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The silent storyteller: Paradise costume designer Shilpi Agarwal on role of clothes in films FilmyMeet

by Arun Kumar
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Every character in a film has a story to tell. This distinctive element is often conveyed subtly through their personality traits, the way they think, talk, react, and also—the way they dress. Film costume designer Shilpi Agarwal digs deep into the process in an exclusive conversation with Hindustan Times wherein she talks about her recent work in Prasanna Vithanag’s critically acclaimed film Paradise. | Also read: Paradise review: A marriage is put to test in Prasanna Vithanage’s tightly controlled drama

Paradise movie costume designer Shilpi Agarwal.
Paradise movie costume designer Shilpi Agarwal.

The most challenging part of being a costume designer

While Agarwal was never a fashion enthusiast growing up, she found her true calling in her early twenties when she bagged an opportunity to assist in the 2008 movie Rock On!! Quitting her comfortable 9-5 job in the retail sector, she found herself to be fascinated with colour palettes, textures and prints that bring a character to life on screen. “We worked from 5 am in the morning till late hours. But I realised I really enjoyed the madness here, even though it was something I was not used to. I was so unprepared for it because it was out of my comfort zone. But I realised it was something I really enjoyed.”

However, the long, undefined hours are not the most challenging for a costume designer. “Every project comes with different challenges. The most exciting part is to set the looks and palette where you try to bring a personality to the character. Ironically, the most challenging and exciting parts are the same as a costume designer.”

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On using clothes as silent weapon in storytelling

Talking about the creative process behind the same, she added, “First, you understand what the script is, the arc of the character. Then I visualise their personality. Their likes and dislikes. Even the mood of the movie and scene and how the narration is going is important.” For Agarwal, it should be a ‘subconscious thing.’

“Costumes should not take away the spotlight. As a viewer, the costume should not stand out. It should blend and become part of the personality of the character. That is something I try, to make it organically blend in. As a viewer, you are seeing the film, not the costume,” she adds.

Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in a still from the movie in costumes designed by Shilpi Agarwal. (IMDb)
Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in a still from the movie in costumes designed by Shilpi Agarwal. (IMDb)

On working on Paradise

Opening up on her experience of working with filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage, Agarwal said, “Prasanna sir is a gentleman. He gave me full freedom, and I came up with ideas for the two characters. I worked on the palette first.”

Shilpi Agarwal with filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage.
Shilpi Agarwal with filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage.

Presented by Mani Ratnam, Paradise is set in the backdrop of 2022 financial crisis in Sri Lanka. It follows the journey of Amritha (Darshana Rajendran) and Keshav (Roshan Mathew) who find themselves amidst the turmoil as their relationship is put to test. The film’s theme is rather subdued and the costumes have to reflect the same, Agarwal emphasises.

“I wanted to give indigoes and blues to Amritha. For her, I opted for natural dyes and fabrics like cotton, which helped represent Indian crafts. Keshav was somebody who was very ambitious and stylish, so red was his colour. They were quite contrasting in their personalities. Every script has different methods. The film’s mood is sombre, so these two characters had to translate the same.”

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Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in a still from the movie. (IMDb)
Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in a still from the movie. (IMDb)

Upcoming projects

Agarwal has portrayed simplicity (Newton), Indian folklore and craftsmanship (Picasso), and rural India set in the ‘90s (Bhagwaan Bharose) on the screen through her work. An era of fashion she wishes to explore next would be a period film. “I’d like to work on period film because there is so much of research, textures and fabrics involved, something I love to play with. There is so much to do. It is so nice to go to the main source and buy stuff from there. I enjoy doing field work and visit the place where the film is set in, to see how people are actually dressed there. It helps bring authenticity on the screen.”

When asked if her life was a movie and what colour palette would her character reflect best, Agarwal adds, “black, blue and red,” symbolising ambition. Agarwal indeed has an ambitious journey ahead. For now, the designer has her plate full with a string of upcoming projects, including Naseeruddin Shah’s Minimum and the Marathi film Toh, Ti ani Fuji starring Mrinmayee Godbole.

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