“I enjoy delving deep into the script”

Designer, philanthropist and actor Nyla Masood talks about her latest venture, her varied experiences in the film industry and more

  • How did you start your journey in Bollywood? 

It was around 2007-08 when a friend of mine wrote his first script. He insisted I take up the work since I was the only designer he knew — totally unaware that costume designing for films and custom-made garments were nowhere close! But I decided to try my hand at it. Unfortunately, this film never happened, but I got to do Tarun Dhanrajgir’s first film ‘Kis Hadd Tak’ through another friend! It was pure learning for me and that is where I got familiar with the basics of costume design in films.

  • You’ve been a costume designer for several films in Bollywood. How has the experience been?

I believe that costuming should help in telling the story, not stand out as a distraction from it. Every film is a new experience, new learning, and with that learning, you evolve. I was very fortunate to have worked with Amole Gupte on all his films, from ‘Stanley ka Dabba’ to ‘Saina’ (2020). Working with him taught me to notice and incorporate little elements of ordinary day-to-day life into characters, giving them that slight uniqueness yet not getting into caricatures. 

I have learnt with all my directors, be it ‘Umrika’, set in the backdrop of 70s and 80s in a village and city, where we had all foreign crew — hence a totally different perspective, or ‘Tu Hai Mera Sunday’, very contemporary, where you’re looking at regular urban people one can identify with, each character having his/her own unique style. I enjoy delving deep into the script and the director’s brief to understand my characters thoroughly. 

  • Recently, you played a pivotal role in Netflix’s ‘The Lift Boy.’ How did this opportunity land up?

This was purely by chance, and I guess it can happen only in Mumbai! I came out of a movie in a mall with friends when a young girl walked up to me. She introduced herself as Ankita Bajaj, a casting director, and said that they were looking to cast a character for which I seemed to have the required look. Asked me if I would come for an audition. Although I wasn’t quite sure if it was genuine or not, I gave her my number. 

She mailed me the scene for the audition and I went the following day. Learning lines was not easy for me in such a short time, so I fumbled a couple of times! When I came out of the room, I met Jonathan Augustin (filmmaker of ‘The Lift Boy’) outside. We got talking and he asked me if I had ever been on a film set. I told him about my background in costume design. I got a message at night requesting me to meet him at Starbucks the next morning.

I thought they would offer costume design work. But to my utter disbelief he offered the role of Maureen D’Souza! I was dumbfounded. He noticed the doubt on my face and asked me what was wrong. I told him I couldn’t believe he was offering me such a pivotal role after a bad audition, and knowing fully well that I had not really acted so far. 

He asked what was there to fear when he felt confident that I could pull it off — if I committed to hard work. I told him of my immediate fear- of forgetting my lines! He assured me that we would rehearse enough so I need not have that fear and that even though my audition was bad, he felt I had that something that he was looking for in Maureen. So that is how I landed up with this once-in-a -lifetime role!

Nyla Masood and Moin Khan at a scene from ‘The Liftboy’
  • What was the filming experience like? And was it your first venture as an actor?

Although I was used to being behind the scenes for so many years by now, the treatment felt quite different! I was treated like a queen! And yes, it was my first role where I was cast through a casting director. I have appeared in tiny roles in a couple of short films, more by default, because I was there on set working on costumes.

Most of my scenes for this film were in the apartment. And Jonathan was very clear about how he wanted to take each shot. There was no time wasted on set with long discussions — most of the discussions happened off set. Working with Jonathan was a delight. He is very professional, a perfectionist and very focussed. He is wise beyond his age. Very gentle, very courteous and very respectful towards the entire cast and crew. 

I especially enjoyed my scene with Raju on Carter road. It’s also my favourite scene in the film. It was evening time and the sun sets so quickly over the sea. Jonathan wanted to catch that golden moment. There were evening walkers whom he didn’t want to disturb. And some of them would stop and stare to check if we were familiar faces! I don’t know how our crew managed to shoot so many angles in such a short time!

  • How tough is it to publicise a film, and make sure it gets a wider reach — in a ‘name driven’ (films with stars/under big banners), commercialised film industry? 

This aspect is something I’m not really familiar with. Of course, it is easier when you have big stars/ directors on board. Big production houses can be approached. But very few back films that don’t have star value. 

  • How has the global pandemic affected the film industry? Also, how are you personally dealing with it?

Film industry, just like other industries, has been very badly hit. New releases postponed indefinitely. No shoots happening. Cinemas shut. There are millions who earned their livelihood during shoots. They have no earnings. It’s a very grim situation. And even after the lockdown eases out, it’s going to take ages for the industry to get back to near normal. But then there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

On a personal level, I am not really affected by the closure of the industry because I don’t work back to back. I mostly do one project a year so that I can devote time to Dhai Akshar, an NGO I run for underprivileged children. I love to spend time with them at our centre.

  • How are your channelising your creative energies amid these trying times?

We have figured out modules to work with our 85 kids over Whatsapp since, in the slums, most of the children have one parent with an old smartphone. Our classes start at 11 am. We send out the work for the day through videos and voice notes. The children have to complete their work and send back by clicking pictures. Sometimes the work comes back to us late at night because there are about five kids accessing that one phone within one family.

We have also been supplying rations to these children and their families on a fortnightly basis. You can check us out on Facebook and Instagram. It’s called ‘Dhai Akshar Educational Trust’. Our website is www.dhaiakshar.org

On the other hand, I am quite happy being at home with my husband and my daughter. Experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen which I haven’t done for a while, mending clothes, reading, watching films, catching up with friends and family on video calls, bonding over online games with my son — who lives abroad. Also, this is the month of Ramzan, so I’m fasting. Also, a bit more regular with my prayers since I’m home. I also spend a bit of time reading the Quran or watching related short videos.

(Cover: Nyla Masood on the film’s set)

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