Celebrated filmmaker and fashion designer Muzaffar Ali is hoping to make a “design statement” with his latest big-budget period drama which features hundreds of ornate costumes.
The 71-year-old, who directed cult classic Umrao Jaan three decades ago, and owns Indian couture label House of Kotwara, said he designed and made the clothes for the love story Jaanisaar with his “band of artisans” over one year.
The film, which Ali was promoting in London last week, is set in 1876 and based around the conflict of cultures in the making in British India, following the first war of Indian Independence.
The romance between anglicised Ameer and the beautiful courtesan Noor is set against a backdrop of a changing country where locals returned to their motherland after experiencing a taste of the west and what it had to offer.
Ali’s wife Meera Ali, who also runs the successful fashion line, worked on the film as a producer, and helped to handpick the elaborate ensembles for the main characters.
The director told Eastern Eye the film, which is set in the last years of the Mughal rule, promised to be a visual delight because of the ornate, hand-made apparel.
“The costumes are very organic. They go according to the scene, time and place, according to the East and West coming together, and show the first elements of Victorian influence,” Ali said.
“It took about a year to make the costumes. There are hundreds of them. It was a lot of work, with the male character’s change taking place when he goes from the east to the west, and all the little accessories. The footwear from the 1870s becomes very important – you don’t get that type of shoe in India so I had to design it and make it myself in Kotwara.
“It was, in a way, a design statement. I have a whole band of artisans, we did nothing else for a year. We focused entirely on the film. We had 200 tailors, embroiderers and shoe makers.”
Ali gained critical acclaim following his 1981 hit Umrao Jaan which starred veteran actress Rekha as a courtesan who embarks on an ill-advised love affair with an aristocrat.
His new film takes place in the period following the war when the Indian resistance was crushed.
Ali said: “The whole Westernisation process had begun. People were transported to London and they came back to India completely anglicised, looking down on their own culture.
“There’s a romance between a young girl who is nursed on these revolutionary values, and there’s a young boy who has come from England. He’s an Indian boy who comes to see the grassroots reality through her eyes.”
The legendary director, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, asked renowned stylist Pernia Qureshi, to play the main lead role in his ambitious movie, despite the fact that she had never acted before. Delhi-born Qureshi took up classical Indian dancing as a four-year-old, and soon became an accomplished performer before a successful career in fashion. She said the film would touch people’s hearts because it offered romance, beautiful songs and had a very strong patriotic strand.
Ali waited six months to sign Lahore-based actor Imran Abbas who plays Qureshi’s love interest. The fashion designer, who has also produced several documentaries, said he cut sections of the film – which is two hours long – to create a “lean narrative”. He is hoping the epic production will ignite curiosity in viewers to learn about the issues relating to the period in history.
Ali said women in Indian cinema were not as highly valued as their male counterparts.
“For big films, they ask you who the hero is first. In recent times, there have been films that have done well because of high-powered performances by women. They have made their presence credible and engaging like Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom, and Kalki Koechlin in Margarita With A Straw,” he said.
Having worked in the Indian film industry for almost 40 years now, Ali said he had seen it change dramatically. “The whole tradition of grassroots-connected films has lost its continuity. People like Mr (Satyajit) Ray were digging deep into issues and literature that touched them and they were making cinema out of it, that was lost somewhere. Audiences have become more superficial. A revival will only take place if we establish global audiences for these type of films.”
Jaanisaar will be released in August.