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‘‘Costume designers are not fashion designers”

Payal Saluja has worked in the industry for a long time but it was Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola this year that gave her recognition. The costume designer talks about her journey in Bollywood and experience  on a Vishal Bhardwaj film.

Initial Days

I always wanted to get into the creative aspect of filmmaking so I decided to join the National Institute of Design (NID). While at the institute, I worked with Ketan Mehta for a Gujarati TV show for one of my projects. That’s what convinced me that I was cut out for costume designing as a career.

It was not very difficult to get my career started because by the time I finished my course, I had already written to directors and most of them had reverted. After that, I moved to Mumbai and started working.

First Project

My first project was Makdee in 2002, where I worked with Vishal Bhardwaj for the first time. It was a challenge because it was my first project and I hadn’t assisted anyone before. So I was learning a lot on the sets. But Bhardwaj was very open to ideas and he gave me my own space. He also helped me understand the script and character demands. Then I worked with Shyam Benegal on the film Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, which was a huge challenge because I had to recreate the pre-Independence era.

Keeping It real

Many of the actors I have worked with take the costumes home so that they can really get into the character. For a costume designer, the challenge is to break the actor’s image and get him into the character. So, when you watch Ishqiya, you stop looking at Naseeruddin Shah as Naseeruddin Shah and watch him as Khalujan.

Turning Point

Ishqiya was a turning point, especially working with Vidya Balan. Many people assumed her costumes were designed by Sabyasachi but they were my creations. We kept her costumes very real but we still made sure they were a style statement. Vidya was wearing a synthetic saree in the film but it became a talking point among the audience. A lot depends on how the actor carries the costume you have designed. She added 200 per cent to what I had done.. She looked very sensuous yet very simple on screen.

On Matru…

The ghagras that Anushka Sharma wears in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola are authentic Haryanvi ghagras that I made in Haryana. We teamed it up with boots and a poncho to give it a different look. So it’s all about combining elements. It was a much lighter film compared to Bhardwaj’s other films. That ghagra too became a style statement and I still receive calls to make replicas of Vidya Balan’s blouses and Anushka Sharma’s ghagra!

On Like-Minded Directors

I worked with Subhash Ghai in Black And White and with Vishal Bhardwaj in many films. I have been lucky to work with like-minded directors. I got to experience different flavours of work and with directors who believe in working with one costume designer throughout the film. This way, the costume design for the entire film suits the script. We take care of every person on camera, not only the protagonist.

We Are Not Fashion Designers

In India, people assume costume designers are fashion designers or stylists but this is not true. A costume designer designs for characters whereas a fashion designer creates for real men and women. There is a huge difference. The costume designer’s job is to get in sync with the director’s vision and create costumes according to the demands of the script.


I do a lot of research but I don’t turn to the Internet because you can’t really trust the net. I read a lot of books based on the subject or era relating to the script. That way, I can visualise the look of that era.

Future Projects

My next film Raanjhnaa is up for release. It was great working with Dhanush and Sonam Kapoor, especially Kapoor. She is very stylish, yet, in the film she wears the simple clothes which a Benaras girl would wear. Then i have Dedh Ishqiya.

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