Behind-the-scenes stories of Bollywood's iconic dresses
Anyone who has grown up on a healthy dose of Bollywood also remembers the iconic outfits that, in their own way, immortalised the characters. Be it the jewel-strewn anarkali Madhubala wore in Mughal-E-Azam or Sonam Kapoor's uber chic avatar in Aisha, costumes worn in Hindi films have often set trends. 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes (published by Roli Books), a new book authored by senior fashion journalist Sujata Assomull (with illustrations by Aparna Ram), chronicles the stories behind the outfits. In a conversation with WKND, Assomull tells us how costuming in Hindi cinema evolved through the years.
How has costuming in films evolved?
For those working on set in wardrobe and costume departments, the growing professionalisation of India's film industry in recent years has been remarkable. In the book's introduction, Rocky S., who has worked on over 200 films since the 90s, recalls when he started out as a designer, it was normal for the director to ask him to make an ensemble overnight. He goes on to say there were no budgets and he would have to haggle for payment once the shoot was over. Today, Bollywood films have a dedicated budget for costumes and proper departments for wardrobe and costume. The advent of multiplexes in India had a huge impact on the film industry - it gave a platform to independent and more niche filmmakers. One film that really stands out for me is Dil Chahta Hai (2000), a coming-of-age film about three men, which incidentally also reflects the coming of age of Hindi cinema. All the clothes in the film seemed as though they'd slipped out of the closet of 20-somethings living in Mumbai. Its costume designer was Arjun Bhasin who forayed into Bollywood with this film. He had a fresh eye and had previously worked in America. Be it the hairstyles (remember Preity Zinta's easy and fun curls?) to the beaded necklace draped over her shoulder, everything became a trendsetter.
You note that in Bollywood today, fashion is almost a character in itself. Can fashion eclipse a character?
As a fashion journalist, I have always believed that you should wear the clothes, the clothes should not wear you. Fashion has to seamlessly fit into a film. For clothes to have an impact, they need to look and feel like something that the character would truly wear. Let us take Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) as an example. There is a scene where Hema Malini's character meets a prospective groom, wearing a very short pink dress, which obviously makes her uncomfortable. To me, this spoke of how many Indian girls were actually not at ease in western clothes, but wore them to look cool. You could call them fashion victims. So, the script called for the clothes to be treated as a character.
Now think of Aisha (2010). The film is remembered for the clothes rather than anything else. It was heavy on its use of designer labels - and since the plot revolved around a group of young South Delhi 'It' girls, it made sense. While it made an impact on how girls dress in the urban pockets of India, it did not work commercially. Perhaps one of the reasons could be that the clothes overshadowed the script.
Who among the leading ladies of Bollywood would you consider a trendsetter?
Of course, the women who wear the clothes make them - it is their poise and the way they perform in those costumes that make them memorable. But we also need to remember - and celebrate - the costume designers who are responsible for those clothes. Be it Bhanu Athaiya, a woman whose influence on Indian fashion is often forgotten. Bhanu was responsible for many of Helen's costumes as well as Zeenat Aman's white wet saree in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). For a while, she set the fashion agenda in India through her work in films. She also won an Oscar for her work in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Mani Rabadi not only gave Helen a flamboyant, red-sequinned leotard-styled cabaret outfit in Jewel Thief (1967), but also immortalised Vyjayanthimala in a coat styled over a saree appliqued with 3D white fluffy prints in the same film. To me, that was the beginning of nomadic chic in India. In the 90s, Manish Malhotra brought a new glamour into films - who can forget Karisma Kapoor's transformation in Raja Hindustani (1996)? Straightening her hair, toning down her makeup and putting her in sleeker outfits - be it chiffon sarees or form-fitted dresses. Neeta Lulla, on the other hand, deserves a special mention, having worked on many costume dramas. She has helped revive many traditions through her work in films. Her work in Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa Akbar (2008) reminded us of the beauty of polki. All of a sudden, Indian brides wanted to wear uncut jewellery on their wedding day. The film's collaboration with Tanishq was one of the first between a brand and cinema.
In India, films set the fashion agenda. Does that constrain experimentation?
That is a sweeping statement. Yes, films project a trend more, but you cannot say that films alone set the fashion agenda. Perhaps this was true before the 1980s, but not now when you have a vibrant and important fashion industry in India. Today, where we have so many important fashion designers like Anita Dongre and Sabyasachi. Plus, Instagram has changed the game - look at how streetwear has grown. Fashion and films influence each other. With fashion, it is, at times, a trickle-down effect, so it can take up to two years before a style or design becomes an overriding trend. But again, Instagram has changed this too - if a fashion week trend goes viral, it speeds up the process. With films, it may be more immediate, but let's not forget that they also take two-to-three years to make.
There are some looks shortlisted in the book - be it Vyjayanthimala's from Sangam or Manisha Koirala's from 1942: A Love Story - that are very simple, everyday wear. What made those looks click? Why do they remain etched in public memory?
A costume has to work with a character, how silly would Manisha Koirala have looked in 1942: A Love Story if she was wearing something ornate when she plays the daughter of a freedom fighter. Sometimes it's the simplicity of the garment that works.