She belongs to the ‘mega’ family. Megastar Chiranjeevi is her dad; actor Ram Charan her brother. But pardon us that introduction of her; it’s not her only identity. The reason we chose this introduction, however, is because we asked her how did costume designing happen, considering she comes from a family of great actors; and Sushmita Konidela told us acting wasn’t her calling; costume designing was. That instantly set the mood for this interview at her office in Jubilee Hills.
“After school, I pursued fashion designing at NIFT; following which, I continued with Fashion Styling and Photography for Media at London College of Fashion. Costume designing has always been a very conscious choice,” she begins to tell us. “So, even though acting runs in the family, I never thought about it. Perhaps because I have always been a creative person and inclined towards design.”
FIRST BREAK AT 19
My first project was for an ad, Thumbs Up, with my dad. We worked with Leo Burnett from Mumbai. I remember my dad introduced me to the ad agency, but after that, he wasn’t there in any of the meetings. The agency gave me a design brief, and I had to come up with a look-book. Back then, it was a lot of paperwork. When they liked what I presented, they asked me to get my dad’s approval on the same. Now, that moment was really exciting because dad liked the look I presented. It was a leather jacket and denim — very rugged and macho; bikers look. I immediately headed to source the clothes, taking my classmate along. We ran around all the possible markets in Hyderabad, got the look done, and in two days we were able to give him the fittings. He was impressed!
But let me also add that when you are fresh out of college, just 19 or 20, and working, you do not understand stardom. I looked at this project as an assignment. I did not at that point understand the scale of it. I also didn’t feel the pressure. Of course, Chiranjeevi is big, but for me, it was a student project rather than designing for a star. Also, since my project was not for a film, it was therefore much more professional. Here in the Telugu film industry, I know the director, the producer, almost everyone… but my first project just happened to be with someone I had never met before.
STYLING DAD, THE MEGASTAR
It’s definitely a challenge to be styling or designing for a star of his stature. However, I think what helped was our upbringing, which has taught both Charan and I to stay true to whatever we do. So, there’s no ‘discount’ because I am my dad’s daughter. And because we are a family of professionals in a similar field of work, it is important to have that space. We give family utmost importance, but once we are at work, we are completely professional. The only advantage is that I have access to him; I can get him on a phone call, which for someone else can be difficult. But in terms of proving myself or working hard, it’s as challenging as it would be for anyone else. In fact, maybe dad feels that because I am his daughter, I should strive harder to work his looks better. Honestly, if he was accepting everything I give, I would not have been able to improve.
DAD’S COMMITMENT IS UNMATCHED
The commitment that my dad has towards work (no matter how much we strive) we both (her brother Charan and her) cannot match. That’s the reason why he is where he is and what he is. Like right now, both Charan and I have put our whole lives into our work, but we still can’t get to the stage at which my dad is. He loves his work with all his heart. And I can say this with utmost conviction because we have been an audience to his life.
CHIRANJEEVI AND CHARAN: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
As people, there’s no big difference between the two. They also work in a similar fashion. When we are working together, during breaks, Charan and I gossip a lot. But back on the set, the whole chemistry changes. Then we are two professionals. In terms of who I have enjoyed working with more, between the two of them, it will only be in comparing the projects I have handled, the scope and challenges involved. And that way, I have worked more with dad. In fact, I used to look forward to it because only then did I get to spend time with family here. I did Khaidi No. 150 and Rangasthalam like that. I have lived away from home for 13 years. So, work was the best way to come back.
MOVING BACK TO HYDERABAD
I am back to Hyderabad because of work, but I run two households — in Chennai and in Hyderabad. My daughters have only recently moved in here with me, but my husband is in Chennai and does a lot of back and forth. It’s difficult, but that’s how adulting is! I try and spend as much time with my daughters, who are 8 and 9 years old. I make breakfast for them and send them off to school in the morning unless I have a very early morning shoot. I try to be home when they come back from school. The younger daughter is closer to her dad — they play cricket and wrestle! The older one is closer to me. I wouldn’t say I am a very strict mother, but I try and keep things disciplined.
WORKING WITH AMITABH BACHCHAN
It’s no mean feat to be doing the costumes for Amitabh Bachchan! He has spent so many decades in the industry, but shows so much attention and dedication to every little thing that happens on the set. His energy and open-mindedness is amazing! I am a very small designer compared to his huge stardom, but he would still ask for my suggestions. He gives great inputs and due respect to every technician. Amitabh Bachchan is phenomenal. It’s been a great opportunity to have worked with him. For the same film, Sye Raa, I got to work with Nayanthara and Tamannaah too. I love Nayan’s punctuality and commitment; and working with Tamannaah feels like having a party.
STAGE, THE DRIVING FACTOR
To see your outfits on screen, adorned by stars, viewed by the audience is what drives me. The stage is that much bigger, and it stays on, becomes part of the industry’s history. That’s why I love cinema because entertainment fills-in people’s lives and I get to be a part of it. I love the challenges that come with it too; it helps me push the envelope. At the home front, both my parents have been very supportive of my choice. I remember in 2003, I wanted to go abroad and study. My mother was a little hesitant. She was being the protective parent, but my dad said I should go and explore myself. He wanted me to get out of my comfort zone and have that experience.
GROWING UP, CLOSE AND PERSONAL
For us, family is like 30 people because all of us grew up like that. But talking about the core family, the five of us, I think my mother kept all five of us together all the time. It’s something I have learned and realized now that I am a mother. It’s really important for one key person to do that. My mother would bridge those little gaps we had between siblings while growing up. She would tell us we are much more than those little drifts and small fights. Growing up, Charan and I fought a lot. Then he went off to a boarding school, and that’s when we got really close. We would write letters to each other. We became great friends. Our sister was the quietest. She was also this little one who we had less interaction with till we both got married. After marriage no matter the difference in age, both we sisters have a lot to talk about! Now we have two kids each, all four girls. So, these four, and the two of us are inseparable now.
FAMILY BACKGROUND: MAKES THINGS EASY OR ADDS PRESSURE?
Only people who come from a big family and working in the same industry know what this situation could possibly mean. For people, it’s easy to say that things must be easy, but that’s not true. I mean it’s a great thing to belong to a family like mine. But my dad always said, “we have given you a platform not to sit and rest on. Use it as a trampoline to go higher. You have been given comfort which a lot of others don’t have; therefore you should be able to take up more challenges. Prove yourself, strive and don’t waste this kind of life.” These words have stuck with me. I wouldn’t deny there is no pressure. There is, when people get critical unnecessarily. People have looked at us through a magnifying glass. But that has never really affected our work because we believe in our work.
COSTUME DESIGNING ISN’T A CAKEWALK
Costume designing is very different from fashion designing. It is only similar because you are still dealing with clothes and people, but in costume designing, the main aspect is that you need to love cinema and story-telling as much as fashion; otherwise you wouldn’t be a successful costume designer. The work is also very hectic because schedules are erratic. Unlike a fashion week, where you are given several months’ notice prior to the actual event and know the schedule exactly, film shoots are not in your hand. Overnight, lots of things can change because you are dealing with 50 odd people at the same time.
CRITIC OF MY OWN WORK
I am a 100 per cent critic of my own work. I have to be. If I am not, I would have been stagnant. Thankfully, most of the projects I handled, worked. Yes, when I look back, there have been one or two projects when I do think ‘what did I do!’ But that’s about it. They are also about just one or two looks in a film, so it’s not something I massively regret doing. I avoid those mistakes, but don’t carry the baggage.
BEING A WOMAN IN THE INDUSTRY
In the South, since it’s a little more conservative, women coming into this profession (for non-actors i.e. like assistant director, costume designer, executive producer) have come about only in the last 10 years. In my opinion, more than a woman or a man in the industry, I think it’s about how you portray yourself. Many women have done well here, they knew their craft well and proved that they can deliver what anyone else can deliver. As a person, I don’t differentiate between genders. For me, both are the same. I really don’t see myself as woman. I see myself as a human being. In fact, I never really thought about ‘what it is to be a woman’. You are a person; look at yourself as a whole being, rather than just as a gender. The world is out there to put you in boxes, why box yourself already? Yes, I am proud and grateful to be a woman.
TURNING PRODUCER FOR THE DIGITAL SPACE
With Gold Box Entertainment, I am taking up digital production. It’s not an alien space for me as I have grown up in this industry. But yes, production of course is different from fashion. I love story telling. Even as a kid, I would choose a story to a lullaby. I read a lot. Growing up, I was very fond of reading the encyclopedia. I like knowing things, watching a lot of documentaries and I also watch a lot of digital content. That’s probably why I started my own digital production house. My husband and I are both directors of this company. He handles the finance and the legal bits, while I am into the creative bits. We are just about five months old and currently working on our
first web series.