An essential aspect that influences the way you watch movies is the costumes adorned by the actors. It has the ability to portray the theme and overall persona of the movie without being evident. But, it all comes down to the visualisation and particular choices of a costume designer. This person tells a tale so powerful that we don’t realise the impact it creates to enhance our movie experience. I want you to meet a costume designer who has been working in the Malayalam movie industry since 2013. We sat down with Dhanya Balakrishnan who tells us what it takes to be a costume designer in Mollywood.
A little bit about Dhanya Balakrishnan
A Chemistry graduate turned costume designer, Dhanya choose to change her field of career out of simple interest. After her graduation in Chemistry, she joined St.Teresa’s College in Kochi to do a fashion designing course. “I had a great opportunity to be nurtured by a professor, Praveen Varma, who used to work as a costume designer in the film industry. The costume that you see in Sagar Alias jacky, BigB, Anwar, Kurup etc. are designed by him. I was lucky enough to assist him during the production of Sagar Alias Jacky and that’s how I entered the Malayalam film industry,” shared Dhanya with PL.
Over the next five months, under the assistance of Praveen Varma, Dhanya began to showcase her work in ad films. That proved to be a blessing in disguise as she started to receive independent work. She was the costume designer for around 150 ad films before she worked in Jis Joy’s film Bicycle Thieves. This was the first movie in which she was the Chief costume designer.
She shares, “Growing up, I would look forward to an opportunity to shop and travel. It was undoubtedly my favourite thing to do. Working in the film industry gave me a chance to do exactly that. My job as a costume designer includes going on a shopping spree and travelling with the crew. Another interesting aspect of my work is that every day is a new experience. There’s no such thing as monotony in my line of work. Even though there are minimum stressors and risk factors involved, the fact that I will never get bored of it makes it even more exciting for me.”
Her Favourite Experience
Dhanya recalls the time she worked as a customer designer for the film, Kilometers and Kilometers. She shares, “I was able to explore and travel the whole of India because of this movie. We were 22 people in a bus travelling across various states in 25-30 days. This was a memorable experience for me as I could fulfil my lifelong dream while working. Similarly, when I was the costume designer for Pranaya Meenukalude Kadal, we had to stay in Lakshwadeep for around 55 days. Being with the sea was a different experience altogether. These are a few of the many experiences this career has given me.”
Kayamkulam Kochunni was Dhanya’s first big project. It was the first time she had to work with a superstar. More than that, she had to come up with costume designs for a bygone era. It posed a lot of challenges for her as an artist, but she took it as an opportunity to learn and be better. For example, she says, “The costumes had undergone an ageing process using chemicals. I was doubtful whether it would irritate the actors’ skin. But the one thing that assured me was Lal’s sir words. He told me to take the liberty to make the characters stand out however I could. Those words really comforted me and gave me the motivation to play with the costumes.”
When you are given a film project, how do you conceptualise your designs?
Dhanya shares in detail, “Whenever we get a film, we thoroughly go through the script. During this process, we relate the characters of the movie to those we’ve met in real life. A natural comparison automatically happens. Based on that, we make a base scratch of the characters. Then we meet with the director and scriptwriter and understand their perspective of the characters, be it their financial status or way of living. At this point, our characterisation also changes as per the director and script writer’s POV.”
She adds, “We further develop the character’s clothing by going into the details. We ask ourselves a few questions. Will the character wear a full sleeve shirt? What type of collar do they prefer? Jeans or shorts? Do they wear branded clothes? Can they afford to buy new clothes? After the detailing process, we sit down with the DOP and Art Director who gives an account of the colour palette of the movie. After that, we move on to the accessories department.
At the end of the day, it’s a group project. We take in a lot of perspectives while considering our own idea and then bring out the final touches.”
“Actors Know What They Want”
Dhanya remembers many actors being involved in the costume designing process. She says, “Some artists have their own view of their character. They even take the liberty to question the costume design. Our duty is to give them the right explanation and help them understand why they’ve chosen this particular costume. I was comfortable working with everyone, be it Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha, Parvathy, Vinay Fortt, Mohanlal, or Nivin Pauly. Today’s actors are all about getting into the character so they are open to experimenting and looking the part.”
The Golden Ticket To Mollywood
People assume that the Malayalam film industry is glamorous. But, the truth is, there’s a lot of hard work that goes behind the making of each and every film. Dhanya, too, agrees.
She commented, “Only if you have a hardworking mentality, should you work as a costume designer in the film industry. It’s not an easy job. Obviously, creativity and open-mindedness is a must, but your hard-working mentality will take you forward. For instance, if the director tells you that you need to come up with a costume design at the last minute, you should be able to pull it off. You should be ready for any circumstance. In fact, before you commit to anything, do your research. Understand if you will be able to take this project up. Only then, should you commit. Another thing that I have noticed is that you need a good support system from your family to go ahead in this field.”
Dhanya Balakrishnan has had her ups and downs working as an ace costume designer in Mollywood. She has grown to become of the most promising artists in the field. You will be able to see her work in the upcoming Malayalam movies such as 12, Malayankunju, and an anthology that is to be named.