Bhanu in the nation of thieves

Updated: 18 October, 2020 07:31 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

I love that video of her winning the Oscar: she is pleased, but not overwhelmed. She wore a simple, elegant blue sari with a hint of sequins, a silver choker and earrings, that's it

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeIndia is a nation of thieves. This is the tragic conclusion one must infer when Bhanu Athaiya returned her Oscar for Best Costume Design for Gandhi to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for safekeeping in 2012. She felt her Oscar was not safe in India, especially after Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel Prize was stolen from Shantiniketan.

Athaiya, who was the first Indian—and only Indian woman—to win the Oscar for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi in 1983, passed away at 91 last Thursday in Mumbai, following a prolonged illness. Her work, which spanned over 100 films in nearly 60 years, defined the aesthetics of costume design in Hindi cinema/Bollywood. "When Gandhi was released, people here in India said, 'Madam, why did you get Oscar? Everything looks so normal.' But that was the beauty of that story," she said in a video interview. Her Oscar win showed Hindi cinema the importance of research and authenticity of international standards, in a department otherwise known mainly for setting fashion trends. Though she did that too, whether it was Waheeda Rehman in Guide, Mumtaz in Brahmachari or Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. In her memoir, The Art Of Costume Design, Athaiya mentioned how she was the only Indian among the heads of department on the film Gandhi. She travelled to Ajanta-Ellora to research costumes for Amrapali; to Calcutta for Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam; and ordered material from Andhra Pradesh and Dhaka for Gandhi, designing for a cast of thousands.

Few realise that Bhanu, née Rajopadhye, from Kolhapur, was the first and only woman to be invited to join the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG), that included FN Souza, MF Husain, SH Raza and others, following a stint at the JJ School of Art. But she later chose to be financially independent, doing fashion illustrations for Fashion & Beauty and Eve's Weekly magazines. In a video interview, Athaiya reveals how, at Eve's Weekly, "Readers asked the editor to open a boutique, which she did. Stars like Kamini Kaushal and directors would come looking for me." That's how she did the costumes for Kaushal in the film Aas in 1953. She became Guru Dutt's regular crew, working on his CID, Pyaasa, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Her other films include Gunga Jumna, Waqt and Amrapali from the 60s, and her popular films include Brahmachari (1968), Guide (1965), Agneepath (1990), Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004). She worked with top filmmakers, including Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, BR Chopra, Yash Chopra, Dev Anand and Ashutosh Gowariker. Her international credits include Gandhi, Conrad Rook's Siddhartha, Krishna Shah's Shalimar and Mani Kaul's German-backed short, The Cloud Door.

I love that video of her winning the Oscar: she is pleased, but not overwhelmed. She wore a simple, elegant blue sari with a hint of sequins, a silver choker and earrings, that's it. She was absolutely self-contained; nobody would dare ask her "who" she's wearing; she felt no need to make a statement with her clothes at all. She even took a white clutch purse onstage: Oscar protocolwallahs must have tried their damndest to de-purse her for television, but she must have dismissed them firmly.

"It's too good to believe," she says in her earthy Minglish (Marathi-English) acceptance speech. "Thank you Academy, and thank you Sir Richard Attenborough for focussing world attention on India." Even in her moment of glory, she was thinking of the country, not herself. She's one of a kind.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshi.shedde@mid-day.com

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First Published: 18 October, 2020 07:31 IST

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