Filmi Fashion by Fifi Haroon

The sixties and seventies was a great time for fashion in Pakistani cinema albeit it was more tailor-made than designer-made. The really successful stars made fashion, hair and make-up statements that influenced their fans – be it Waheed Murad’s rakish teddy look or Zeba’s elaborate up-do’s the choices stars made in what they wore on the screen seeped into society. Pakistani film’s impact on fashion dwindled as going to cinemas became more of a male, working class pastime in the eighties. Women, often the arbitrators of fashion began fawning on Zeenat Aman and Rekha’s dress sense on VCRs at home and taking their fashion cues less and less from Anjuman and Neeli.

With the so-called rebirth of Pakistani cinema, fashion in film is no longer just about stars showcasing their personal style. It is more about conjuring up characters that look the part and are also true to the script. Fashion icons like Mahira Khan and Mehwish Hyatt are once again inspiring female fan followings that want to look like them or copy their style but this is now both on and off the screen. Even so, while Instagram and red carpets are newfound fashion catwalks for those in the public eye, the magic of fashion writ large on a silver screen is luring Pakistani designers into film projects.

Film fashion is now more integral to storytelling but it is largely in grand song and dance sequences that most designers get to show their artistry. Many of Pakistan’s top designers are beginning to understand the impact that larger-than-life cinema can have on showcasing their brand and products. Be it Umer Saeed and Feeha Jamshed for Ho Mann Jahan, Elan for Bin Roye, Sania Maskatiya for Saat Din Mohabat In, Deepak Perwani for Punjab Nahin Jaungi or Ali Xeeshan for Jawani Phir Nahin Ani 2, Pakistan’s influential fashion houses are increasingly taking the plunge even if this has sometimes meant lending stars expensive outfits for free or doing it more for love than a love of money. Because at the end of the day, when the film's images are splashed all over the media, both traditional and social, the returns are now worth it.

But will this all change as films become more profitable? I sat down with two of Pakistan’s top directors, Nadeem Baig (JPNA, PNJ,JPNA2) and Nabeel Qureshi (Na Maloom Afraad, Actor in Law, NMA2, Load Wedding) to discuss the rise and falls of filmi fashion...

Fifi Haroon: Who did the costumes for Jawani Phir Nahin Ani 2 and Load Wedding?

Nabeel Qureshi: Asad Arif and Islah Zai who are part of the in-house team led on that for the whole film. For Mehwish Hayat Nomi Ansari did the costumes, and the wardrobe for the rest of the female cast was done by our in-house team in Filmwala. Fizza (Meerza) is very involved in developing a look for the female actors.

Nadeem Baig: This time we wanted a stylist on board to look after the whole project so we hired Haya Bokhari. Designers do good work but you need to sculpt the character further on the set. It’s not just the clothes, you also have to accesorise and add little touches to make the character fit what we envisaged. You can’t expect designers to be on set all the time and I think there is so much to do now in films that it’s important to have a stylist on board who can deal with last-minute issues that crop up on the day.

FH: Fahad Mustafa was the one actor cast in both films so comparing his look becomes revealing. In JPNA2 his image was that of a rich guy out on the town in Istanbul. In Load Wedding it was quite the opposite of stylish!

NQ: I did the styling myself for Fahad mustafa in Load Wedding. Actually I have been doing it for male actors in all my films. When writing the story and dialogues I begin to form a certain image of the character in mind; so developing the look he will have in the film comes naturally as part of the process. 

Costumes play an important role in giving the character or actor a more believable look that suits the film. And that was especially important in Load Wedding where Fahad’s character had to look less fashionable. He had to come across as a normal, realistic boy-next-door in a town setting. So many of his choices were what you would call a stylish faux pas or over the top. But they were always earnest and real.

NB: I think we managed to achieve about 99% of what we wanted with Fahad mustafa’s character in JPNA2. All the clothes were customised and tailor made. In films the kind of characters he has played thus far Fahad never got the chance to look like this but he is really stylish in real life.

FH: How do you develop a look for a character? How do you choose the clothes or the hair or make-up? What is important in bringing that role to life?

NQ: I design the docket first for my male and female cast and then share it with my team. Then then start following my brief. They go to the bazaar get stuff, and send me whatsapp pics for which I give approvals. So there is a lot of back and forth. Like for instance we needed to get that “Sorry” mufler made specially. In the film Mehwish knits a mufler for Fahad to apologise for ignoring him. Since it had to be hand knit one of my Assistant Director’s grandmother was roped in to knit it for us. As a backup we also got it done through an online company and then we selected that one as it was neater.

The real challenge is for characters to look filmi yet realistic and I know that sounds like a paradox. But I think it’s essential that film characters shouldn’t look like drama characters. My simple matnra is – let them be as natural as they can be. But of course some characters require extra drama – like for the TV host Ashiq Rafaqat I wanted really cheesy clothes so we dug around in Cherry’s inventory and found some great old fashioned sherwanis and worked with that to get the right look.

NB: We first work on a character in detail then the character tells you what she should be wearing. So the costume or fashion part only comes when we know what a character is about or what motivates him or her. Take Kubra Khan’s character in JPNA2. As a hiker or mountain climber she wouldn’t be very ladylike in how she dresses on a daily basis. So her style was more casual and comfortable but adding knee-high boots for instance gave it a very sexy look.

Mawra was playing a rich girl so everything from bag to joota was expensive and designer. We spent a lot of money on her clothes. Jo brand na lagay pakra jaata hai. We didn’t want to look inauthentic. The biggest change in fashion in our films is that our actors now look like real people, they aren’t just fashion hangers. Meera and Anjuman had their own interesting looks but they weren't about the character so the films didn't look real. Costume design is crucial in making cinema look believable.

FH: What kind of budgets are there for wardrobe in films? Do designers do some of it gratis?

NQ: Budgets depend on what kind of clothes they are wearing but as an average in our films it’s around Rupees 2.5 million including accessories, wardrobe and clothes for extras. We have a huge inventory for wardrobe! Then there's a big stitching company called Cherry and they have been associated with us for all our 3 films. I go there with the mood board for the film and choose fabrics accordingly. And then Yasir Shakeel of Cherry who is a very good friend of mine and Fahad Mustafa’s follows the brief to get it done.

FH: Could costume design for film become a big business like let's say Manish Malhotra in India who apparently had a turnover of approximately $15 million in 2014? It's probably even more now.

NQ: It can be big like India in time but this isn’t going to happen overnight. Right now we mostly get designer clothes for a specific song or scene, not for the whole project, See, we are not making that kind of film right now that needs a complete designer wardrobe; I mean the big Devdas and Padmaavat type Sanjay Leela Bhansali films. Our industry is young still so many designers give their outfits for credit only.

FH: Nabeel you set your film in winter in the Punjab; we’ve haven't seen that in recent Pakistani film. Like a shalwar kameez worn with a sweater and even the woollen caps Mehwish wears. It really creates a distinctive mood and setting.

NQ: Punjabi winters can be quite harsh so people combine things together like just wearing a knitted cap with a shalwar kameez to just keep warm. People are very much into sports and in winters they love wearing, you know those cricket sweaters like the mamoo character does. And I added the leather cap to make him look a little unique as if that was HIS thing. There's so much minor detail that makes a character who he is. Sweaters in a small town-setting also give a very nostalgic feel. And in Fahad’s character's case we wanted these bulky sweaters that could make him look a little awkward since his character is like that and doesn’t have any fashion sense.

FH: What are the practicalities of fashion in film? Clearly costumes have to look good but actors have to move around so much especially during song sequences. For instance Urwa Hocane is not a natural dancer and the mermaid lehnga Deepak Perwani did for her in Lak Hilna probably hindered her even more.

NB: To be honest that’s my fault not Deepak’s so I won’t blame him. I should have given her something lighter to dance in. I will take responsibility for the decision. The body contour looked great but dancing was a bit difficult.

FH: What about the rain sequence for Raunaq-e-Ashiqui? Mehwish had to shoot for hours on end in wet clothes?

NB: We knew we are using that outfit for the rain so we had more pieces of of it made. You have to do that because outfits need to be worn again and again for a dance over several days and can get ripped or ruined. You need to have several pieces made to last the shoot. You know we shot that sequence in winter and it was freezing but Mehwish was a real trooper. She danced in the cold for days without complaining.

FH: How do you set the visual tone for a film through the fashions used in it? For example, both Punjab Nahin Jaungi and even more so the fashions in Load Wedding had extremely vibrant colours that could be considered over the top and louder than life?

NQ: I work with fabric and colour swatches and we will sit down and decide who’s wearing what in the scene. Then we look at the time, situation, background and make sure everyone isn’t wearing the same colour. My greatest fear is when actor wears the same colour as the room’s wall! So we work all this out in advance with swatches and it’s all on paper before we go on floor.

NB: There is a science and method to all this. We colour coordinate everything from the main actor to the back up dancers to even the people standing around in the background. There is a colour palette for every film and we work within it. Yes it is very difficult and it is a tedious job. For PNJ especially I was very happy with Deepak. He is very hard working and very passionate about his work. we used to send things back if they weren’t quite right and he would come back with exactly what we wanted. It takes real passion for fashion and cinema to get involved to that level.

FH: What is the one thing you wish designers had more of when it comes to film in Pakistan?

NB: Our designers need to understand film-making a bit better. For JPNA2 we used a lot of Ali Xeeshan's clothes but in the panoramic dance sequence for Aya lariye we ended up using Manish's Malhotra’s pink choli ghagra for Mawra because it was so comfortable that she could dance with ease. Pakistani designers are great but they don’t understand yet that film shoots are strenuous and actors don’t just need to look good they need to wear clothes that look the part but are lighter and easier than what their non-filmi clients might wear to a wedding. That understanding I think will come with more experience and doing more film work. As the Pakistani film industry grows there will be more space for designers to take centre stage and they will understand the craft of costume-making for films is not just about showcasing their work but also about adapting to the practical requirements of film-making.