Uthara Menon: The Gifted Stylist Who Got To Work With The Biggest Stars In The South Indian Film Industry
Uthara Menon, who has made a mark for herself in both Tamizh and Telugu films is all geared up for her next release- Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. She has been a costume designer for over 5 years now; styling for films like Yennai Arindhaal, Accham Yenbedhu Madamadaiya (Sahasam Swasaga Saagipo in Telugu) and upcoming films like Enai Noki Paayum Thota and Dhruva Natchathiram. She also happens to be writer-director Gautham Menon’s sister.
We, At Voxspace, got to talk to her about various aspects of costume designing, her experience of working on a grand period film like Sye Raa and also, celebrating the success of Nani’s Gang Leader. Here are a few excerpts from our interview:
Congratulations on the success of Gang Leader and all the very best for your upcoming film, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. How was your experience like working on these 2 films?
Thank you so much. Gang Leader was a delight to work and there was this amazing energy on set, wherein everyone worked with clear-cut clarity. Working with Mr. Nani was a pleasure indeed; he is such a warm and friendly human being. Vikram K Kumar has been a long-time friend of mine and I’m glad we finally found an opportunity to work together. In fact, I’m thankful to Rajeevan Nambiar (Production Designer) who opened doors for me in the Tollywood industry. Designing and Styling for 6 beautiful actors in a visually appealing way, was truly challenging to pull off! All thanks to my wonderful team who’ve supported me throughout.
As far as Sye Raa goes, it was a mammoth task, for its magnanimity and star-studded cast. I was roped in to style the characters and decide on a look for each of them in terms of hair and costumes, which would in turn set a colour tone for the film. It was a great learning experience for me and a giant leap in my career. We worked relentlessly sometimes till 4 am to get the looks spot on, right from the lead characters, to each and every villager in the film. All the Britishers were sketched and given a look based on their rank and regiment. The difficulty arises when you don’t have much reference material to work with but I think we managed to make it as authentic as possible.
I’m quite excited actually because I’ve been approached for 2 period films to design the look and feel.
Since Sye Raa is a full-fledged period film, what was it like working on such a grander scale and how did it happen?
I worked for over seven months with the production designer and his amazing team of art directors and concept artists for Sye Raa. It was during various discussion at Chennai that we sketched all the characters’ looks and getting the detailing right for every character ranging from Narasimha Reddy, Gurukul Swamy and the common folk in the village. The team would sit and sketch out rough ideas based on suggestions and then work on it digitally to create the final look.
Then, we moved to Hyderabad where Rajeevan Nambiar held design workshops for art and costumes. We hired numerous tailors and also created a large team of extremely talented young designers. We would source garments from Hyderabad and Delhi and create all kinds of outfits depending on the type pf character. We dyed brand-new pieces of fabrics in large pots of boiling tea to create the 1800’s look. The leather department headed by Rajan Mankar was the coolest department of all, where they were constantly churning out fabulous-looking armour and footwear, with retro Hindi songs playing in the background. There were times when we had to deliver 500 costumes for a crowded scene overnight and I don’t know how, but somehow, we managed to pull it off. It was truly exhilarating.
What was the ideation process and research like when you were designing/styling for Sye Raa?
Research and ideation wise, Rajeevan Nambiar and I made sure that our colour palettes would complement each other and be in sync. We wanted the sets and costumes to be a visual treat and at the same time, not distracting the audience from the scenes and dialogues. We decided to not use any garish colours and keep everything muted and tasteful. For example, the red in British soldiers’ costumes was toned down to tomato red and the gold we use for the jewellery was given an antique hue and shine. Our research relied on information and images from museum and references from the internet that stimulated our imagination.
Continuing on the thought, what would you say is the difference between a costume designer and a stylist on a film set?
I’m glad you asked this question. A stylist sits with the director and gets a brief of each character and then creates a look that can suit him/her. This look can be shown as sketches like it was done for Sye Raa or references from books and the Internet. A stylist sets the colour tone for the movie and once looks and colours are finalised, a costume designer is roped in to use these inputs and design the costumes. It’s always better for the stylist and the costume designer to work together to get the best output. Moreover, the stylist works closely with the production designer to lay the foundation because art and costumes go together which can lead to palatable viewing.
You’ve worked both in Tamil and Telugu films. How different are these 2 industries in your opinion or are they the same?
Comparatively, the Telugu industry is much more professional and are better pay masters. A person’s involvement and contribution are highly valued and due diligence is given, when required. Sometimes, it so happens that people sign you up for a project but barely pay for the work that you have put in. Its high time people realise the importance of costumes for a film and value one’s worth and talent.
What can we expect from Enai Noki Paayum Thota (ENPT) and Dhruva Natchithiram (DN) in terms of styling and costumes because just like any other Gautham Menon films, they look very stylish and also considering the fact that Dhruva Natchithiram has various women characters?
ENPT has a very casual and laid-back kind of styling. Mr. Dhanush is your quintessential college kid and he’s got a style of his own. DN has a much classier look where we tried the ‘salt-and-pepper’ look for Mr. Vikram. His character’s styling was done many years ago and we stuck to that look to a large extent. Interesting colour combinations are used for him that accentuated his handsome features. The women are all tough in their own way and it was really interesting to give each one a look that doesn’t resemble the other. They are a group of people who fight crime and we tried to retain the authenticity. Each character had a quirk and we tried to depict it through their respective costumes. It was lovely styling for Ms. Simran and Ms. Radhika, especially.
What is the brief you usually expect when you’re asked to do a project?
Usually, I’d like to know what kind of characters are present, the director’s vision of these characters, the specific tone the DOP has decided in terms of colour and finally, what has the art director planned so that we can all remain on the same page and have an overall clarity of the whole thing.
Do you have a checklist before you take on a project?
Actually, no. I go with the flow. In fact, I don’t watch many movies and entirely depend on my team of girls in case any of my ideas are resembling or repetitive.
You have done styling for some of the biggest South Indian Stars in the industry- Can you elaborate on your experiences individually-
Chiranjeevi : Mr. Chiranjeevi is a gentleman, a courteous and polite human being. I’ll never forget when he walked into our office in Hyderabad and saw his sketches and he looked at me and said “Uthara, you make me look like a maharaja.” I really am thankful that he acknowledged my work on stage at the Pre-release event. When I look back on all the struggles, shuttling between Chennai and Hyderabad and hard work, it feels really good when such a big star mentions you on stage.
Nani : Mr. Nani is a treat to work with and easy going. I would really love to style him for his future projects, if he doesn’t mind.
Dhanush : Mr. Dhanush is absolutely comfortable with anything you give him. He keeps to himself and speaks very little.
Vikram : Mr. Vikram is the sweetest person on set, mingles with everyone and always has a joke to share with everyone. Literally, the set comes to life when he’s around.
Nayanthara : Ms. Nayantara’s costumes were not done by me so I got to interact minimally but our conversations were lively and she has the sweetest of smiles.
Ritu Varma : Ms. Ritu Varma is a warm and friendly human being and a lovely actress. She has charming personality and she carries everything off so beautifully and effortlessly.
Vijay Sethupathi : Mr. Vijay Sethupathi is the man! I was very excited to meet him and to be honest, he is such a humble soul and accommodating in the sense that he was making sure no one is troubled because of him. He has an amazing sense of humour and is great to work with.
Aishwarya Rajesh : Ms. Aishwarya Rajesh is a sweetheart, she’s ready to take on any role and raring to go. She is a perfectionist and it was really fun working with her.
Ramya Krishna : I got to work with her a little and she lights up every costume I’ve given to her. She is very easy going and a great person to style.
What is the ideal relationship that a Cinematographer -- Costume designer- Production designer should share? How different is it in reality?
Ideally, like I mentioned, this is a core team that need to stick together to deliver a good-looking product. But in reality, these circumstances are a rare phenomenon. I guess Bollywood has understood the need for such a coexistence and it is slowly being realised in the South. It is essential that producers and directors should understand the importance of this concept as it is only for the better, we are all striving for.
Do you have a signature or an element that you add when you style for films?
I don’t know about adding but I do away with blacks unless the scene demands it. I love English colours so I try to incorporate them as and when I can. We style depending on what the scene demands, now for instance, we wanted Mr. Ajith to be in red only during fight scenes to portray the anger. Even though not many people notice it, it’s something we do and revel in.
What are your future projects?
There are some period-based projects in the pipeline. I’m currently styling Rashmika Mandana for a village look and I’m absolutely loving creating half sarees. I’m working on Mr. Anoop Anthikad’s Malayalam film with Mr. Dulquer Salman.
I would really like to thank a few people without whom this interview won’t be happening- Rajeevan Nambiar who saw what I was capable of, Ragu Muthiah and Shray Aiyaswamy for being the most understanding family members in my life and my team -- Shalini Selvaraj, Jenifar Maria, Anusha Punjala, Usha.
And thus, Uthara Menon spoke to us in the last hour rush of bringing out one of the biggest movies of the year, Sye Raa. We wish her all the best for her future projects!