Niharika Khan feels lucky when she gets a few months to research the looks for a film – usually, it’s just weeks before shooting is to begin. In fact, she says she also got into costume design by luck – she was hired for Khoya Khoya Chand (2007) because she claims she came cheaper than her famous brother Arjun Bhasin. But going by her track record with hits such as Band Baaja Baaraat, Delhi Belly, Rock On!!, Kai Po Che, and The Dirty Picture (for which she won a National Award), she seems to be living out the Coleman Cox quote: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
Born in Jamshedpur and brought up in Lawrence School, Sanawar, Niharika moved to Mumbai to study at the prestigious Xavier’s College. She later did her post-graduation in HR management and public relations from Seattle, US. “Then I got bored of all that and did a silver-smithy course and began making jewellery,” she says. In what seems like another lifetime, she joined Tanishq and helped them open up stores all over the country.
Now the mother of two adolescents, both of whom also study in a boarding school like she did, Niharika found the siren call of Bollywood irresistible. “Khoya Khoya Chand was period styling, all about 1960s Mumbai. It was rooted in culture. As my first stint in films, it was quite overwhelming but then I did a whole range of films after that,” she says. Bombay Velvet was by far the largest production she ever worked on. “People are shocked when they hear the budget I got – they ask me, ‘How did you manage with just that much?’ See, that’s the thing with period films. You have to make it amazing but you also have to work within your budget parameters,” she explains.
What was your fashion vision for the characters in ‘Bombay Velvet’? How different was it from ‘The Dirty Picture’?
It was about top-notch politicians, the gangster style of the 1960s, glamour and glitz. In ‘The Dirty Picture’, though it was set around the same period, we had to show the grime of Mumbai and the film industry. In ‘Bombay Velvet’, we had to show the underbelly by masking it. So there was a difference.
When Khambatta (played by Karan Johar) makes an appearance, for instance, it is instantly recognizable as very ‘gangster’, Parsi and western in feel. Johnnie (played by Ranbir Kapoor) always wants to be a ‘big shot’; he wants to be like Khambatta. So he wears well-fitted western suits. His friend Chimman, however, doesn’t want to be a big shot so he doesn’t dress as sharply though they’re in the same field.
When it came to the ladies, Anurag (Kashyap, the filmmaker) wanted to show Anushka Sharma’s strength of character versus Raveena Tandon’s flamboyance. So Raveena gets all these elaborate gowns with headgear, which Anushka doesn’t.
Did you have more of a creative license in this film compared with the other period films you worked on?
It appears that way but it’s not really. We did all the research to stick to the decade we were working with. If we’d dressed the characters in Indian clothes, you could have immediately recognised what decade we were talking about. But these characters had a western influence in their lives, so they are always dressed differently from the common man of the time. So it appears more ‘modern’ than its age.
But if you look closely, you can see the finer details. When Anushka is singing on stage, the ladies in the audience wear Indian clothes with their hair in bouffants. It has to believable; we didn’t take that much of a creative license as you may think.
You shot in Sri Lanka with the shoot in two phases. How did that work out? Did you have to make several copies of each outfit?
It was hard for sure, the monsoon really screwed us. Our first lot of clothes was packed up in crates and they were all ruined. The green dress Anushka wore was also spoilt – we had to re-do it for the rest of the shots. Yes, we had copies made of some of the characters’ outfits. I was not only dressing the stars but also the extras and the crowds – so you can imagine the scale of outfits that were being carried around on every trip.
The stage garments for Anushka and Raveena were feasts for the eyes. Who made them?
Designers such as Urvashi Joneja, Babita Malkani, Swapnil Shinde and Varun Bahl. Each outfit cost between Rs 45000 to Rs 1.5 lakhs. They were hardly going to be seen on screen for a few seconds, so I pleaded and bullied the designers into doing everything at cost price.
How big was your team and how long did it take to get the costumes ready?
The entire shoot took over 1 and a half years, off and on. We started out with a team of 7 but within the first week, we realized it was not going to be enough. So we hired more and eventually there were 12 of us on the sets every day.
You lost a lot of weight last year; how did you manage that?
Yes, I lost 22 kg over 2 years. It started on the sets of ‘Faltu’. That’s when I started Crossfit and lost some 10 kg in a go. Then ‘Kai Po Che’ happened, and I worked with Amit Sadh (one of the lead actors). He had read up about thyroidism, which is what I had, and he gave me a very cool diet. He understood that I was never crazy about losing weight but about being fit and he actually gave me a diet that was high on protein and zinc. I started dropping weight almost effortlessly. It’s very encouraging when that happens. But I’d say my biggest achievement is not in losing weight but in keeping it off.
Do you dress differently now that you’re slimmer? Has your style statement changed?
Yes, there is a difference. One should always dress according to one’s body type and I now dress like a thinner person. My overall style statement is still casual and fun, though. I don’t have a problem repeating clothes; I think clothes are meant to be worn well and I don’t throw them out after one or two uses just because someone has seen me in something.
What’s your most cherished fashion possession?
My first little black dress. I found it in London while on a shoot and a friend of mine then gifted it to me. I’m usually anti-trends but this fits me very well and I feel great about it.