Kalki costume designer Archana Rao on Prabhas

From Mahanati to Kalki 2898 AD, and Dulquer Salmaan's Lucky Bhasker, costume designer Archana Rao is thriving. In an exclusive conversation with Deccan Chronicle, she reveals what went into designing costumes for the blockbuster epic—Kalki.

How has your experience been with Vijayanthi Movies so far?

Nagi (Nag Ashwin) and I have worked together on three projects: my first film Mahanati, a short film for Netflix called Pitta Kadalu, and now our third venture. As a fashion designer with my own brand, transitioning to film costume design has been a learning experience. With Mahanati, I learned how designs translate on screen and how colours work together. Nagi and the team have guided me through this journey, helping me navigate the world of movie costume design.

How did you feel when you received the national award for Mahanati?

Nag Ashwin has been a great collaborator, showing immense trust in me even though Mahanati was my first film as a costume designer. His belief in my abilities gave me the confidence I needed, and the entire process was smooth, with no major roadblocks. Nag Ashwin truly believes in his team and pushes them to exceed their own expectations. This supportive approach has been invaluable as I've transitioned from fashion design to costume design for films.

What was your inspiration for the costumes in Kalki?

Designing for Kalki 2898 AD was very different compared to Mahanati. While Mahanati had historical references, Kalki required creating an entirely new futuristic world. We had to establish distinct visual languages for different settings, from the last civilisation of Kashi to the advanced, oppressive Complex. The costumes needed to reflect these environments cohesively.

What were some stark differences in this project compared to others?

Designing the costumes for Kalki 2898 AD has consumed the last four years of my life. This project required a high level of dedication to deliver the scale and complexity required—from the vast number of costumes to the intricate world-building. We had no references and had to create a new futuristic aesthetic, establishing distinct visual identities for the different settings.

How did this process begin? What was the brief given by the director?

When director Nag Ashwin narrated the project, I was intrigued, especially when he revealed that Amitabh Bachchan would play Ashwathama. Nag Ashwin needed me on set every day, overseeing every aspect of the costume design. This intense, immersive journey began four years ago, allowing me to fully immerse myself in building the distinct visual identities for the different worlds and characters in this futuristic saga.

What unique motifs or inspirations did you incorporate?

For Kashi, the costume design used durable, non-decomposing materials like plastic, since natural resources would be scarce. The fabrics were distressed to look worn and weathered, retaining an Indian aesthetic with silhouettes like lungis and sarees. The costumes reflected the harsh environment the residents needed to shield themselves from.

What challenges did you face in procuring materials for the costumes?

For Ashwatthama's costume, we used mull cotton printed with a tree bark texture and manually distressed the fabric to achieve a sheer, tattered look. This aging process was crucial. For the slum dwellers of Kashi, we engineered textiles using synthetics and plastics for a gritty aesthetic. We used rubber-coated neoprene for the raiders' suits to make them subtly shiny.

How was the brainstorming process with the director, and how much time did you invest on set?

The four-year duration of Kalki 2898 AD was due to meticulous world-building. Director Nag Ashwin broke down the production into manageable parts, allowing the costume, production design, and cinematography teams to collaborate extensively. This ensured a cohesive visual language. By tackling one world at a time, we focused on the distinct looks and materials required.

How was it working with big names like Prabhas, Amitabh Bachchan, and Deepika Padukone?

The cast, including Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, fully immersed themselves in their roles. Bachchan was wrapped in layers of fabric for his character Ashwatthama, and Deepika embraced the distressed, aged look of her character. Prabhas wore a foam latex suit, dedicated to bringing his character to life authentically. Their commitment was crucial in realising Nag Ashwin's vision.

How did you elevate the costumes for Kalki?

Every design decision for Kalki 2898 AD aimed to authentically fit the world being created. The costume team conducted extensive R&D, look tests, and trials to ensure each element served a purpose. As a fashion designer, I leveraged my technical knowledge of fabric treatments, but the requirements of cinema pushed me to experiment with new materials. The key was to avoid recognisable textiles, engineering unique fabrics and textures that felt futuristic.

How have you evolved as a designer from your first project to Kalki?

Working on Kalki 2898 AD has been transformative. Coming from fashion retail, I've had to focus on authenticity over aesthetics. Collaborating with concept artists and refining designs until they felt right at first glance expanded my creative horizons. This iterative approach pushed me to experiment with new materials and techniques, making me grow as a designer.

Have you been influenced by Hyderabad's architecture or history in your work?

Hyderabad's textile and embroidery history has deeply influenced my designs. The city's architecture indirectly shapes my silhouettes, while traditional Nizami colours and techniques are incorporated into my collections. This blend of historical inspiration and modern design is a hallmark of my creations.

Can you tell us about the meaning behind your brand's logo?

The logo, inspired by florals, incorporates my initials AR, designed to look like a blooming flower.

When did you know you wanted to pursue designing, and did your Hyderabadi roots influence this decision?

I knew from a young age that I wanted a creative career. In 2003, I decided to study fashion design at NIFT Hyderabad. After graduating, I pursued a master's degree at Parsons in New York, then worked in the US before returning to India to launch my own label ten years ago.

What sets your style apart from others?

As a designer, I am very conceptual. I need a strong concept and story behind what I'm creating. Working on movies feels like a natural progression, as I'm given a character and story to delve into. In terms of personal style, I gravitate towards a basic aesthetic, often wearing black or dark shades.

What are your upcoming projects and collaborations?

I've just completed work on 'Lucky Bhaskar' starring Dulquer Salmaan and Meenakshi Chaudhary. Now that the film is wrapped, I'm on a much-needed vacation. After returning, I'll celebrate with the team behind 'Kalki' and then look ahead to future opportunities.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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