Designer Chaitanya Rao on his latest projects and collaborating with Tamil cinema’s leading actors for their films
Chaitanya Rao has a grouse. Most people know him as a designer. “But only few know me as a costume designer,” says Chaitanya who has just finished working on Reunion, one of the stories in the recently-released Putham Pudhu Kalai, a collection of five short films on Amazon Prime. Reunion saw him working with Leela Samson, Andrea Jeremiah and Sikkil Gurucharan.
Since it was shot during various stages of lockdown, sourcing garments was a challenge. “Everything was shut. Luckily, I had managed to get a few options from Hyderabad and the rest were borrowed out of Andrea and Leela mam’s wardrobe,” he laughs.
This particular short was directed by Rajiv Menon. “I felt like life had come a full circle because I first started out as an assistant costume designer for Minsara Kannavu, which was also directed by Rajiv,” says Chaitanya, who wants to work on a period film someday.
With 50-plus movies to his credit, the city-based designer has done it all; from fixing a garment in a few hours to redoing an entire look for a song in one night. “When it comes to creating your own fashion line, you have the luxury of taking three to four months to design a collection. The whole dynamic changes when you are working on a film,” he says.
He feels that it is important to remember to not use the entire collection on an actor just because one is the costume designer for a film. “What you create should incorporate the brief of the director while keeping in mind the actor, choreographer and your aesthetics,” he explains.
The time factor is also a major difference between the two worlds he straddles. “Fashion is what you want to showcase: you are looking at one season ahead. But for films, it is important to create a timeless look because sometimes they can take up to two years to get completed,” he says. With a crop of newcomers entering the world of styling, the experienced designer has a word of caution: With a lot of brands now available in the city, it might be easier to source clothes and accessories but make sure the look you put together doesn’t look like something you’ve picked off a store.”
Despite being part of the fashion and film industry for nearly two decades and having worked with popular actors like Trisha, Asin, Simran, Madhavan and Mahesh Babu, Chaitanya believes there is no room for complacency. “You have to constantly make sure there is a freshness to their look. They can’t end up looking like clones,” says the costume designer, who is currently on the Nayanthara-starrer Netrikann and an untitled project with Jayam Ravi and Taapsee Pannu.
In Netrikann, Nayanthara plays a visually challenged girl, so her clothes had to be practical. “In movies, we usually use a lot of fitted outfits with zips at the back and other such details but here these had to be clothes that are easy to slip on and are fluid,” he explains.
Even little details like the wristwatch worn by Nayanthara had to be researched; Chaitanya sourced an easy-to-slip-on watch from the US. “It has a button that opens the glass on top so the wearer can touch and feel the time. These are things we don’t realise and take for granted. Hopefully, after the film releases, it’ll make a difference for the visually challenged here,” he adds.
His calender is packed. Juggling a couple of films at the same time plus attending to clients is demanding, he confesses, adding, “I do not want to let any of them down, even if it means working from 4 am to 9 pm everyday, which is my current operating schedule.”