From Samantha to Keerthy Suresh

When Sridevi worked in the South film industry, the concept of personal stylists did not exist. However, this has drastically changed. Today, nearly all top South actresses consciously seek out personal stylists, trying to create a brand and image for themselves off screen.

She was known as India’s first female superstar. She was known for her impeccable style and trendsetting fashion. She was also known for her close friendship with fashion designer and stylist Manish Malhotra.

Sridevi made her debut in cinema as a child artiste in 1967 in Kandhan Karunai, and in a career of 45 years, we saw her evolve not just on screen but off screen as well. Out went the Sridevi we saw in Sadma (1984), and in came the Sridevi of Chandni (1990), Lamhe (1992), and Laadla (1995). She became a fashion icon once she moved to Bollywood, with her sizzling looks off camera defining the allure and glamour of Sridevi, the actor.

Bollywood has always been the leader when it comes to fashion, and other film industries have taken inspiration from it and tweaked styles to suit their audience. But the age of social media, throwing up apps like Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Facebook (Meta), TikTok, and Twitter, has completely transformed the way people communicate globally and where we source our infotainment from.

B-Town costume designer and stylist Rohit Chaturvedi, whose impressive portfolio includes Badhaai Ho, Ajeeb Daastaans, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, and Uri: The Surgical Strike, emphasises, “With the onslaught of tabloid journalism and the economies attached to social media, it’s imperative today for anyone in public life, specially actors, to have personal stylists. How one presents themselves is a very important part of image management in today’s times. What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today when human contact is so quick.”

When Sridevi worked in the South film industry, the concept of personal stylists did not exist. All films had costume designers, and any personal styling was done by the actor themselves with the help of the make-up person. However, this scenario has drastically changed over the last few years, and today, nearly all top South actresses consciously seek out personal stylists, trying to create a brand and image for themselves off screen.

It is a known fact that the South film industries and stars are more conservative than their Bollywood counterparts, and the image an actress wants to project on and off screen has to be in tune with audience expectations. This has slowly changed with actresses like Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Tamannaah Bhatia, and Kajal Aggarwal, starting to experiment with edgier and bolder outfits off screen while staying classy and elegant at the same time.

Bollywood has always been avant grade and edgy when it comes to fashion and style both on and off screen. In stark contrast, there is a clear distinction between a female star’s outfits and look on screen and off screen in the South film industry. Nayanthara, for instance, is one actor whose sense of style and fashion has undergone a clear transformation over the last decade. Often seen in demure salwars and saris on screen, the actress’ unofficial Instagram throws up photos of a very fashion-forward person who likes her dresses and short skirts but does not believe in too much exposure.

Cut to Keerthy Suresh’s Instagram profile, and again we find the star in classy yet slightly conservative outfits while in films, she is mostly seen in saris, half-saris, salwars and the like. While these stars are ready to acknowledge that social media is vital to their lives, they have also realised that a stylist is important to guide and handhold them in this new journey. Meanwhile, stylists here say it is crucial to understand the star’s apprehensions about how much to push the envelope when it comes to their personal fashion statements, and how to blend their demands with what is trending.

Fashion designer and celebrity stylist Chaitanya Rao, who has worked extensively with stars like Nayanthara, Keerthy Suresh, Amala Paul, and Trisha, says that how female stars are perceived off screen is an important aspect of their career graph. “I think that leading ladies in the South have started to realise that their off-screen looks and presence on social media adds tremendously to their career. Some top actresses in the South film industry didn’t even have a social media presence till recently, and one or two still don’t. They didn’t think it was important because they felt their films would do the talking for them. A star’s popularity increases only with social media like Instagram, where they are constantly in the public eye and engaging them (the audience). Brands today are looking at a star’s social media presence before signing them on. A strong social media presence also gives them career opportunities in other film industries, including Bollywood and even Hollywood.”

With nearly 23 million followers on Instagram, Samantha is arguably the most stylish female star down South thanks to her conscious effort to work on her looks off screen, be it a photoshoot, a red carpet event or a holiday. The Family Man 2 and Pushpa actress has been working closely with renowned celebrity stylist Preetham Jukalker over the last four years. “The concept of personal styling is quite new to this world. Stars were in a comfort zone, and went with what their fans liked or accepted. In the past, film stars opted for ‘safe’ dressing. Now, social media plays an important role with people appreciating their styling and writing about stars and their styles, both in India and internationally,” opines Jukalker.

Another costume designer and stylist, Neerja Kona, is also working with the biggest names in South cinema, including Samantha, Nayanthara, Rakul Preet Singh, Pooja Hegde, Keerthy Suresh, and Shruti Haasan. She says, “I think everyone’s trying to put their best foot forward, and taking help to ensure they make the most stylish impression, which is a great thing. We are living in a very fast-changing and much faster adapting environment given the impact of social media on us… when being exposed to so much, it is understandable why the boom of personal styling has also happened these past few years.”

Designer and celebrity stylist Chaitanya Rao states, “Actresses here have a different physique compared to most of those in Bollywood. They are more petite here. Ensuring we get the right outfits from top fashion designers is a challenge because they are often made for taller women. Another issue is most Indian designers in the North are not aware of our South stars; so trying to get outfits from them takes a lot of convincing.”

Both the film and fashion industries have become extremely competitive today with fashion designers also wanting their outfits to be flaunted by stars. But India’s top designers are far more eager to work with Bollywood rather than actors in the South film industry, say stylists. “Initially, I had fights with designers’ PRs or even the designers themselves because their awareness was very limited. They knew only the biggest stars in India; but I feel it’s changing since OTT platforms have also opened up for many talented actors from south India. Thankfully, I get to work with some amazing actors from South India,” explains Jukalker.

An important question that arises here is whether a personal stylist can make or break a female star’s career in the age of social media, especially in the south. With the audience, fashion police, brands, and media chasing stars, constant attention on a star’s looks puts pressure not just on the star but the stylist too. Bollywood has managed to navigate this conundrum cleverly by being the trendsetters rather than following the pack. Can female stars in South India match up to their Bollywood counterparts when it comes to staying on top of this fashion game?

Jukalker says, “I don’t think anyone can make or break a star’s image. If we do good work with a star; we’ll be appreciated. They are stars because of their performances!” And performances are clearly what the actresses in the South film industry are known for. Being trendy and fashionable is what seems to follow as a result of their exciting work on screen — similar to the transformation Sridevi underwent a few decades ago.

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