The 86-year-old’s hands tremble thanks to her debilitating brain tumour. However, that doesn’t stop Bhanu Athaiya from holding her own while expressing her strong opinions. She became India’s first Oscar winner, way back in 1983, when she bagged the bald statuette for Best Costume Design in Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi. Incidentally, the octogenarian has decided to return the award back to the Academy for safekeeping. A picture of serene content, Bhanu confesses to having done away with all the bitterness she once felt towards the Indian government for their apathetic attitude...
Why was your Oscar not safe in India?
I’m not the first one to do this! Edith Head (eight-time Oscar Award-winning costume designer) returned all her trophies back to the Academy. Besides, we have seen how things get stolen or misplaced in India. Over the past years, famous paintings have been stolen that have never been retrieved. Even Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medal wasn’t spared. Not many people can claim to have held an Oscar in their hands and I want that feeling to stay alive.
How has your daughter (Kolkata-based Radhika Gupta) reacted to your decision?
I spoke to her today and she sounded happy about the whole thing. She even mentioned that this is the perfect time to go about it.
What do you have to say about the government’s apathy towards you?
That’s their fault, not mine. I did my job and in an ideal world, I would have been decorated with a Padma award at least. I’m not bitter about it anymore and I somehow have a feeling that I had something more to give to the world than the other way round.
You’re not upset at all?
It doesn’t bother me one bit. Indian cinema is a different subject and I’ve worked with the very best from Guru Dutt to Ashutosh Gowariker. That reality is more than enough for me. I don’t have any expectation from anyone.
After Swades, why haven’t you done any Bollywood film?
(With folded hands) Thank you very much but it’s not my cup of tea. I’m a painter first. You’d be surprised to know that I didn’t draw a single sketch while working for Gandhi. I just went with my instincts and took one day at a time. You don’t get that kind of space here nowadays.
What do you have to say about today’s costume designers?
I’m sorry but they are a great disappointment. They aren’t good enough. Most of them have gone for a one-year or two-year course and happily call themselves fashion designers.
So what are you working on currently?
There’s a book I am working on. It is about my hometown Kolhapur where I’m tracing my lineage all the way back to Chittor in the North. I’m also donating my paintings and other artifacts to museums for posterity.