Meet the man who is now Bollywood’s go-to costume designer

Jun 23, 2017, 15:39 IST | Shweta Shiware

The man who gave Hindi cinema shopping budgets and styling continuity, discusses how the ’90s changed his destiny, and the face of costume design 

mid-day 38th anniversary

Manish Malhotra at his Pali Hill residence. PIC/SATEJ SHINDE 

It is Thursday morning at Manish Malhotra’s five-storeyed Pali Hill mansion. He is glad it’s not a Sunday." I could work seven days if needed; I think sleep is overrated," he says as he readies for a shot on the terrace lined by his favourite Frangipani tree.

He is 50 but looks younger. Stray strands of grey in his swept back mop of hair tells of the rich years he has spent being Bollywood’s go-to costume designer.

Along the way, he transformed the image of several A-list heroines, gifting them a look that was sometimes more discussed than their performance. Until Rangeela happened, Urmila Matondkar was the girl-next-door wearing awkward frocks and denim overalls. The bralet and itsy white skirt in Hai Rama turned her into a sex symbol overnight. To Raja Hindustani’s Karisma Kapoor, he gifted feminine sensuality when he dressed her in a long, poker straight wig, the first departure from naughty curls, and packed her wardrobe with chiffon sarees and sleeveless cholis. He sealed his track record with Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kareena Kapoor-Khan in Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham.

In the mid-90s, when the likes of Karan Johar relocated their films to foreign locations, it was Malhotra who recommended shopping budgets. "My logic was simple. If the heroine is a girl from London, she has to wear the clothes from where she belongs. I can’t sit in Mumbai and design Londonesque fashion for her. Luckily, the films turned out to be huge hits."

Hundred plus films, and many accolades later, Malhotra believes his most significant contributions include introducing colour, and reinstating the saree trend on screen. "My clothes carry a glimpse of India, even if it’s the unusual pairing of a T-shirt with the Patiala salwar in Jab We Met. The eighties began with Kanjeevarams promoted by Rekha and Moushmi Chatterjee. I worked towards bringing back the sensuality of drapes, influenced by the sarees of the 1960s."

Sridevi’s bob in Gumraah; (below) Urmila in Rangeela 

Malhotra says his journey may have begun 26 years ago, but his obsession with the movies dates back to the time he was a student at Bandra’s Sacred Heart School. "My childhood was spent at cinema halls in Bandra. I was wide-eyed, inspired and madly in love with the movies, and my mother encouraged my passion," says the designer, who initially modeled in ads for Philips, Weekender, Gold Spot and Limca. This was during his time at Elphinstone College.

The big turn came in 1987 when he was confronted with a choice – launch a career in fashion, or work in the movies as stylist. "Ensemble was launched that year with Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Khosla, Monisha Jaising, Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla," he says of Mumbai’s first multi-designer retail store. "I did a quick reality check – I didn’t have the money to make a collection or study abroad, so I decided to apply to the the newly launched NIFT in Delhi. I sent my application, but didn’t end up leaving Mumbai. I worked at a boutique called Equinox as salesperson and spent time between attending to clients, sketching," he remembers.

Through the time he spent introspecting, the ambition to work in Bollywood didn’t leave him. "I thought to myself: films are not looking good, and nobody is paying attention to fashion. What if I am the first person who styles films?" With this, he approached Lali Dhawan, wife to hit filmmaker David, who assigned him the task of styling a song for Govinda starrer Swarg.

It was around then that he met photographer-to-the-stars Rakesh Shrestha, and began assisting him as stylist on film shoots. He remembers "bizarre moments", including stitching an outfit of palm leaves and feathers for Sridevi. Shooting for a Telugu film in Chennai at the time, the actress suggested Malhotra add his name to the contenders for styling the South production. "The meeting was scheduled at Centaur Hotel, and when the lift door opened, I saw veterans Leena Daru and Neeta Lulla sitting in the lobby, carrying detailed lookbooks. I think I landed that project, my first styling assignment in 1990, because Sridevi sensed I was able to understand a character."

Three years later, he would style the star in Yash Johar’s Gumraah, and take a baby step towards ridding Hindi films of style inconsistencies and continuity faux pas. "I asked Sridevi why she changed her hairstyle according to costume – long hair when wearing Indian, and a short bob with Western wear." She saw his point and acted on his suggestion to cut her hair for the part. "Gumraah was the first film where I created a look in conjunction with the script," he says. Malhotra was introduced to Karan Johar on this set, and the two went on to collaborate on blockbusters and become close friends.

It was Yash and Avanti Birla who drew him to launching a fashion label, which he did in 1999 with Reverie, and later at Sheetal Design Studio.

His fashion label is an infant at 11, but clients have embraced him wholeheartedly. "The audience stood by me. The client likes me, and that’s what matters. The fraternity that initially treated me as an ‘outsider’, reckoned, I had ‘arrived’ when their clients, clients they were proud of, started ordering from me, whether it was late Parmeshwar Godrej or Neeta Ambani."

Malhotra’s self confidence is not misplaced. Once criticised for introducing frivolity to fashion shows with showstoppers and star-studded front rows, a trend he kicked off is now the norm. "They now run after actresses to wear their clothes. I started my career with Sridevi 26 years ago, and now I am designing for her daughter Jhanvi," he says of coming a full circle.

Here on, it will be four films a year, and more time to the label. "I have outgrown them," he says of films. "It’s not as if the viewer who likes my styling, goes and picks up a saree from my store, anyway."

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