Lootera Deconstructed

There is nothing as much of its time as the period film – see successive Jane Austen adaptations for e.g.  I am therefore not terribly fussed about authenticity in period films, though it is always pleasurable if filmmakers do their homework and you get a film that feels truly authentic.

First off the bat, I really liked Lootera.  As you will see, it is a work of love and not a movie that puts its 1950s heroine in a Manish Malhotra sari for the modern audience:). The post is intended as a simple comparison between the way it was in the 50s and the way we wish to perceive it today.  This perception is subjective yet even my aunt – an easily satisfied movie viewer –  felt it wasn’t always 1950s in tone. So I will also try and isolate elements in the movie costuming that could lead to this feeling.

Lootera is set in a specific year, 1953. In which year the West Bengal Estates Acquisition Act was implemented, the effects of which form a crucial part of the film. The heroine, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), is the daughter of a zamindar. Though not explicitly stated in the film, the family is probably orthodox Hindu and not Brahmo (for the contrasting dress of women from the zamindar families and Brahmo women, see for e.g. the characters played by Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Though of course the film is set in an earlier time). But Pakhi has been to Santiniketan, an institute founded by Tagore, a Brahmo, and is no doubt influenced by it.  The setting is a small town/village in Bengal.  Such specificity in itself makes it a bit hard for the costuming department. In fact I myself take liberty in comparing it with the decade and not the year.

While the male protagonist is possibly from UP/Bihar (Varun Shrivastav, played by Ranveer Singh), the film is also an ode to 1950s Hindi cinema, specifically some of Dev Anand‘s film noir.  Styling for the key male characters therefore derives from the “petty gangster cool” characteristic of Dev Anand’s 1950s films. So there is a little bit of dissonance in this because the costuming for the female characters is not always film inspired.

With that background, first up the plain sari. Which features in Lootera. This was very much around in the 1950s, albeit not always  with a “matching” blouse. Rather, as someone on tumblr earlier noted, they tend to be brocade/art silk and brilliant for contrast (pic 4 comes closest). There is also a single occurrence of the brooch, a staple of Indian period films. It was sort of dying out by the 1950s. Then again it is Manikpur:)

Brocade blouses, closed neck blouses, V neck blouses with patterned neckline borders are all seen in the 1950s and they also feature in Lootera. I like that.

In the above set, a number of saris have gold/zari borders. While very much a trend in the 1920s and 1930s, they are of course seen in every decade after.  And in a number of non-film photographs of the 1950s, many of the handlooms with which we are now familiar appear. It is a quibble particular to me, but the woven Mangalgiri with zari kind of sari that seems to be used in Lootera always seems contemporary Indian urban to me. The 1950s saris tend to be more like this.

I post quite often about the necklines of the 1940s/1950s.  The square neck/sweetheart neckline here  echoes those trends. The yellow sari and blouse is probably the closest to images I routinely see of films of the decade. A definite plus in my book.

Simpler printed blouses were also common in the 50s. In fact in pic 1 below on Devyani (Shirin Guha) paired with a Bengal cotton sari it echoes Suchitra Sen. The film also uses Bengal cotton saris now and then (on Devyani in pic 3, on Sakhi in pic 4).  The printed silk (I am assuming then too a Santiniketan staple) appears. As does a black sari which kind of looks like Kalakshetra saris (pic 6).  I am not sure if it was intentional but it certainly adds an “artist girl of the 50s” touch 🙂

Of course there is the Occasion = Banarasi brocade! These saris seem to be under a cloud these days what with net saris and the world’s gemstones on it.

On the whole therefore the costumes for the women do in one way or the other evoke the 1950s in India.  If I had to tinker with it, I would change the way blouses and saris are paired. And though Bengal tended to stick to handlooms, I think a few synthetic saris or printed cottons wouldn’t have gone amiss. What looks to us like the 200 ₹ sari now was actually quite coveted in its time (worn here by Madhubala for e.g.). To be fair, the film does use plain synthetic saris.  Also in a minor vein, the open neck and 3/4 sleeve blouse (see below) while around in the 1950s isn’t something I would necessarily use to evoke the decade.

The bindi was actually not common in the 50s for unmarried girls, especially in Bengal and North India. This may seem surprising to us but the tradition of wearing a bindi from girlhood is seen more in South India.  I found the use of the bindi for Pakhi in all the Manikpur scenes a bit jarring but in all fairness I must point out that it was not uncommon amongst Santiniketan students. That tucked in sari pallu should also have been present though:)


Santiniketan (1955)

Similarly as far as I know the nose ring is not common in Bengal. If this is incorrect, please let me know!


There is also the hair. Which of course is hard to get right in period dramas.  Hair in the 50 was styled but in that very “Jabakusum telway (Jabakusum tel=Hair oil with hibiscus extracts). The bun common in this decade is a simplified version of the old Indian coiffeurs. The single thick braid was common, though not in Bengal. For young women, ribbons were common. Often, especially in Bengal, hair was left loose. In fact it wasn’t particularly styled, partly because a cloud of hair is often described in our poetry as attractive.  I think the movie does try to get this right but sometimes you are left thinking coned or not coned. There is also the makeup which tends towards the modern. I suspect the use of powder kind of got popular with this decade. The make up below for e.g. is fairly typical of the 50s:


Also saris tend to be draped far more casually in the 50s. Even though this is the case with Lootera i.e. it is not the modern draped to an inch style, it still looks more formal and less lived in.

As a rough comparison (and very rough indeed given the film is set in a boarding house in Calcutta and the main character is middle class), here is Suchitra Sen in the 1953 Sharey Chuattar (below). A number of elements will be familiar if you have followed the 50s posts. And now I wonder why Pakhi didn’t wear the Bengal sari drape even once! The wedding sari (last pic) as you can see is also quite different.

On to the men! In the 50s suits were common. The trouser was kind of baggy and high waisted; white shirts were common. Shoes tended to be classic or sandals were worn. This photograph, from Linus Pauling‘s 1955 visit, is an e.g. As also of Dev Anand on the sets of Baazi.



However, the film is in fact part homage to Dev Anand’s films of the 1950s which featured conmen who fall in love and reform plots. Plus the actor himself had a constructed urban and debonair persona. The costumes for the conmen is intended to evoke this. If you look at the costuming for the characters of Varun and Devdas in this context, it is fairly accurate. And of course there is the 1950s pomade. Props for the shirt pockets but I am not sure those shoes and the straw boater and the uber layering were quite the go in 1953!

For comparison, Dev Anand in movies like Jaal, CID and Baazi and with his wife, Kalpana Kartik.

KN Singh was very KN Singh. Being KN Singh is fairly easy:)

The movie also had a few nice touches by way of props etc. E.g. the niche with the mirror, a copy of Illustrated Weekly (second pic). And of course vintage car!

To sum up, Lootera is true to the decade (1950s) and time but also departs from it in significant ways for a contemporary audience. In fact the least 1950s part of it is the soundtrack, a given for all Indian movies which seem unable or do not want to to recreate the sound of the decade. But this is not to criticise the movie at all which is well made and has a good amount of attention to detail. The costumes, even when inaccurate, are beautiful to look at. The purpose of the post as I said is to help contrast the actual clothing of the decade with the way it is reimagined in 2013. Long as it is, I hope the post shows this clearly!

PostScript: This took forever. Many thanks to my new music crush, 10cm, for providing a very unlikely sound backdrop. Take it away, Americano and Han River Farewell!

About Anu M

A potted history of Indian clothing and fashion.
This entry was posted in 1950s, 20th century, 21st century, Actor, Bengal, Bollywood, Cinema, Contemporary, Costume, Early 20th Century, fashion, Hair, India, Indian Cinema, Indian Dress, Indian fashion, Indian men, Indian Women, Movies, Old Bollywood, Period Drama, Sari, Sari Blouse, Sets, Tumblr, Vintage, Vintage Blouse, vintage fashion, vintage sari, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Lootera Deconstructed

  1. I absolutely loved this post. I can very much see that it would have taken forever to write this, but the detailing is amazing. I enjoyed reading this very much

  2. ninagrandiose says:

    Informative and entertaining…and an excellent post. Thanks.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Excellent post about a film I love!
    Nice point that the saris should look more lived-in. A girl living in a village , even if she is the zamindar’s daughter who has studied in Shanti Niketan, would be rather more girlish and casual in her everyday dressing

    One question: why do you say the soundtrack is the least 1950s part of the film? It didn’t seem that way to me

    • Anu M says:

      Thank you! I liked the film and there is a lot of thought behind it but yes there are a few “off” points. I guess it’s difficult for a modern actress to recreate that lived-in look. Plus modern auds I think would not take to the lived in look even though 1950s films have no problem with it.

      Re the soundtrack it’s hard for me to explain with respect to technical aspects as my knowledge is limited. But I listen to a lot of old music and each decade has a particular ‘sound”, a particular way with lyrics. I don’t think Indian movies recreate this. Lootera’s music while different has that modern processed sound for lack of better words. And voices then had a different feel probably due to the recording. It’s like the 30s have that on the spot recording feel (which i think a film like Bhumika didn’t get) and the 50s have that studio recording sound while our times I don’t know its a lot more electronic?

      So yes its merely my impression and I have little to back it but that’s what I felt!

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks for the reply.
        Yes, the songs written for the film are not much like those from the 50s. But I liked the way they used actual songs playing on the radio (Tadbeer se bigdi hui and Yaad Kiya dil ne)

      • Anu M says:

        Oh yes those touches were perfect! And so much of the time the movie was set in.

    • Anu M says:

      PS: But everyone I know loves the soundtrack and finds it fits the mood and decade so I am in a minority of one:)

  4. anonymous says:

    About synthetic saris & perhaps printed cottons too: Films stars like Madhubala and the middle classes wore them.
    My impression is the feudals and the old money set did not. Think of MGD, Indira Gandhi, …

    • Anu M says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      The royalty seemed to wear french chiffons or similar stuff for a long time. I see it even today-though the style dates back to the 1920s.

      I haven’t covered it here but I did a separate post on the freedom movement (as well as schools like Kalakshetra and Santiniketan). Handlooms were the norm from the 30s onwards – almost all women politicians of the era are in handlooms, including Mrs Gandhi.

      So in this decade post I kind of try and do what was new in the decade but its not the entire picture of the decade:)

      • anonymous says:

        Yes, for the royalty it’s French chiffons or full traditional costume. I think of the zamindars as a variety of royalty .

  5. anonymous says:

    Not related to clothing, one thing they seem to have got wrong is the kitchen in the Dalhousie house. Kitchens in hill station homes were sooty and smoky and not always attached to the main house

    • Anu M says:

      Yes that’s true. But I think it really depended on the house. My dad was in the Army and we stayed in a few old houses and the design of the kitchen and so on would change. I am guessing too that they sourced one of the older homes?

      • anonymous says:

        I can speak with some actual knowledge here. For Pakhi’s house they used the 100-year old forest rest house in Kalatop wildlife sanctuary just outside Dalhousie. It’s a lovely place but barrack style and quite small. Rich people usually had bigger, grander houses.
        The interiors are a Bombay studio and the kitchen is wrong for the Dalhousie of those days.

  6. Rema Kumar says:

    Amazing – just discovered your blog, and as a textile designer, I am totally floored by the extent of your research.. So curious to learn more about you.. Also, do let me know if some of your posts can be shared on ‘For The Love Of Sari’ page, with your permission. I think they should reach out to more and more people out there…

    • Anu M says:

      Thanks a lot Rema for your words which made me happy:) Not sure what I can add about myself….I am a scientist, textiles and fashion is my hobby. I am Tamil – so you may see a fair few Tamil posts around! – and I absolutely adore Ancient Indian history so you may see a fair bit of that too. I used to live in Sydney but of late I have been travelling a fair bit and am a little obsessed with East Asian fashion these days.

      No worries, you can share any of the posts. I blog a lot more on tumblr but I make sure they are duplicated on wordpress over time.

      • Rema Kumar says:

        Thanks for your reply. I’m a malayali who grew up in Chennai and now settled in Delhi for almost 20 years. Am new to the world of blogs and yet to explore tumblr. It was wonderful to have stumbled on your extensive blog while searching information for my page – https://www.facebook.com/fortheloveofsari

        Thanks for your permission to share some of your posts. As I mentioned earlier, it would be wonderful if more and more readers could enjoy your research and efforts. Keep up the great work!

      • Anu M says:

        Ah thanks for the link…will check out the facebook page. Its great to see sari blogs!

  7. Mallika says:

    I think this is going to be a nice read, but I’m stuck on the first sentence – I have been unable to decipher it. Can you help?
    “There is nothing as much of its time as the period film”: After a bit of effort, I understood this to mean period films are a good a representation of “their time”, but this is belied by the text that immediately follows “– see successive Jane Austen adaptations for e.g. I am therefore not terribly fussed about authenticity in period films”

    Ah, I got it! “their time” as in, the time they were filmed, not the time they’re trying to represent.
    Okay, that makes sense.

    • Anu M says:

      Yes that’s right. I meant a period film is never “authentic” but a reflection of the year or decade it is made in and in line with sensibilities prevalent at the time.

  8. vivek kumar says:

    In film Aandhiyan pic….. Gurudutt, Vijay Anand ,Dev, Chetan & …. who is extreme right ? Jal Mistry ?

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