They’ve Got The Look | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
December 04, 2020

They’ve Got The Look

Text by Nandini Khetan. Illustration by Aishwaryshree

A stylist finds lasting inspiration in the sophisticated costume design that gave life to the characters in the TV adaptation of ‘A Suitable Boy’, Vikram Seth’s sweeping novel set in post-Partition India

The moment the news about a TV adaptation of Vikram Seth’s much-applauded and relished novel A Suitable Boy buzzed through social media, I fished out my copy to revisit the characters. Fast-forward to the release of the six-episode miniseries that aired this October in India, and I was taken in by the portrayal of each character – from their personas to their on-point characterisations and, most importantly, the magnificent costumes – it was a power-packed watch.

While many praised director Mira Nair’s top-notch actors, I’m still contemplating the aesthetically pleasing sartorial landscape conceptualised by costume designer and industry veteran Arjun Bhasin. He delved into the paintings of Mark Rothko and Amrita Sher-Gil for inspiration and created a post-Independence wardrobe for the cast of this story about four elite Indian families and one mother’s determined quest to marry off her younger daughter.


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The first episode unfolds on-screen with women clad in vibrant saris and men in subtle, raw silk sherwanis at the traditional wedding of the female lead Lata Mehra’s (Tanya Maniktala) sister, Savita Kapoor (Rasika Dugal). The bride is adorned in an ivory-and-red brocade sari and delicate gold jewellery. It is a graceful and poised look that reflects her character while Lata’s sari is a bright shade of purple, a complement to her natural beauty and charmingly effervescent personality. The 19-year-old’s wardrobe reflects the typical young North Indian woman of her milieu in the ’50s: mismatched cotton salwar-kurtas with three-quarter sleeves and a dupatta, accessorised with a watch and nose pin, sometimes a thin belt, and hair tied into a braid. It’s a modest look as she talks about being a woman of the 20th century, captivated by poetry, literature and the dreamy university guy Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi). Kabir’s style, in contrast, is rather Western and progressive, much like his outlook. Loose-fitting silhouettes, high-waisted pants with sneakers, muted colour palettes and stoles wrapped around airy linen shirts. He rides around town on his bicycle as their love story unfurls, and Lata’s newfound, post-romance elegance sees her outfitted in mulmul, organza, Maheshwari silk and crepe de Chine saris. Floral prints, cap-sleeved and sleeveless blouses in colours like sage green, powder blue, butter and maize yellow also make an appearance. She sleeps in a Victorian-inspired lace nightdress, and there are glimpses of Maharani Gayatri Devi in her chiffon saris and sweetheart neckline blouses. And I appreciated how Bhasin’s textiles choices are often a juxtaposition of historical references, like the South Indian silk and brocade fabrics used for the Edwardian costumes in Lata’s university’s performance of a Shakespeare play.


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Her next love interest, poet Amit Chatterji (Mikhail Sen), has a British-influenced wardrobe that incorporates cravats, plaid fabrics and rich-looking suits in fresh hues like salmon pink and mint green as well as darker tones. He is also seen in the Bengali male wardrobe essential – a cotton kurta with relaxed pants, apt for his profession. The third “suitable boy” in Lata’s life is shoe manufacturer Haresh Khanna (Namit Das), chosen by her mother for his ambitious and straightforward personality. He walks proudly in his two-toned brogues and textured tan three-piece suits with striped shirts and printed ties, a briefcase by his side.


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The story highlights another burgeoning, albeit complicated relationship between Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter), the son of a politician, and the Muslim courtesan Saeeda Bai (Tabu). But I am not here to give spoilers as to their fate; I can instead speak about the intensity of their personalities, which is emphasised through Bhasin’s costume design. There are subtle shifts from one episode to another; Maan moves from striped and printed waistcoats paired with kurtas to sheer bandhgalas and collarless U-neck kurtas in muted tones, a vest visible underneath and an intricately embroidered or solid shawl draped casually around his chest and shoulders, his tousled curls matching his carefree personality. His older lover hides her enigmatic persona under layers of exquisite drapery as Bhasin works his magic, giving us only a glimpse of the real Begum Akhtar, even as she first bedazzles the crowd while singing soulfully in a blood-red sari with beaten metalwork and matching blouse, and a gold jhumar passa (hair jewellery) pinned onto a braided hairdo that is half-covered with the pallu. She continues to take centre stage in striking colours and silhouettes – magenta and emerald-green, anarkalis and ghararas. With a gajra or rose placed in her hair, she enraptures viewers with her kohl-rimmed eyes, bold red lips and tinkling jhumkas. As her character softens while falling deeply for her Daag Sahib (as she calls Maan), so does her colour palette, from bright to toned-down; and choice of fabrics, from heavily embellished to breezy and light.


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The most striking character, for me, is Meenakshi Mehra (Shahana Goswami), Lata’s unapologetic sister-in-law. Her fashion choices are equally daring, from low-cut blouses and cigarette pants under gauzy saris. Bhasin also dresses her in georgette, chiffon and tant saris (traditional Bengali handwoven cotton sari) with shankha pola (conch shell and coral bangles) to highlight her Bengali roots. Meenakshi’s risqué and “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” attitude aligns with her glamorous, Westernised ensembles and crescendoes when she commands a room with impressive tango moves, capped off by a bold wine lip and short hair pinned up at one side.

This series serves as an archive of a specific post-partition Indian wardrobe, where textiles, colours and textures are matched for the perfect marriage.


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