Bhanu Athaiya, Hindi cinema's costume designer for more than 50 years, condenses her work into one volume.
After Bhanu Athaiya won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for Richard Attenborough's “Gandhi” in 1983, Phyllis Dalton, the costume designer for “Dr. Zhivago”, met her and said, “Out there in L.A. the producers think that India comes all readymade. All you need to do is come here with a camera and go out and shoot. All thanks to you.” A compliment pointing to the fact that sometimes blending into a story is more difficult than standing out.
A five-decade-long career in costume designing is a no mean feat. To stay on top of the game throughout and create clothes that became the defining sample of each era of Hindi cinema — from the days of Nadira in “Shri 420”, Vyjayanthimala in “Sangam” and “Amrapali” and Waheeda Rehman in “Chaudhvin ka Chand” to those of Helen in “Teesri Manzil”, “Meena Kumari” in “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam”, Sadhna in “Waqt”, Rekha in “Mr. Natwarlal” or Aamir Khan in “Lagaan” — sounds even more Herculean.
Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya's new book, “The Art of Costume Design”, published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins, offers an insight into what costume design meant in days when it was more important to cater to a script's demand than an actor's larger-than-life persona. Here, Bhanu also likes to draw the line between costume design and fashion design. “Designing for cinema requires a particular kind of skill. It has nothing to do with fashion designing.
Fashion designing is for people, for their personal use. In films, one would have to create the right character for a person,” she says. The book offers readers an understanding of how the seeds of Bhanu's love for design were sown in her early upbringing — going through her father's collection of books on European painters or observing the festive attire of palace officials' daughters in Kolhapur.
Stints as a fashion illustrator at magazines like “Fashion & Beauty” and “Eve's Weekly” sharpened her skills further. “My brief was ‘The Raj period is over. Draw inspiration from Indian heritage'.” Soon, requests for opening a boutique started pouring in at the editor's office at “Eve's Weekly”. Actor Kamini Kaushal became a regular customer, and Bhanu's foothold in films was sealed when Nargis introduced her to Raj Kapoor.
“There was a lot of interaction. We worked like one person,” says Bhanu on her rapport with the actors. “Reshma aur Shera” was a landmark film when it came to the research involved and the look that had to be created for its lead actors Sunil Dutt, Waheeda Rehman and Rakhee. “The outfits were very different from day-to-day outfits. The film was about a clash between two desert clans in Rajasthan. The clothes couldn't be done sitting in Mumbai. I stayed in the village and studied the costumes of the local people.
Everything had to be correct — there was no taking liberties. When the locals saw Waheeda and Rakhee during the shoot, they said they looked just like them,” recalls Bhanu. She particularly, admires Waheeda Rehman's ability to carry off costumes. “Some actors have the instinctive flair of fitting into a costume. She's one such person.” “Amrapali” was yet another film that proved challenging. To research the look required for Amrapali, the courtesan, and king Ajatshatru, Bhanu set off for the Ajanta caves with two of her former batch mates from the J.J. School of Arts.
“I was able to handle the subject because I was a student of art. I was able to take the entire look of Ajanta as reference for ‘Amrapali', thanks to my travels and studies. No book will give you that much understanding,” says Bhanu. Referring to Sunil Dutt's look in a scene where he is disguised as a commoner, “The dhoti was a unique drape. It was not clumsy. It followed his body lines. It required a lot of thinking. Dutt told me ‘You make me look like a different person'.”
The book is also studded with interesting anecdotes, be it Meena Kumari's apprehensions regarding Bengali saris during “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam” or the unique problems faced in dressing up hundreds of background actors during the funeral procession scene in “Gandhi”.
We also get an idea of the importance that Bhanu attaches to sketching outfits right down to the most minute detail, a carryover from her magazine days — be it for Vyjayantimala's outfits in the song ‘Buddha mil gaya' in “Sangam” or Mumtaz's pink dress in “Aadmi aur Insaan”. Bhanu is against the idea of different actors in a film having their separate designers or stylists. “It should be the aim of every filmmaker to create the entire wardrobe of a film. But for that, a designer should also be equipped to handle it,” she says. “The entire requirement should be handled by one person. It is the director's decision to make sure every actor in a film has a seamless look.”
She notes, “Currently there are only one or two directors who are seriously involved in all aspects of filmmaking, like Vishal Bhardwaj.” In the end, though, there's a slight feeling of disappointment about not getting her due in terms of recognition in her own country, even in the aftermath of international accolades. “At the Academy Awards, all my co-nominees were sure that I'd get the award. ‘Your canvas is so big,' they told me. They could see it was an unusual and demanding film. I had to show the change not just in Gandhi but also the people around him. But here most people were like, ‘Arre, sirf dhoti thi',” she rues.