‘We Believe In Homegrown Brands & Sustainable Fashion’ Gunpreet Kaur & Deepali Singh, Costume Designers For Screen

"There is a story and a vision which makes us gravitate towards cinema. Even as we worked as assistants on ads, we realised that cinema was our true calling," say Gunpreet Kaur Mann and Deepali Singh Raseen.

The Railway Men. Mili. Cuttputli. The Diplomat. Bade Miyan Chote Miyan. And more…

Let me introduce to you the talented designer duo who have worked on these, and can be considered today’s upcoming costume designers for the screen. Gunpreet Kaur Mann and Deepali Singh.

Gunpreet Kaur Mann and Deepali Singh came from different backgrounds and met up

Having studied at NIFT, Gunpreet Kaur Mann sent her portfolio out to several designers. Her first gig was as an assistant stylist with Manoshi and Rushi, who also happen to be a designer duo. She worked on an ad film starring Saif Ali Khan and eventually landed a full time job with designer Vikram Phadnis. Years of experience as assistant costume designer followed, which eventually led her to getting a break.

Deepali Singh didn’t know anyone in the industry in the initial stages. She worked as an assistant director on small projects here and there. One day, she was presented with an offer to work on a Marathi film with designer Shiraz Siddique. Many offers in costume designing ensued which is when she realised that costumes were her true calling.

With Amitabh Bachchan on the set of Thugs of Hindostan

The two of them met each other as assistant costume designers in 2015 on the sets of the infamous film Thugs of Hindostan. Since the project went on for nearly three years, they had ample time to establish a strong friendship and work rapport. The desire to venture into projects as a duo followed very organically. It was only a year and a half into seeking out projects as independent designers that they landed Cuttputlli.

I bring to you the journey of a rather dynamic duo of designers who have carved a niche for themselves in spite of all the hurdles that came their way. Driven solely by passion and an intolerance of monotony, they worked their way up the ladder, presenting the industry with an otherwise uncommon united front.

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Was Bollywood always the plan?

What piqued your interest in costume designing? Was this always the plan?

Deepali: There was absolutely no plan if you ask me. I just ended up doing a degree in commerce but somewhere deep down I always knew that Bollywood was my true calling. In fact, I would even tell my mother that I wanted to work for films, though which aspect of cinema I wanted to work on was unclear back then. It has been a journey. I started off at a channel in Delhi and then came to Bombay and worked in direction, eventually making it into costumes. It worked very well for me, but I don’t really have an educational background per se.

Gunpreet: Both of us have completely different stories, but one thing that we do have in common is the fact that both of us were keen on doing something related to films. I remember watching the movie ‘Rangeela’ when I was in school. It was only after watching the film that I realised that costume designing was an aspect of cinema. From that very moment, I knew I wanted to work as a costume designer. I studied from NIFT Gandhinagar and Parsons NY. It was all fashion, fashion and more fashion for me and thankfully, by the grace of God, we ended up living the dream.

While a film is being crafted, at what point are you roped in?

Deepali: Once the script and director are locked, and pre-production is in swing, they start employing their teams. There is a costume team, a direction team, a camera crew and so on. It is at that point during the making of a film that they actually come to us and start the process.

Deciding upon the colour and design palette of a production

In the film ‘Mili’, you dressed Jahnvi Kapoor in simple kurtas dyed primarily pink, yellow and bright blue in addition to her uniform which was bright red. However, in ‘The Railwaymen’, the prevalence of more subtle blues, greys, browns and greens was seen. What effect do the different hues, prints and accessories that you design have on the mood of the scenes?

Gunpreet: Colours play a very important role when we are designing a wardrobe for an actor. So, like you mentioned, in ‘Mili’, she is in pastel colours. If you notice, while she is wearing these clothes, she is in a very happy zone. There are these montages where she is meeting this boy, she is very happy, she wants to live her dream. We wanted the colours to reflect the light and happy tone.

With Jahnavi Kapoor on the set of Good Luck Jerry

Whereas in ‘The Railwaymen’, the tone is different. We have a colour palette pertaining to the mood of a scene. In ‘The Railwaymen’, we had a lot of meetings with the director and the DOP wherein certain colours were picked out and we sort of stayed in that zone. We wanted to capture the essence of those scenes.

Deepali: Actually, the initial meetings revolve around locking a colour palette. It is only when that is locked that we go into the silhouettes and designs. The DOPs, the costume and production designers are all involved to ensure that there is no clash in palette.

The Railway Men

How do you balance the actor’s vision with the overall aesthetic of the production while simultaneously adhering to the director’s vision?

Deepali: There are actually a lot of meetings that take place. A lot of discussions, involving all pertinent members of the team happen and generally, the actors are in sync with their character. Of course, if an actor approaches us and says that a particular colour doesn’t suit them or something along those lines, we take that into account.

A still from Mili

Gunpreet: Also, from our end we try as much as we can, because in terms of costume we have that kind of an understanding of what colours would work for a particular actor, for a particular skin tone, etc. We come up with colours that we think would work and then like she said, the director will tell us about their vision. We try to take everyone’s feedback to ensure that the entire team is happy.

Bringing their personal aesthetic sense into their work

Considering your impressive body of work, what is it that you do differently from other costume designers?

Deepali: Our united front aside, we present the industry with an amalgamation of rustic Indian prints and modern costumes influenced by the metropolitan cities that we currently live and work in. I grew up in Meerut and proceeded to study in Delhi. As someone who is extremely ‘desi’ at heart, I love my Indian block prints. On the regular, you will be able to find me sporting block print kurtis and scarves that I source from my travel around the country or from Indi brand. I try and infuse my love for such prints, textures and weaves into the costumes that we design for the characters in our films.

Working with masterji to bring their vision into reality

Gunpreet: During my education, I got the opportunity to learn and understand various Indian crafts, weaves, dyeing techniques and embroideries. This being an area of interest for me as well, has ensured that we integrate these elements into our films whenever aesthetically possible. For example, the film ‘Cuttputlli’ was set in Himachal Pradesh. So, we contacted a local vendor from that region and sourced local authentic kottis, caps and shawls from them. Other than that, I would like to believe that both of us are very dedicated to what we do. So, the moment we are on board for a film, I believe that the insane amount of research we do also sets us apart. If the character in the film comes from a certain type of family, or say the character comes from a specific city, we look for places where we can weave those aspects of the character into the costume without making it very obvious. We put our heart and sole into research.

Deepali: Sometimes it even gets too intense. At the end of the day, it is cinema. So, one must take cinematic liberty. Sometimes the directors even ask us to come out of our research, because we do too much of it!

With the resurgence of Indian prints like Bandhni, Ajrakhand Kalamkari, do you see a shift in trend among designers in the industry?

Gunpreet: Honestly, when it comes to films, I feel like these elements are always there. I don’t know if everyone notices it, but those who have an eye for these prints probably do. In terms of everyday fashion, they certainly go and come. However, they never disappear from the cinematic universe.

Sustainable practices

Do you believe in recycling and reusing elements of costumes? If so, how do you implement this in your projects?

Checking out old costumes to recycle

Gunpreet: Productions generally have an inventory of costumes which were used in previous films. So, we ask them for the inventory and look for costumes worn by certain actors which didn’t end up becoming iconic pieces of clothing. We try to pull all of those pieces out and reuse them. We don’t give it to main actors where it would really come to notice. However, there are a lot of background characters which are passing, there are secondary and tertiary characters. We try to clothe them in those pieces so that we don’t add on to the huge amount of wastage generated by the fashion industry.

Deepali: Both of us are big fans of home-grown brands. We try and get in touch with them, avoiding fast fashion. Home-grown brands also generally have a USP which we like to highlight.

Sexism at work?

Considering the ubiquity of sexism, I am sure you guys would have experienced a lot of it. If comfortable, do you mind sharing a few such anecdotes with us? Also, when and how did you get your break in spite of these hurdles?

Gunpreet: Together, Deepali and I have not really faced this. We approach our work in a way that doesn’t leave room for sexism.

In my younger days though, I did face this at certain points in some ways. Men, who were at the same level as me, were given more weightage than I was. However, I feel the way I did overcome this at all those points was through my work. In all of these incidents, the same thing happened. As days passed and people noticed the kind of work and experience Ibrought to the table, I was able to change their opinion in my favour. I have never had to boil my blood over this. Any time I noticed this, I was able to put a strong foot forward and deliver good work, that was enough to quieten them. And now with years of experience, I am able to come across as stronger, put my point forward and make them be heard & respected.

Having said that, I do believe that our industry has a lot of women working behind the scenes who are absolutely brilliant at what they do. They are able to sustain these positions because they are able to deliver excellent work irrespective of their gender.

Deepali: I do feel, that it is not about being a man or a woman, it’s about how you carry yourself. I’ve seen strong woman being given tons of respect and meek men being suppressed or not taken seriously. So, I do feel very strongly that if you are confident in your work & yourself, irrespective of being a man or a woman, your word will be given importance.

The workdays and challenges

Could you walk us through who comprise your team?

With the team

Absolutely! Our team is our backbone and we would be nothing without them. We have been fortunate enough to always find some of the most dedicated members. Our team usually comprises a wardrobe supervisor, who is responsible for all the planning and execution along with us. This position serves as a link between us and the production and direction teams. Then, we have our senior costume assistants, junior costume assistants and interns. We also have a dressmen team and shoot tailors. The number of assistants and dressmendepends on the scale of the project. During the pre-production stage, we have a team of tailors, embroiderers and fabrication vendors as well.

Having worked on both, could you walk us through the difference between working on a TV commercial as opposed to working on a movie?

Deepali: Cinema is more story-driven. They have a motive, a story, they want to convey something. You connect with the characters and become one with the film while working on it. Ads are 30 seconds long even though a lot of work goes into them as well. The entire process of shooting a commercial takes ten days tops. There are people who dedicate their lives to TV and ads. So, it is actually a very personal choice. But, for us, we are into films since there is a story and a vision which makes us gravitate towards cinema. Even as we worked as assistants on ads, we realised that cinema was our true calling.

Are there any challenges specific to your profession that you would like to share?

Gunpreet: Everyday is a new challenge!

Deepali: The industry is so uncertain and so project-based. You are meeting new people every day! You can’t even book your tickets in advance. Even if you know that a shoot is going to happen in say February or March, you cannot book tickets for April because something will happen in February and the shoot will get postponed. That is probably the biggest disadvantage. Another thing is, since it is a project-based profession, you don’t get a monthly salary. Sometimes you make a lot of money and sometimes you don’t. The uncertainty of the film industry is something that takes a toll on us.

But I would say that is a good thing, especially for a person like me. When I used to work at a corporate office, the monotony got to me. The film industry wouldn’t work for people who prefer to have an organised lifestyle though.

Gunpreet: We do this thing called a costume breakdown wherein we see how many costumes can be allotted to a character keeping the scene in mind. Suddenly, the next day we get a revised script with a completely different scene! Then, we are forced to rework on it. While working on ‘The Railwaymen’ there was an outfit for which the director’s requirement was that when we put water on the outfit, it should just slide down from the fabric. This was discussed late at night, and the costume was required to be ready by the next afternoon. I remember our entire team going crazy, running around, looking for the perfect fabric! At the end of it all, we are very resilient. If we know we have to do it, we will do it!

Deepali: Again, it is a creative process! You have always got to be on your toes and you are never done! Even in ‘The Railwaymen’, we were doing trials till the very last day.

Some quick, rapid fire questions

Most challenging assignment till date?

The Railwaymen

A project that you wish you had been a part of in the past?

We want to be a part of romcom projects! ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani’ to name one!

An outfit you deem overrated?

Latest trends are overrated! This is because people follow them blindly without taking into account whether the trend actually suits them or not.

A designer or label that you draw inspiration from?

Manish Malhotra! We have also worked with Rushi and Manoshi, who have worked on projects such as ‘Queen’, ‘PK’, ‘Shamshera’ etc, and are always inspired by them.

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shreya krishnan

An engineering student with a thing for writing, I hope to become a force to reckon with in the world of media and journalism someday read more...

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