An epic in the making: Decoding the grandeur of  Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-I  

We talk to the film's costume designer Eka Lakhani and jewellery designer Pratiksha Prashant about the exquisite detailing behind the gorgeous looks 
PS-I looks
PS-I looks

Period drama stands out for their visual prowess. Their scale is larger than life — one where characters are heroic, the set is awe-inspiring, dance and music are spectacular and every aspect of filmmaking immerses one in a parallel world of imagination. Bringing one such enthralling vision to life, director Mani Ratnam’s epic drama Ponniyin Selvan-I hits theatres today. The magnum opus is a riveting tale of the majestic Chola empire of South India that boasts of being the longest-ruling dynasties in world history. It has a stellar pan-India ensemble cast of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Vikram, Trisha Krishnan, Jayam Ravi, Karthi Sivakumar, Sobhita Dhulipala, Aishwarya Lekshmi and many more.

A still from <em>PS-I</em>
A still from PS-I

The actors bask in the glory of traditional temple jewellery that stands out for its architectural beauty. Its motifs are seen in pieces such as waist belts, nosepins, necklaces, arm bands, armour and more. Moreover, the jewellery designers have used rubies and gold in the making of the pieces as they traced the Chola empire’s historical trade routes. The primary costumes for the film are made of traditional Kanjeevaram silk. Another interesting fact is that the costume designers have tried to replicate the process of natural dyeing in clothing that was used in the bygone era.

A still from the film
A still from the film

Those wondering about the look of characters might want to know that Hyderabad’s very own Kishandas and Co. were the jewellery designers for the film. The heritage brand that opened its doors in the 1870s, is helmed by jeweller Pratiksha Prashant. Over 50 artisans and several designers created the signature Chola-era jewellery. The movie’s costumes were brought to life by the very dependable Eka Lakhani. She has mastered the art of designing the perfect fits for characters having worked on films like Lust Stories, Haseena Parkar, Sanju, Queen and Masaba Masaba to name some. PS-I is just another feather in her cap as a costume designer.

We were invited to catch up with Eka and Pratiksha at Kishandas and Co’s flagship store in Hyderabad for an exclusive interview. They tell us everything about what went behind the making of the jaw-dropping looks — from studying the history of the era and taking heritage tours for inspiration to understanding what suits each character and countless jewellery trials — here’s how the journey unfolded!

Film's poster
Film's poster

What kind of research went into the making of the jewellery and costumes?
Eka: This is a subject which is very research-oriented. Every ensemble in the film had to express the personality, mood and emotions of the individual at that time. So it had to be created with a lot of attention to detail. As part of my research, I went to the beautiful Thanjavur temple along the South bank of the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu. There I observed the art and architecture of the temple pillars, domes, ceilings and studied the common motifs that we could bring to the costumes. We created sketches of each look and tested them on models. Once that got approved, we did the look test with dummy fabric to get the shape, size and silhouette right. It was after the dummy test approval that we finally worked with actual fabrics like cotton and silk for the actors. The whole experience of recreating the magic of that era, for me, was more nerve-wracking than awe-struck (laughs).

Pratiksha: For jewellery, we tried to dive deeper into the kind of trade routes that the Cholas had with other regions to know which kind of jewels and materials were traded at that time. We found that they had exchanges with Burma, so we used Burmese Rubies in the jewellery. Mani sir’s research team studied the motifs and styling of the Chola dynasty. They informed us about details such as the Cholas following Shaivism which greatly helped in making the exquisite pieces.

Pratiksha, Mani Ratnam and Eka
Pratiksha, Mani Ratnam and Eka

What motifs can we expect in costumes and jewellery?
Pratiksha: Given that the Cholas worshipped Shiva, we used snake motifs for the men’s jewellery and avoided any imagery based on deities like Krishna, Lakshmi or Vishnu. We used some creative liberties and worked with common motifs like birds, peacocks, parrots, Gods, Goddesses, lotus and other flowers that we knew could showcase the opulence of that time.

Eka: We found that the ‘tiger’ was the emblem of the Chola dynasty. We incorporated it in various ways in the costumes and jewellery. For instance, we used it in Aditya Karikalan’s (played by Vikram) armour. Then we used tiger-claw inspired jewellery for Arulmozhivarman (played by Jayam Ravi). So, we’ve taken inspiration and embedded it in a natural and organic way.

What kind of royal jewellery pieces did you create?
Pratiksha: There are nose pins, vankis (armlet), vaddanams (waist belt), hair pieces, and necklaces adorning the characters like Nandini, the Queen of Pazhuvoor played by Aishwarya, Princess Kundavai played by Trisha, Vanthi played by Sobhita and Poonguzhali played by Lekshmi. A lot of the pieces were inspired by temple art like thussis worn by Queens and Princesses, maang tikas (head jewellery), maatha pattis (forehead jewellery), rings, bangles in gold and more.

A still from the film
A still from the film

How did you perfect the colour palette?
Eka: During this era natural dyes were used in the clothing. At the time, indigo, haldi and kumkum were used as natural colours and we tried our best to derive them organically for some of the film’s costumes. We tested natural dyes and organic products as part of our experiments. For instance, we used boiling water and put haldi and fabric in it to see the final colour and tone . However, we could not use natural dyes for all the outfits as some dresses were made of luxurious silks like Kajeevaram. But, there have definitely been times when we have gone to the extreme to capture the essence of that era’s traditional dyeing methods.

What was the most challenging costume or jewellery to design?
Eka: For the costumes, I think it has to be with Vanthiyathevan’s character played by Karthi. He’s shown as a brave and adventurous warrior prince of the Vaanar clan. However, in the song Rakshas Mama Re, he has to be portrayed as Kans Mama from the Krishna’s tales. So we picked a colour palette of red and black to signify rage, angst and passion. To add to the drama, we painted his face in dark tones of black and red, added kohl to his eyes, and used claws for his hands to bring out the element of theatre in his dance movements.

Dance sequence 
Dance sequence 

Pratiksha: It was a lofty task to create so many pieces of jewellery for such a massive film! For instance, there were around 18 main characters and each of them had to wear around 300-400 pieces of jewellery in the entire run of the movie. So, you can imagine the scale of production. Sometimes the pieces looked a little bit similar to one another so I had to keep at least two assistants just to make sure that no two actors had similar kind of jewellery(laughs). Another challenge came when we were making the pieces for tertiary characters. They were depicted as commoners in dance, celebration and fighting sequences and their number was a staggering thousand for some of the scenes! We were told to make fake jewellery for them with threads, leather bands and silver. But our brand has no experience with fake jewellery. My artisans didn’t even know how to create it as we only work with real gemstones and precious metals. So that was a difficult task to pull off and we eventually had a great time learning to design these pieces. In the film, you will see an impressive showcase of pieces that shall bring out the class hierarchy of that time through jewellery and make the characters distinguishable from one another.

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: I releases today in theatres.

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