MAXIMA BASU started her career as an assistant to Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire. With her keen eye for characterisation, she soon forayed into costume design. She is known for layering her costumes in a way that brings forth the inner turmoil and journey of each character. Her work includes Peepli Live, Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani,
I met Maxi in college where I was doing a course in advertising and she was studying films. In a world rife with manufactured opinions and confirmation bias, I’ve always admired her ability to keep an open mind, embrace the unfamiliar and reach out to people. Perhaps that's what makes her work complex and layered.
PERSON OF INTEREST is a continuing series of informal chats with fellow independent thinkers bound by a common desire to create new meaning. Dvibhumi Lunch Box is my dabba of mental nourishment and I'm sharing it with you. Tuck in! - Vyshnavi
What do you love the most about your line of work?
Costume design is done usually around a story and for characters with life. These are characters with a past and a goal within the film or drama. That’s the part which fascinates me as it does not entail glamourising a lifeless object. It may sometimes require you to make things uglier. I find it purposeful and meaningful. It may require restraint many times, to put the right amount of ingredients and not overdo it. I find it mindful, and it keeps me fulfilled emotionally because it demands travelling through many experiences, research material and emotions to arrive at a perfect character sketch. Also, I am not under any pressure to sell my art, so the liberty of visualising at freewill is a pleasure. Artistically, I can’t complain. I have had the opportunity to work with some great minds, and I have had great artistic encounters, but sometimes you have to understand the commerce of film making and stick to basics. I feel I am a fairly undefined person artistically. I don’t have a very strong artistic angst that gets challenged, so I flow well. I am more an experiential sort of a person, so in that sense, the job really suits me.
But you studied films. Not fashion design...
“Costume Designer” still sounds strange, because I never aimed to be one. But I love stories, I love imagining different characters, I love fabrics, I love physically working with colours and dyes. I love metals, leather, earth and clay. Costume design merges everything. I only understood while working for films as an assistant director that I am not a player of words or images, but of physical elements. Visually merging all these elements to make beautiful footage gives me a kick.
You have a very diverse portfolio that includes theatre productions, dressing up stars, Ram Leela, Peepli Live, Bajirao Mastani and now Dangal. Is there something that defines your approach to work?
It is very easy to change my perspective. I really flow with suggestions and insights that come from different people be it my directors, assistants or workers. I don’t stress on my unique approach. To create harmonising concepts is more important to me than to struggle to make my independent idea come through. If I feel very strongly about something, I really push for it, but the aim is to always work in harmony with the environment. I believe any artistic attempt will have a certain individuality that comes through. But it should happen naturally. There is a story, and there is a story teller. I am an extended arm of the storyteller. I need to understand the vision of the film and the filmmaker. Once that is in place, the real work starts. I have never had problems gelling with my directors or actors, because there is a premise that we work on. And each film director or actor that I have worked with has been so different from the other that there always has been something new to learn. I try not to stick to the same kind of things. Adaptation is the name of the game. For every project you set up a tiny industry that gets dismantled at the end of it. And then you start again!
So how do you go about building a wardrobe for a film?
Building a wardrobe starts the moment I get my brief. If it reminds me of a charm in my closet, a textile patch I saw somewhere in the past or connects with whatever influence I might have at that time, I try to bring it all together. I take a lot of time to feel, absorb and research my characters. I procure what I need. Ageing and layering are very important for me and that comes next. I put it all together on a dummy and then I make my final garment and look. Multiply that with all the characters and envisioning them in their set ups, and the wardrobe is ready.
Looking beyond films, where do you go for inspiration?
It is so varied. I like Seurat, Monet, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Freida Kahlo, sculptors like Botticelli, nothing unusual really. But I am a traveller, and I really learn from my experiences with people and textures that I come across. I am a naturalist of sorts, a pantheist maybe. I love tribal rural arts of India, and I try and follow all sorts of installation artists. In fashion, I really admire Alexander Mc Queen’s art, I follow Rohit Bal and Sabyasachi. My choices are very straight and classic. I like art rich in tradition with a twist. I love the rich cultural heritage of our country, and my land inspires me the most. There is so much I owe to my roots. At the same time, I admire the Western tradition of preservation and attention to detail. I love history. I love stories about kingdoms and ancestries. So I keep reading about them. I like doing handicrafts. I like travelling. I am a dreamer, a floater. I never stick to any one thing that can be called my passion.
Being an independent creative is often glamourised. How difficult is it?
I might be one of the luckier ones who hasn't had it very hard. Personal challenges have to do with garnering more skills as I have not been trained in costume design. I have had to learn everything on my own. But I have been quick at it. Professionally, there is a constant struggle to do a different kind of script or a different set up. I really work hard so that I have varied body of work. As an independent creative you have to deal with the lack of stability, not having a constant income and the lack of control on your personal time.
What is next for Maxima Basu?
A lot more films, more stories, more worlds. I eventually want to work on my independent label, but I am yet to find true inspiration and channels for it. It needs to have a wider social meaning. It will happen when its time comes. I also want to have a strong and happy family and be surrounded by my loved ones.
(All pictures published with the kind permission of Maxima Basu.)