The Hindi movies that I grew up watching in the ’70s, in theatres, and then in the ’50s and ’60s on Television, left lasting impressions. What attracted me most was the song & dance and the costumes worn by the stars. Many years later, I learned to my surprise that almost every look that was created for the actresses right from Waheeda ji, to Mumtaz ji to Zeenat ji – was by one person - Bhanu Athaiya!
Mumtaz in Brahmachari
Bhanu tai redefined the aesthetics of costume design in cinema. She had worked with almost every Director of the ’50s right up to the '70s - Guru Dutt, B.R. Chopra, Dev Anand, Yash Chopra, Sunil Dutt, and of course, Raj Kapoor. That showed how popular she was with Producers, Directors, and Actors in the Hindi Film Industry.
And of course, with Gandhi, she created history!
I had the great privilege and honour to work with her on not one, but two films – Lagaan and Swades.
When I wrote the script of Lagaan, I already knew that I was going to approach Bhanu tai. Now, the task was to convince her to say YES to the film.
When I first met her, my introduction was - My father had studied with her eldest sister at Kolhapur's Rajaram College. This kind of set the warm tone of familiarity, both tied by the same hometown – Kolhapur!
I narrated the script. She found the idea very novel and immediately agreed to do the film. The thought of creating the British era, juxtaposed with the Rajahs and the villagers, was instantly exciting for her.
Now let me tell you a very important facet of how well-read and knowledgeable Bhanu tai was – so, I had set the story in 1885, the year when the Indian National Congress was formed. She thought for a moment and asked me whether I would consider shifting the period to a little later, after 1890. I wondered why. Promptly she said because Queen Victoria was in mourning at the time and the fashion for women’s outfits was matronly and only in browns and blacks. After 1890, the costumes started becoming dressier, colourful, and glamourous. I was so taken in by her strong quiet conviction of what she was proposing, that I consented right away.
Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh in Lagaan
The film opens in 1893, Champaner…
For Lagaan, she created a wide range of looks - from the villagers of Champaner to the British army regiment, as well as the British civilians, to the ladies' graceful evening gowns and especially the yellows she used in the Janmashtami song - Radha Kaise na Jale.
For Swades, she had to deglamourise Shah Rukh and make him believable as a NASA scientist - dressed in regular full-sleeve checked shirts and half-sleeve shirts in sober colours. And the villagers of the modern era. The way she created the look for Kaveri Amma and Gita was just perfect for the characters as well as the world. She was very particular about the colour of Sita’s costume for the Ram Leela song. And the way it should be draped.
Shah Rukh Khan in Swades
Bhanu tai’s greatest quality was that she was extremely passionate about her work. Whenever she spoke about the details of the script or designing - wisdom flowed. What was astounding was that she worked tirelessly and would be on set always, making sure with her costume team that everything went right and there were no complaints from anyone, especially actors.
Well, I did have one complaint with her - she just never parted with her sketches, which she made for the characters in my films. She was very possessive about them. One day, after initial discussions on the work for the day, she took me through her sketches, illustrations, and paintings that she had made over the years, some even before she became a costume designer - and for me, it was like entering an altogether different zone. And I asked her why she was not having an exhibition of her works. And she in her quiet and firm way, with measured words said – everything should be done at the right time!
I guess this is the right time – with Prinseps, Brijeshwari Kumari ji, and Radhika Athaiya Gupta ji’s efforts… Bhanu tai’s talent, and her art is being discussed, appreciated, and applauded.
So my congratulations and warm wishes for the PRINSEPS exhibition!
Her costumes will always live on in cinema. The legacy of her art needs to live on.
I miss her!