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Hawaii to relive the magic of Indian films

She talks about how no one charged her a penny and why she is fascinated by the teamwork that creates magical costumes and sets in Indian films...

Honolulu is not quite the place you’d expect to see Indian film buffs lining up to watch the latest Bollywood release. But it is here that Cheri Vasek, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa, is putting together a rather comprehensive exhibition of costumes, posters, set designs and sketches that showcase the Indian film industry’s journey in the past four decades.

Cheri Vasek

Titled Bollywood and Beyond: Costumes in Indian Film, the exhibition is slated to run from September 29, 2013 to January 5, 2014 at the university’s East West Centre. It will also showcase rare film posters including those of Mother India, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Johnny Mera Naam apart from sketches and costumes from modern classics such as Jodha Akbar and Devdas, and memorabilia from Bimal Roy’s landmark films Do Bigha Zameen and Bandini. Vasek readily admits that much of this would not been possible without the active help and support of people such as Bhanu Athaiya, the Oscar-winning costume designer who has also shared stuff from her collection for the exhibition.


Art director and production designer Nitin Desai shows Cheri Vasek sketches from the films Jodha Akbar and Devdas. Pic/Cheri Vasek

When we catch up with Vasek over breakfast on her last day in India, she sounds genuinely excited to put up the exhibition and talks about how generous almost everyone she met, has been with their collections. “I cannot imagine this happening anywhere else in the world,” she tells us. But we are intrigued. How did a professor in Hawaii get interested in India in the first place? And how much does she know about the country’s several film centres, which together produce more movies than any other nation in the world? “I grew up watching Indian films with my friends in college and dropping in to Indian restaurants frequently back in the 1970s. I have been interested in Indian culture and food for almost as long as you have been on this earth,” she jokes. We are impressed. So we egg her on to tell us more over croissants and coffee.


Vasek also met celebrated costume designer Bhanu Athaiya for her research. Pic/Cheri Vasek

Magical teamwork in Indian films
“You know, every time I saw a Hindi film, I noticed that they had six or seven costume designers in each film. I wondered how so many creative people could work together. It intrigued me as a professional costume and set designer as well as an academic,” she says. So in 2009 she travelled to India with her colleague Deepshikha Chatterjee. She returned in the summer of 2011, this time for longer. “I visited Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata and met costume designers, dressmakers, embroiders, tailors, make up artists, hairstylists, designers and of course directors and production house bosses. It was an eye opener,” she recalls.


A poster of the film, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, is one of the many Vasek collected durnig her stay in India.

Vasek says she has a fair experience in sets and costumes of Broadway plays and Hollywood films but nothing compares to the kind of teamwork Bollywood has. “I was amazed to see 12 artisans working together to stitch a couture in two weeks. It would be pretty much impossible inb the US. There would be clash of egos and ideas. But these guys were awesome,” she recalls. This teamwork, she says is evident even at the highest level.

The exhibition
But will there be interest in Indian films in Hawaii? Vasek says Indian films, much like Indian food, is very popular in the US and Hawaii is no exception.“Through this exhibition I wish to showcase the best of Indian film design and highlight how all these art forms come together in such a short time to create magic,” she says.


A sketch of a costume worn in the film, Ali Baba Aur Chaalis Chor

The academic says she has been lucky to source stuff from people who have collaborated on the same project. For instance celebrated set director Nitin Desai has given her sketches of both Jodha Akbar and Devdas, as well as photos of the actual sets being constructed.  Designer Nita Lulla has shared sketches and embroidery samples of costumes she designed for the same films. And director Ashutosh Gowarikar’s production house happily helped with clothes and props from Jodha Akbar.

But Vasek didn’t stop with Bollywood. “I went to Kolkata and met the family of the late filmmaker Bimal Roy. His four children readily agreed to lend me rare costume pieces from Roy’s landmark films Do Bigha Zameen and Bandini. Then, in Hyderabad, the Aannapurna Studios management came on board and are contributing costumes and sketches from various Telugu films,” she adds excitedly.

Back in Mumbai Percept Pictures’ Yusuf Shaikh has shared vintage posters including those of Mother India, Johnny Mera Naam, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and recent ones like Namastey London and Singh is King. Vasek says she is going back with not just a trunk full of exhibits but also happy memories. “I am touched by the generosity of people here. None of the people I met charged me a penny for sharing stuff from their collection.” When we ask Desai about it, he smiles. “It is our duty to see that Indian films and our stories are told to the world. I was happy to help,” he says.  

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