Charles Sobhraj was a conman of many skills. However, the cinematic Charles’s (Randeep Hooda) greatest con is to procure clothes from the 1970s and 1980s, while the rest of the cast had to dress from their personal wardrobe from the current decade.
Indian cinema gives directors very few opportunities for period dressing without it seeming deliberate, and Main aur Charles is deaf to this knock on the door. The movie is set in the mid 1980s, a period close enough for the makers to recreate without too much research. And yet Meera Sharma (Richa Chadda) travelled to the 90s and 2000s to buy ghagra skirts, tank tops and tong her hair (dear millennials, in the 80s, we worked to tightly perm, spike and wave our hair impossibly). The hippies in Goa were actually an imagination of hippies — all tie-dye, sarong and banyaan—and not mid-decade revelers on a beach.
The result is that the movie feels inauthentic (albeit, that fault is not of the costumes alone) and the experience is not immersive.
What were the mid 1980s like? For one, there was a lot of colour blocking and glossy lip. Clothes were cut boxier. Sleeves came to the elbow, hair was big, teased and blow-dried for both men and women. If you were in your early 20s in the 1970s, your eyebrows were still pencil thin; if you were entering your 20s, you were more likely to wear them bushy.
Skirt sets and and longer kurtas with churidaars or ballooning pyjamas were how you wore them. Tank tops in Goa would have had crew necks and broader straps — all the way to the shoulder. Sleeve details were painstakingly executed by tailors, which could have been the foundation of Mrs Kanth’s (Tisca Chopra) and Princess Malvika (Heral Mei) wardrobe — the ghost of Princess Di’s wedding dress loomed as leg-of-mutton sleeves on kameezes, tight sleeves on sari blouses gained currency due to Rekha and Sridevi. White jeans were very sought after and trousers were worn high and pleated. Accessories were colourful and plastic, which Ms Sharma would have had plenty of given his student status.
The only few minutes we are transported to this era is during the remix of Jab Chaye Tera Jadoo. The singing ladies are suitably Zeenat Aman/Parveen Babi-esque with head bands, metallic gowns and flicked out hair.
But in-authenticity is not the only flaw in the costumes; costume designers Mallika Oberoi and Yesha Dedhia assume the audience is obtuse and needs literal signals. There’s an investment banker from UK in jail with Sobhraj. We know his profession because he sits in the background in his banker’s shirt (blue with white collar) as Sobhraj gives interviews.
Then there is Ms Sharma’s sartorial indecision. When placed in position where one has to appease authority, (here the police and the law), one naturally veer towards respectful clothes or ones that speak softly and pleasantly. Or one is defiant and dresses provocatively (or “modern” in the Indian context).
The problem is that Ms Sharma does not pick a lane and stick to it (though emotionally, her loyalty to Charles in unwavering). She wears her Western clothes of the 90s and then some dull salwar kameezes, but they are not in keeping with her inner landscape, which clothes unconsciously always are. Mrs Kanth at home could have used more maxis and batik kaftans.
The only costume executed with authenticity is Hooda/Sobhraj’s; to muck this would have been unforgivable given how strongly the yellow glasses and caddy hat are imprinted on our collective consciousness. Sobhraj was a fop of the 1970s, so his pants are slightly flared, his haircut was made famous by Rajesh Khanna, his shorts on the beach are dolphin and he wears his sexuality on his unbuttoned shirt.
Meanwhile, in Main Aur Charles Officer Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain) makes a nice juxtaposition. Where Sobhraj has his many women, Kanth has only his wife. Where Sobhraj has his flamboyance; Kanth is straitjacketed in his dark three-piece suits. Where Sobhraj has his yellow Caravan-like glasses (among other wire frames); Kanth has his period-inappropriate sleek frames. With the ladies, Sobhraj is smooth with his French diction; Kanth’s interaction with his wife are delightfully awkward, romantic and homely.
With the rest of the film falling apart at its seams, the costumes could have been the game point. However, they turn the movie into a game of spot-the-errors.