Color is important to Suttirat Larlarb on every job, but its role was huge in Slumdog Millionaire, set in the surge of Mumbai. "Walking the streets of a very crowded metropolis such as New York, especially in the winter, where everybody's in black, navy, grey, maybe a neutral camel, it's like a cadre, an army of black ants. . . . When you go to Mumbai, it's every color in the rainbow and very little neutral colors. So I had to sort of adjust my radar."
The film teemed with swarms of people and many chases. "There are people running through the streets, and you're sort of fighting to be recognized amongst millions of people and crowds. So one of the easiest devices to pick out somebody is through use of color. The challenge then became, what color?" Scanning the city, Larlarb found that "yellow and orange seemed to pop out more than anything else."
And yellow posed the kind of challenge she likes to set herself. "You don't see that many people wearing yellow because it's a very hard and bold color." It's not often used in films: The only other "yellow moment" she recalled in contemporary costuming was Uma Thurman's yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill. Larlarb took a little psychological inventory of her color options. Red seemed too obvious a signal for Jamal's and Latika's oft-thwarted romance. Green seemed too unlikely a color, and blue?—"It seemed, like, tasteful." Not the stuff of passion and danger and destiny—all of which were present like white on basmati in the script.
"Once I had made the yellow rule for myself, every other moment of the film is a decision based on that yellow," Larlarb recalls. "There are the big yellow moments."
They begin with 6-year-old Latika's dress, a yellow floral print trimmed in white eyelet and green piping. The dress, although dimmed by the dirt of the slums, catches Jamal's eyes. A scene cut from the movie featured the dress even more prominently: Jamal swipes it from a clothesline to give to Latika—the first token of his devotion. When Jamal and his brother Salim flee slavers, jumping a train, they are separated from Latika, yellow-clad, stranded by train tracks, fading in the distance.
Jamal finds Latika at 13 or so, when she's being taught Indian classical dance as a refinement to boost her eventual price in prostitution. She's in a green dance costume, surrounded by golden light. The three children escape because Salim shoots their way out. He claims Latika as his prize, betraying his brother. He apprentices himself to a ganglord, which serves to insure that Latika also will fall into that life.
Jamal remains faithful to Latika. During his tense appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, his mind flashes on a deification of her. She's dressed in yellow, at a train station. (Actress Frieda Pinto is definitely a woman who can wear yellow.)
But the "real" Latika is property of a ganglord, living a life of seeming glamour. Jamal finds her—by impersonating a dishwasher/cook to get inside the fancy compound where she's kept. She's dressed in cream, colorless, the passion as bleached from her soul as the dye from her clothes. (Larlarb notes that she was also very careful in getting the jeans right—about which details of Mumbai-available status-symbol jeans would strike all the right notes on the character's class and aspiration.)
Jamal waits for Latika every day at the train station. She's said she won't come, but one day his faithfulness is rewarded. Latika has spurned neutrals in dressing this day. She's chosen orange tights and a yellow top—the better to stand out in a crowd and be spotted by Jamal. Her yellow top is like the one he's dreamt for her—but it's even shinier, with sequined trim. At the crucial moment, underworld villains spot her, too, and she's forced away.
Latika, again dressed in neutrals and again a semi-prisoner of the ganglord, sees Jamal on TV. Salim offers her his keys so she can escape. On the way out, she snatches up a yellow scarf, a dupatta of the sort worn with the traditional Indian outfit, the salar kameez. (Larlarb had six of them made in silk chiffon, dyed and beaded to her specifications.) It's inappropriate for Latika to be "dressed" for this meeting, Larlarb notes. "The yellow had to be something she could grab."
Some hope symbolically restored, she makes her way toward Jamal. At the point when she's running, the yellow scarf streams in the air. It looks great in the filming, "a happy accident," Larlarb says. A movie poster is born.
The couple is reunited—where else?—alongside trains. Time for the big joyous Bollywood finish. Larlarb can't afford to costume a thousand people at a shoot that takes place in a train station at 2 a.m. How to make the scene pop?
Larlarb sorts out 150 extras who are wearing no yellow so that they dance immediately behind Jamal and Latika. Behind that group, 850 people get bright yellow scarves to wave as they dance. Filmed head-on, Latika seems to wear the only yellow in a drab world. Filmed from above, it seems the world has blossomed into marigold joy on the couple's behalf.
The standout hue of this whole enterprise, Larlarb says, has acted like "a yellow highlighter through her whole journey."