By Junsui Films | December 2012
The Costume Designer talks exclusively to Junsui Films about alternating between Bollywood and Hollywood, finding inspiration in old family photographs, and tells us all about his latest film, LIFE OF PI…
Junsui Films: You regularly alternate between Bollywood and Hollywood, as a costume designer how challenging is it operating in two strikingly diverse cinematic cultures?
Arjun Bhasin: It’s actually very exciting for me. I’ve spent the greater part of my career between Mumbai and New York and I’ve come to identify clearly the differences between the two cinematic languages.
They’re very similar in many ways – the work ethic, the hours, the struggle, the budget structure – yet uniquely different. It’s exciting to be able to move ideas from one to the other and allow the differences to influence my work within the different systems. Life of Pi was the perfect confluence of this; a film created within the Hollywood system and made in India by an international director and crew. It was the perfect project for me.
JF: What is it that attracts you to the medium of film and what is the key factor you look for when deciding to take on a project?
I’ve always loved film. I went to film school at NYU and studied filmmaking before branching into design. I love the collaborative element of making a movie. The idea of all these visual artists coming together to create a single piece – each with their own unique expertise, their own vision and locking themselves away from their lives with a blueprint (a script in this case) and emerging months later having contributed to a product.
I tend to choose projects based on many factors. I’m always keen to work with people who inspire me – that’s first. Then, a location that excites me or a story that I can relate to. It’s as much about having a life experience as it is about creating interesting work.
JF: How aware were you of Yann Martel’s novel before you became involved in the adaptation?
I read the novel when it first appeared on the stands. I never dreamed that it could be adapted into a film, let alone considered that I could be a part of that adaptation. To be honest, I didn’t visualise it when reading the book. It’s such a cerebral piece of literature – much more about ideas than visuals. When I read David Magee’s script it was with completely different eyes. I had to force myself to think of the visuals and to his credit they were clear and very well defined in the script.
JF: As well as the novel, did you have any other sources of inspiration (fashion or otherwise) when designing the costumes for Life of Pi?
I grew up in India in the ‘70s and when I read the script I felt so in touch with the vibe of the time that I felt the way to pitch the design to Ang [Lee] was to use family histories. The bulk of my research and inspirations were old family photos. My own, those of friends, acquaintances, friends of friends. My team and I created album upon album of family photos for Pi and his family – starting from his childhood through to his teenage years.
JF: Despite the film’s visual grandeur the narrative remains a subtle, yet highly emotive coming-of-age saga; as a costume designer was this something you were keen to capture when styling the characters?
It was very important to Ang that we remain true to the period and also to the milieu of the film. It was very important to me that the design reflect the mental state of the character. The Piscine Molitor sequence for instance is very much the idea of what a fantasy would look like in the mind of a child. Pi’s parents too, though real, were also just memories of what he thought they were rather than actual representations. His romance with Anandi in a swirl of magical colours was also very much symbolic of Pi’s state of mind.
JF: How involved were the actors throughout the design process and were there any characters that proved particularly enjoyable to costume?
Actors play such a huge part in the design of a character. There’s a constant back and forth of how far to push a character and where the actors want to go with it. The physicality of a person is so important to the characterisation. All actors are thrilling in their own way. For example, Gerard Depardieu who plays the Chef on the ship – my initial idea was that his costume be stained with blood and guts and grease but his acting and body language conveyed the character’s violence so succinctly that there was no need for us to go that far.
JF: And finally, how did it feel to be back in New York styling Can a Song Save Your Life?
After a very internal journey on Life of Pi I was shooting a political thriller called The Reluctant Fundamentalist with Mira Nair, which we shot between Atlanta, New Delhi and Istanbul. Coming back to New York and doing Can a Song Save Your Life came as a happy inclusion to my repertoire. The film takes place in modern day NYC and is about struggling musicians and I felt like I got to relive my college days. It was a treat.
Life of Pi is out now.