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Woman of many hats: Dolly Ahluwalia muses about an eventful career

Dolly Ahluwalia, a veteran costume designer for Bollywood, who won a National Award for her work in Bandit Queen, talks to Munish Dhiman about acting, cinema, theatre — she was a theatre artist for nine years — and the challenges of her latest designing project, Haider.

Munish Dhiman  9th Aug 2014

Dolly Ahluwalia

cting might have added yet another National Award to her kitty (for assaying the role of Ayushmann Khurrana's doting mother in Vicky Donor), but it was costume designing that established Dolly Ahluwalia in Bollywood. In an exclusive interview with Guardian20, Dolly spoke at length about her acting, costume-designing and, to cap it all, her abiding passion for the stage.

Born and brought up in Delhi, a career in theatre has never been a cherished dream for Ahluwalia. She takes it as something pre-destined. She recalls, "After I finished my intermediate, I had the following options: pursuing a career as air-hostess, studying hotel management or joining the National School of Drama (NSD). But I firmly stood my ground and decided to join NSD in 1976. After the interview was over, my dad expressed his keen desire to watch a play in the evening where Pankaj Kapoor was performing. After watching the play, I said to myself: 'I am made for the stage.'"

For Ahluwalia, who started her Bollywood journey as a costume designer with Shekhar Kapur›s Bandit Queen in 1993 (the film bagged her a National Award), designing happened via a twist of fate. She says, "Our costume teacher, Roshan Alkazi, would give us tasks to churn out good costumes and I was good at creating the best of costumes, given the wherewithal. It was during those task-giving sessions that I realized costumes were an integral part of theatre and designing them was indeed a task most challenging. I got so inclined to designing that it became an abiding passion for me which remains the warp and woof of my psyche."

After having worked on several characters and more than a dozen scripts, including Midnight's Children, Omkara, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Ahluwalia's focus remains on giving life to a character through costumes. Ahluwalia says, "Hailing from a middle class family I learnt the value of time and money since my childhood days. This has helped me a lot both professionally and otherwise to conduct myself. I never handle several projects at one time as I have to do a lot of innovative work on costumes when a specific project in on the agenda. I believe in concentrating on one subject at a time and delivering my 100% to make it look life like."

After working with seasoned actors like Saif Ali Khan, Aamir Khan, Farhan Akthar and some of the top directors, Ahluwalia says that the most crucial part for a costume designer is to persuade an artist to buy your ideas. She promptly adds, "It is very important to receive a positive response from the team you are working with. Furthermore, it is indeed tough to make the stars to buy your ideas, to say the least, but I had been lucky on both counts." 

Sourcing locally can’t be summarily ruled out for giving a realistic look, but Ahluwalia believes in making most costumes herself. In Haider, too, she has recreated several stunning costumes.

he goes on to clarify, "I derive my creativity from nature, including smell, sound, animals and objects." Ahluwalia's latest costume designing projects include Shahid Kapoor-starrer Haider, all set to hit big screen in October this year. Sharing her experience in the movie, she says, "Haider was a different kind of a challenge. This was a genre that I had never touched before and it made me nervous, in a sense. As per the (Shakespearean) theme on hand, the work on Kashmiri costumes became even more demanding. This project took me back to a bygone era; the Kashmir of the 1990s. A comprehensive study was essential to get a feel for the right kind of wardrobe for the cast."

Sourcing costumes locally can't be summarily ruled out for giving a realistic look, but Ahluwalia believes in making most costumes herself. In Haider, too, she has recreated several stunning costumes. Besides her passion for designing, Ahluwalia admitted that she was wedded heart and soul to acting as well. After graduating from the NSD she worked at the division's preparatory company for 9 years and was a part of several plays. About her passion for acting, Dolly says, "Theatre is my first love. Designing just happened while performing serious theatre and that's it." And, on being asked if she had to choose between the 70 mm screen and the theatre, pat comes the reply: "Theatre, undoubtedly. It is my strength, my identity, my passion and, above all, a launch pad where I experimented and explored my talent."

On being asked about the offers that poured in from different production houses, after her memorable role of a quintessential mummyji, she says. "I was pleasantly surprised that everyone approached me and offered me the role that I played in Vicky Donor. But I didn't want to be a stereotype. I am an actor who is keen on doing realistic cinema. I would be happy doing role of a mad woman walking naked on the streets, but doing one thing again and again is not my cup of tea."

Dolly has several offers in hand but does not want to make a hasty decision. "I believe in realistic cinema and would prefer doing a role which is close to my heart, where I think I could deliver to the most demanding audience. The script has to touch something deep down inside me. If I am ready to give my best shot, my audience would receive it with the same intensity."


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