NIharika Bhasin Khan: Bollywood’s Costume Goddess

If you’ve marveled at the magnificence of the ornate saris in the period film ‘Khoya Khoya Chand,’ or admired the youthful exuberance of the funky t-shirts Imran Khan wore in ‘Delhi Belly’; found yourself falling in love with Anushka Sharma’s desi-chic look in ‘Band Baaja Baraat,’ or gave a nod of approval to Farhan Akhtar’s young rocker wardrobe in his first film ‘Rock On,’ then you’re a fan of Niharika Bhasin Khan—the woman who’s the star ingredient of the recipe that made fashion happen in each of these trailblazing films.
Primarily a jewelry designer, wife of renowned actor Ayoub Khan and mother of two, Niharika is now also a flourishing—albeit accidental—Bollywood costume designer and a self-proclaimed madwoman! And it is this madness; she tells me as I sit down to have a long uninterrupted Skype chat with her, that’s given her the courage to take risks and agree to design costumes for crazy films like ‘The Dirty Picture,’ which is due for release on 2 December and has already earned her accolades. “It’s true I’ve been getting good reviews for my work in the film, but people so far have only seen the trailers” She frets, “What if people hate the costumes in the rest of the movie!? I can’t handle the stress, really, I’m an old lady!”

Tell me a bit about your early life and family. What schools and university did you go to? What do your siblings do?

I was born in Jamshedpur, Bihar. It is a very small town obviously filled with ambitious youngsters like myself yearning to break free and be anonymous and live life. My father’s family—the Bhasins, were Punjabis from Chakwal. My mother’s family was from Pune. She is a Parsi.
I was sent to Lawrence School Sanawar up in Himachal Pradesh to a coeducational military boarding school. I then went to St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, Eastern Washington University in Cheney, and did my silversmithing course from Pratt Fine Arts in Seattle.
I have two brothers. The elder one is Sanjay Bhasin. He’s the CEO of Young & Rubicam, and lives in Bangkok with his Chilean wife, Marion and their two sons. My younger brother is the original costume designer of the family—Arjun Bhasin, who has studied costume design from F.I.T NYC. He’s gorgeous and unmarried!
I believe you’re also a third-culture kid like me. Where did you live and for how long? How easy was it for you to blend back into the Indian way of life?
I lived in the USA for 9 years studying and starting my professional life in Seattle, Washington. I always knew that I wanted to come back to India even though I continued working and pursuing my life there for so long. I have had absolutely no problem coming back and adjusting here though. I moved back to Bangalore and started working as the design head for Tanishq Jewelers, opening all their jewelry stores all over the country. I was always very passionate about jewelry and silversmithing. Not being able to deal with myself as a “corporate monkey,” I quit, and started my own line of jewelry called ‘Akirahin.’

I’ve heard that you and Ayoub have a very interesting story of how you two met, broke up and then ended up together again. Would you like to share the story yourself?
Oh my, it’s such a long sordid romantic story! It has to be left for another time and place but the gist of it is that we met when I was in St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. He proposed in an aquarium canteen and I said No! Soon after, I left to study abroad and since making an ISD call was impossible in those days – a long distance relationship was the remotest possibility. We broke up. He then married within his religious affiliation while I ended up marrying a foreigner. We didn’t meet or cross paths for 10 years. We both got divorced, bumped into each other at a hair salon, felt a spark, and ended up dating again for a bit. After that, Ayoub went back to his ex-wife and I went back to Bangalore. His best friend called me months later to tell me he was single again, and I fought him tooth and nail to remain single and not marry for a second time, to be civilized and just live together in harmony. Obviously I lost, and the rest is history…!
So you’re not proverbial high school sweethearts after all…
After that story!? Not at all!
Are you comfortable talking about your previous marriage? Tell me what happened.
Of course I am. Brian and I were like two birds of a feather and really great friends and roommates. He moved to India with me and turned into an Indian male that I rebelled against. One of our rules included no kids, and I felt great pressure from him to break the golden rule. He felt that I was clinging onto it unnecessarily. I felt like the man in the relationship as he was the token new age metrosexual male. My father had passed away and I really wanted a MAN in my life, you know, “to have and to hold”… but then I pushed him away. We are still friends and I still consider him and his family to be a part of mine.
Were your and Ayoub’s parents OK with an inter-faith marriage? How religious are you both?
Being second timers, I don’t think anyone was looking at faith and/or religion. Ayoub is religious; I do not believe in organized religion. We simply signed a marriage register.
Tell me about the wedding. How particular were you about the little details? Who was the wedding dress by? Were you as stylish back then as you are now?
I really would have come in jeans had it not been for a beautiful Chikan Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla that my in-laws changed me into with the 9 family members we had around for it. We had a big party in Bombay and one in Bangalore to celebrate the union later on though. As far as my style goes, I don’t think it has changed over the years.
Ayoub was once quotes as saying you’re both poles apart, personality-wise… sort of like ‘chalk and cheese.’ Do you agree? How important is it to be alike, or unlike, each other in a successful relationship?
A “successful relationship” is an oxymoron! Ayoub is wise if he has been quoted saying we are poles apart and we are like chalk and cheese, there is NO truer a statement! There is not one thing that keeps our see-saw stable.
What, according to you, are the three most important elements of a happy marriage?
I think firstly, you have to know yourself and be sure never to give yourself up. Don’t become one person—to stand stronger together, revel in each other’s individuality. Secondly, I think being friends is important. Share, laugh, tease and talk… and lastly, always be honest with one another.
You both have successful working careers. How easy is it for you to spend time with each other and the girls? What’s the importance of family-time in your home?
Time is of the essence. You don’t ever have time – you have to make it!
Tell me a bit about your two girls. Do you have any special plans for them? Are they as stylish as their mom?
I have two daughters Tahura and Zohra. Can you really in this day and age have plans for your kids!? My mother wanted me to be an Architect, and look what I ended up doing! I just want them to have ethics and be great in everything they do. They each have a very distinct style and they are my greatest teachers –they’ve forced me to learn to be patient; brush up on my communication skills; and just be better, everyday!
You have some very prominent piercings and tattoos. Is the look a part of the stylish you or the rebellious, wild-child you?
Yes I do, but I don’t consider my piercings and tattoos as rebellious or stylish – they are just ME, you know, a part of my personality. My glasses are my Clark Kent. Or my secret identity to Wonder Woman, perhaps? And now that you know, I might have to have you silenced!
How did you get into jewelry designing? As a jewelry designer, what kind of a clientele did you cater to first and foremost? Any special projects you that you may have pursued? What kind of materials did you enjoy working with most?
Like I said, I did my course in silversmithing from Pratt Fine Arts in Seattle, Washington. I usually like to work in silver. I love white metal and think it compliments dusky skin perfectly. It is also the rich man’s metal: you buy it purely as a luxury, not as an investment.
You stopped designing jewelry and took on a relatively different career path. What made you change your mind? Were you just bored or is there an interesting story attached to the career shift? Do you miss doing jewelry?
I will never miss doing jewelry because I will never stop doing it, it gives me my calm. I fell into my current career path of costume designing as I am a crap businesswoman and make no money from my Jewelry whatsoever! I don’t know how to price, how to market or how to sell it. This career was a fluke; a chance my friend Sam Sharma was willing to take, and Sudhir Mishra either took the bait or had incredible foresight. They offered me my first film Khoya Khoya Chand and never took my no as an answer!
What, according to you, is the importance of having a degree in fashion or costume design to become a successful costumer?
I don’t have a fashion base at all. I haven’t done a degree in fashion design or costume design; I’ve literally been thrown into the profession by chance, so my work and experience is mostly reference based. I call people I know and ask them personal questions like how does your dad dress? If someone is in the armed forces, I will call them up and ask what they prefer wearing at home and where they shop… A degree might help, but as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t an absolute necessity. If you know what you’re doing, then things automatically fall into place.
How much time are you usually given by the producers of a film—from the time you get on board with a project till the time you have to figure out the characters, develop their looks and create a whole distinct personality?
It’s very dependent on the film itself. When I was offered Mausam, they wanted me to start in 15-20 days and I told them it was impossible to even consider that. Normally, the production cycle of a film is around 6 months. You get 1-2 months for pre-production, and that’s where I get to sit with the producers, director and actors, and plan. Sometimes, if I’m already on board but things are being delayed on other fronts, I start developing the characters and get to work on my own, because my mind is already working on the project at hand. Sometimes, like for The Dirty Picture, we had a pre-production time of almost forever, and that’s always better as I get all the time I need to develop characters.
Where did you draw inspiration from to create the wardrobe for one of your most successful film to date: Band Baaja Baraat?
Band Baaja Baraat was very specific to Delhi. When I was given the film, I asked Yash Raj if I could go to Delhi to study the people. Ranvir Singh had also never been to Delhi, so the two of us went on our exploration of the city together and it was super fun. I think Ranvir is as cracked as I am, and we did some really crazy stuff there. We went to a college and pretended we were new students. At a college festival with an open mic, I went up to the stage and announced that my friend Bittu (Ranvir’s character in the movie) is a very good rap artist and wants to perform, and Ranvir, much to the audiences horror, actually went up and did some crappy rap! The festival gave me a chance to take a lot of pictures of college students that later helped me develop the wardrobe for the movie. I then went shopping both in and outside Delhi. The looks were supposed to be economical, so I did a lot of street shopping for the film.
And what was your source of inspiration behind the overall looks in Rock On and Delhi Belly?
Rock on was a totally different story. For some reason when we give a reference of rock in India, it always gives a sense of heavy metal. People assume rock is all about hippie stoner look or all black, heavy metal look, which is so wrong! It was rather challenging to create that true youthful young rocker image. I drew a lot of inspiration from Mumbai and the area where had gone to school.
Delhi belly was quite a stranger film to work on because we were all so scared of the consequences the film would have. It was a very interesting project though, because I ended up making everything myself! Every t-shirt used in the film is my own design. I had hired a graphic designer to design for me exactly what I wanted. We went out of our way to create every single thing. I took a few liberties on Poorna’s character though, and gave her two Manish Aurora’s skirts and tops which in the end blend in perfectly with her overall look, I think.
For your first film Khoya Khoya Chaand, you got to design costumes for the daughter & granddaughter of two unprecedented style icons of the sub-continent: Sharmila Tagore and Madam Noor Jehan. How easy/stressful was that for you?
Sonya Jehan is an absolutely amazing person to work with. She’s extremely accommodating and so very beautiful! I luckily knew Soha ahead of time, and her mother, Sharmila Ji, also helped me a lot throughout the movie. I actually went to her house one day to discuss the wardrobe with her.
I also got a lot of help and inspiration from Ayoub’s aunts and uncles including Dilip Kumar. I went through their old photo albums because I wanted to see what life was like back in the day for film people. Ayoub’s mother (veteran actress Begum Para) also pulled out old pictures for me and told me stories of the olden days. Sharmila Ji lent me a sari of hers that I used in the film. My mother also sent me a few saris from the era.
Both Sonya and Soha were extremely cooperative throughout. I look back and imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been for them to trust a new person who didn’t know anything about fashion and costumes! I didn’t appreciate their trust and cooperation back then half as much as I do now because I was literally like a chicken with my head cut off, but looking back at it now, I’m amazed at how cool they were about the whole thing. It was all really very encouraging. A little encouragement goes a long way, let me tell you!
How much freedom do you give to the actors while deciding on the overall look for a character?
I’m very proud of my work, and I take great pride in the way I do things, but still, I’m always willing to listen to people. I don’t think I’m a taskmaster. I do believe that an actor knows his body, but I also believe that sometimes, it’s important to push the limits otherwise your actors will never be willing to try new things. Costume designing is a dynamic process; it’s teamwork. The actors has to be comfortable enough to be the character they’re playing; the director has to be comfortable within his vision, and I as the costumer have to be able to listen to the ideas of both and create magic. My job is to make my actors comfortable with what I envision and give them to wear. I’m not insensitive to their insecurities, and will do whatever is in my power to make them comfortable. Sure, in the end I’ll probably just do what I’m most comfortable with, but I’m not averse to taking advice from anyone, including actors.

Of all the actors you’ve worked with so far, who was the easiest and most fun to work with? And who was the most difficult? Why?
Getting into the trade secrets, are we now!? Well, I think Vidya Balan was super fun to work with in the Dirty Picture, mainly because I was really pushing the limits with her. Ranbir Kapoor in Rocket Singh was also a dream come true. Making him a sardar and getting him to wear those clothes was a lot of fun.
I think Farhan Akhtar was a bit difficult to work with because Rock On was his first film and he was naturally nervous about facing the camera. He was very particular, and we were constantly at loggerheads. I remember Farhan kept insisting he wanted to wear the Jim Morrison kurta for his first concert in the film, and I told him no, because I didn’t think it would give out the right message.
I had a bit of a trouble getting Ranvir Singh’s look together for the Dum Dum song in Band Baaja Baraat—his first real Bollywood song where he’s actually out there, you know. Even I was nervous because Ranvir had put in a lot of effort into it, rehearsing non-stop for seven days to get the moves right, and I wanted his outfit to be just perfect.
So how common are actor-costume designer fights on a film’s set?
Very common! I’ve had lots of fights with actors and directors, but I think it’s all part of the game; nobody takes them seriously because we’re all working towards the same goal. Vidya and I had a lot of fights while working on The Dirty Picture. I was once at loggerheads with one of my directors. He was adamant about what he wanted and I was adamant about what I wanted! In the end, I think we both won because the up-market, modern-chic look I eventually created was very well received by the audience.
Do you prefer to buy stuff off the racks for your characters or do you enjoy creating clothes and accessories yourself?
I think it’s a bit of both, actually. It’s very exciting when you’re creating stuff yourself, but there’s a catch-22 there, because when I’m creating my own stuff, I go to my regular tailors, which means my stitch is not as beautiful as something Varun Bahl or Manish Aurora would create. When I sit with my tailor, it’s more like a casual home-production because like I said earlier, I haven’t studied fashion and stitching. I try to work with a lot of designers all over india. A lot of Vidya Balan’s gowns in The Dirty Picture, I got made from designers because I wanted the fit to be perfect, and they were all nice enough to go out of their way to create pieces especially for me because none of her costumes from the film are current.
Anushka’s wedding lehnga in Band Baaja Baraat was by Varun Bahl. I remember sitting in his office and irritating the hell out of him by taking over his kaarigars, dictating them and being a pain in Varun’s ass. The poor guy kept asking me to leave so he could do his work, and I refused to leave because I wanted him to create exactly what I wanted!
So you’re very picky when it comes to the small details?
Yes, I’m very picky. Honestly speaking, I think that’s the parsi in me. All the nit-picking; it’s who I am! For me, it’s the fine details that make it.
In Rock On, there’s a scene when Farhan is walking into the room, and I remember our budget was tight and Rishi Kapoor, the film’s director, asked me what kind of clothes I had in mind for that scene. I told him that as crazy as it may sound, I want to give Farhan really expensive shoes! Sure, no one was going to even notice the shoes, but they would give him the kind of walk I had envisioned, and so I was adamant: I wanted good shoes. I actually went and spent 9000 Rupees on a pair of shoes and everybody thought I was off my head! But I really wanted it done, and that one pair of expensive shoes did their magic.
If you see the filmography of my films, you’ll notice that I do things that are very different. After Rock On and Band Baaja Baraat, I could have done a lot of youth oriented films but I didn’t. I wanted a change. I don’t want to do another wedding film anytime soon.
That brings me to the next question: Band Baaja Baraat had a very desi wardrobe; Khoya Khoya Chand was a period film with ornate saris in great abandon, while Delhi Belly was all about the young, hip westernized big city kids. How challenging is the diversity?
I love the challenge. I’m not a fashion designer; I don’t have my own fashion line. I’m a costumer, which means that I should be able to, within the course of a script given to me, create characters. That’s the challenge. And so far I’m really enjoying the sense of creating. I know I haven’t done many films yet, but it’s been an interesting learning experience and I plan to do it a long time. My graph is very diverse and I like that. The idea of being stereotyped scares me; I don’t want people to think that I’m only good at doing wedding films or period films. To be honest, I didn’t even know I could do Indian clothes when I signed up for Band Baaja Baraat. I literally had my heart in my mouth while working on that film!

Yet, your work in Band Baaja Baraat won you more accolade than all your previous work combined, and you even won an IIFA for it. How does that make you feel?
I love the fact that people appreciate the work I did and that I actually won an award for the film. But walking onto the stage was hell, let me tell you. Don’t even ask how nervous I was! I hate going up on stage, really. Contrary to my overall image, I’m not comfortable in the limelight at all. Speaking to a huge crowd of people, knowing that they are watching me sends me into panic mode. I remember when they announced my name; I walked up and asked Arbaaz Khan and Malaika Aurora to hold me because I thought I was going to collapse!
Still, I guess it’s all worth it in the end. In a corporate job, you do good work and you expect your boss to pat you on the back and say you’ve done a good job. In this field, you get your feedback directly. Everything you do, whether good or bad, is on screen in 6 months, up for the public to review. And I think this is far better… I come from a small town called Jamshedpur, and recently, a local newspaper ran a story on me. I think that’s far greater than winning an IIFA. Its super exciting to have people from my old town give me phone calls of appreciation after reading an article about me in the newspaper. Knowing that people who knew me while growing up are proud of me and see that I’ve achieved something is very fulfilling.
What personal style elements do you always try to incorporate into the looks of the characters you develop?
I love working with real jewelry and fine accessories, and they’re very important to me. People might not even notice it, but for me, that’s what makes it. I have a big mental block when it comes to using fake jewelry, and I remember begging people to lend me stuff for Band Baaja Baraat because I wanted real stuff for the film. It’s not easy getting people to trust you with their real jewels like that, but when they place that trust in you, it feels great. Real jewelry and fine detailing is perhaps the only personal touches, yet, that I always try to incorporate into my work.
Have you ever considered visiting Pakistan?
A lot, actually! My dad was from Chakwal, and a lot of Ayoub’s family is from Karachi and Islamabad. We’ve both always wanted to visit them and explore the country. I don’t know much about your markets yet, but I’m sure you guys have a lot of hidden treasures that I’m sure I would enjoy exploring.
What’s your take on our general style and fashion sense? Any Pakistani style elements you’re particularly fond of?
I’m enthralled by the truck art of Pakistan. I find the bright colours and raw motifs supremely stimulating. In fact, I even considered using some truck art elements for the costumes in Band Baaja Baarat. I’ve always wanted to work with Pakistani designers. I think there’s a very specific style they bring that’s really exciting. I would love to have a Pakistani designer make something for one of my characters in the future.
Indian movies usually portray Pakistan as a place where all men wear sherwanis and women cover their heads with sheer dupattas, and the kids call their parents ammi-jaan and abba-huzoor. Is that how you guys really see us?
You know, I’m working with three young guys right now, and Ali Zafar is one of them… and I call him “Omer Sharif” because on the face of it, Ali is the only sharif one of the lot while the other two are very haraami. In reality, I’m sure it’s the opposite! And I don’t mean this in a derogatory or disrespectful way. There’s just something about you guys; a certain mix of sweetness, naughtiness and sexiness to the way you say stuff that’s very intimidating. Even you’re doing it right now as we speak! You might as well curse me right now, but I won’t know what hit me because you’ll do it in such a sweet way… and I love that! I think it’s because Pakistanis are so well-spoken and proper that we just have to portray them as sherwani-wearing gentlemen in our movies!
Any interesting upcoming projects that we should keep on the lookout for?
First of all, you have to wish me luck for The Dirty Picture. I’ve been getting a lot of good reviews for Vidya’s look in the film, but I’m afraid they’ve somehow made the trailers look better than the actual film. I hope I’m wrong about that! There are a few other projects in the pipeline, but for now, I’m working on David Dhawan’s Chasahme Buddoor with Ali Zafar!