a human being and a designer.

“I’m taking things at my own pace now and I want to continue travelling and learning as I go,” she says.

Aside from being an ace fashion designer, Modi has used her creative chops for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic dramas like Ram Leela and Bajirao Mastani, when she turned costume designer for the director. Modi’s incredible work in transporting the audience to a different time period through her costumes earned her several awards too.

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In the midst of putting together a showcase for her collection and completing a thousand and one errands that are required to pull that off, the designer takes a break to chat with us about her collection, her work as a costume designer, and more. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…

HELLO!: How excited are you for the show to return to a physical format after two years?

Anju Modi: With the physical presentation, the excitement is clearly more. But at the same time, it’s much more challenging, because now that we’ve experienced a digital showcase, we’re looking to create a physical experience that would work for a digital space too.

H!: What are the merits of a physical runway show, as opposed to a virtual one?

AM: The physical side is much more tangible. While a digital vehicle is important in reaching out to a larger number of people very easily, somehow when you do a physical showcase, it’s much more exciting because it becomes a whole new experience. This is why, this time, we’re combining the two together by making it into an installation form where the audience would be moving and exploring the collection in a different way.

H!: Your inspiration for the collection, and the title, alludes to love for exploration and travel. Can you elaborate more on how you landed on this for inspiration for the collection?

AM: After completing 30 years of my career, including the two years we spent in lockdown because of the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’m doing, why I’m doing this, and who am I? All these questions have led me to think about what my impact as a human and a designer was on the ecology around me. I’ve mulled over my various travels over the years, across several Indian villages and remote areas, and arrived at this collection which is a culmination of my travels and my learnings over the years.

H!: In your own words, how far have you come as a designer ever since you established your brand and now?

AM: A designer is also an artist and artists are emotional beings. So whatever I have experienced as a person over these years, as a woman, as a mom, everything has affected my brand. Aside from this, I’ve always placed value in handicrafts, organic materials, and sustainability, and that has carried forward throughout all these years. I’ve also learned that, as a couturier, you don’t have to always have lots of embroidery and technique in your clothes. Sometimes simplicity is the best. It’s more of recognising the artistry of your own country and presenting it in a more comfortable and pleasing way.

H!: Your work as a costume designer for movies like Ram Leela (2013) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) has brought about a renaissance of costume design in Bollywood movies, in my opinion. Can you talk to us about your experience and the process behind it?

AM: I had to travel back hundreds of years in history to research the era and to actually get into the mindset of the people of the time. For Bajirao Mastani, I had to actually travel across Maharashtra to understand the costume of the time. Since there were no cameras in that era, the only records were in paintings, so it required extensive research. The artisans who are still practising historical handicraft techniques became my inspiration for the costumes as I got to learn a lot from them. You really cannot pinpoint what it was that touched the hearts of so many people, it is an intangible thing that could only come after a lot of research and actually travelling to all those places.

The way I approach costume design is from a well-researched and authentic point of view and I now find those costumes to be almost a reference point or templates for stylists who are designing costumes now. It’s a very proud moment for me and it makes me feel honoured to have had this opportunity where I could tap my own potential like this.

H!: When you watch movies and TV shows now, do you make notes of costume design and critique them?

AM: (Laughs) No, no! There are so many factors that one has to keep in mind while designing costumes, including time constraints, budget etc. so it really won’t be fair! While there are times when I find myself appreciating some costumes or wondering how they achieved that, I don’t watch anything with a critical mind.

H!: Can you recommend some movies everyone should see just for the costume design?

AM: Yes! I remember watching Anna Karenina (2012) and being very inspired by it and there’s The Last Samurai (2003). Even Troy (2004) got their costumes right. In the Indian context, I feel Mughal-e-Azam (1960) is a good example. I would have to say Jodha Akbar (2008) also did a good job. Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies, like Devdas (2002), have got a strong focus on costume design, along with the storylines. I’m not going to name my own (laughs) but those are also there.