From myth to sci-fi: Unique challenges of designing for 'Kalki 2898 AD'

Costume designer Archana Rao opens up about her latest work in Kalki 2898 AD, the extensive research behind the costume design, some of the new materials they discovered for the attires, and more
Poster of 'Kalki 2898 AD'
Poster of 'Kalki 2898 AD'File photo

A genre like science fiction, with its elaborate canvas, demands extensive world-building and detailing. Kalki 2898 AD, the latest sci-fi outing, posed a different challenge to costume designer Archana Rao and her team, as they not only had to think about the dystopian future the story is set in, but also had to design costumes for Indian mythological characters like Ashwatthama. The irony, however, lies in her taste of genres. “I don’t watch sci-fi. That’s the only genre I avoid,” says Archana rather candidly,

However, while working on the film, her indifference to the genre did not impede her work as she received ample guidance from her director, Nag Ashwin. “Sometimes, I would come up with ideas that I thought were innovative, but Nagi would have seen it elsewhere. He would not mince words to tell me to rework my designs,” she says.

Archana further adds that Nag Ashwin was very particular with his vision for the costumes. “We used a subgenre called Spicepunk, an Indian version of Cyberpunk, for the bounty hunters in the film. We never used any costume because it looked cool. There was a reason behind every thing.”

As Ashwatthama, played by Amitabh Bachchan, is one of the main leads of the film, one would assume that that would have been the toughest costume to design. On the contrary, Archana says that Ashwatthama’s costumes were one of the attires they finalised early on. “The minute Bachchan sir wore it, we had our Ashwatthama,” she shares.

While Nag Ashwin’s team helped her with basic research about Ashwatthama from the Mahabharatha, she says that a legend about the character was very helpful for her research. “The stories people have shared about seeing Ashwatthama in real life were the most interesting data I could gather. The stories mentioned that he still had wounds that he was nursing and that they were fresh with blood oozing out.

Costume designer Archana Rao
Costume designer Archana Rao

How is he healing his wounds?” she says, adding that they included bandages and turmeric to answer the question. For the bandages, Archana says they chose a specific type of cotton fabric to ensure that it didn’t irritate Amitabh, but also looked aged and dirty nonetheless. “Knowing his age, I wanted to make sure it was a softer cloth. We used the malkha cotton for him, which is a thin cotton, but it still has strength,” she reveals.

They wanted to replicate the bark of the tree as the texture of the cloth, which they printed on it. While that costume turned out to be a little easier than imagined, it was the attires of the bounty hunters that posed a challenge. “At one action scene, there were 700 fighters, for whom we had to create costumes that would be comfortable as they performed stunts. We reworked those attires to ensure the artists’ agility.” Archana also had to think 800 years into the future.

“Plastics, that we are currently throwing out, are probably not going to decompose even 800 years down the lane. So we designed the costumes out of plastics and other scraps that might be found in a dystopic land. But we didn’t stitch a single fabric out of such a material. We mixed and matched with various materials to show how people may be using anything they find to cover themselves from the arid weather,” she explains.

Archana and her team also came up with new materials. “For functional pieces, like for the raiders, we have used a material called poly-oil. We created moulds of the desired shapes, like the chest plates worn by bounty hunters. These pieces were then cast in poly-oil, a flexible rubber-like material,” she says, adding that the material came as an idea to them after seeing its usage by the art department. The team used foam latex for Prabhas’ costume. “Foam latex is a very flexible material that takes the shape of the person wearing it. In the film, Bhairavaa has designed his suit from materials he has found lying around,” she explains.

Pointing out the meticulous attention to detail, Archana says, “We made some women wear sarees in the background because even if it is the future, we’re still in India, a country proud of its culture. Similarly, some clothing here and there had embroidery, as we wanted to highlight our Indian handicrafts and make the sci-fi aspect of the costumes Desi too.” With a decade-long career as a fashion designer with her own label, Archana is relatively new to costume design. On this unplanned shift to costume design, Archana concludes by saying, “I was always a huge film lover but I didn’t plan my transition from fashion design to film costume designing. But when it happened, it just seemed so natural to me that I just dove into it, and I wish to work for more such films.”

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The New Indian Express