When a quiz question passes on

Updated: 21 October, 2020 07:39 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

What better way to pay tribute to Bhanu Athaiya than with loads of 'old chestnut' Bollywood trivia!

Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya. Pic/Getty Images
Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya. Pic/Getty Images

Mayank ShekharAmong places you can find yourself as height of human achievement is to be turned into a general knowledge test. Simply reduced to trivia, despite a staggering body of work—depending on how you view that reward/acknowledgement.

That's how Bollywood's most prolific costume designer, consummate aesthete, Kolhapur born Bhanumati Rajopadhye (1929-2020), was known to most Indians. As a quiz question: Who was the first Indian to receive the Oscar? Bhanu Athaiya—for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, 1983.

From the same year, only quizzers care for Sunil Valson. What did he do? Won the '83 cricket World Cup—as the only player in the squad who didn't play a single match. Or Competition Success Review readers know wrestler KD Jadhav—first Indian to win an Olympic medal (bronze, 1952, Helsinki).

Athlete Norman Pritchard was the first Indian, before independence, to stand on the Olympic podium (two silvers, 1900, Paris). Athaiya's equivalent in commercial design for participants at a quiz is the mention of one Bobby Kooka. What did he create? The Air India logo, Maharaja.

But if the stakes (like on a KBC money-ladder) were higher, the question around Athaiya is more likely to be: Who did she share Best Costume Design Oscar for Gandhi with? John Mollo. Easy. Identify him in a visual? Not so. Either way, Mollo's greatest contribution to cinema are the costumes he designed for the Star Wars series.

Rather than Gandhi, for which the producers had planned in advance, that if they did win, it is Athaiya alone who would go up to receive the statuette (modelled on a Mexican actor Emilio "El Indio" Fernández). As she did, in a green saree, thanking Attenborough for focusing the world's attention on India.

Doing editorial work for magazines like Eve's Weekly, later running a boutique, Athaiya was introduced to movies by one of her clients, actor Kamini Kaushal. This is 1953-54 (she debuted with Shahenshah, Aas). Which is the same year the Filmfare Awards began—often, though unfairly, dubbed India's Oscars. Who was the Filmfare black-lady (statuette) modelled on? Kamini Kaushal.

Also, if folk in the film industry then said, "Ek Claire chahiye," they'd be referring not to a chocolate; but to what? The Filmfare Awards, which were named Claire Awards—after Claire Mendonca, then film critic of The Times of India.

Besides the 2009 lifetime achievement award for a 100-plus, phenomenal filmography, I haven't come across Athaiya among Filmfare Award winners, which probably means the Best Costume Design category was only introduced later. She did win for Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan.

That's 2001, when Aamir Khan had another release, Dil Chahta Hai, known for its fashion/style statement (by designer Arjun Bhasin). Who was the only other actor to star (in a fairly important role) in both films? Suhasini Mule (the mother).

Lagaan was also Athaiya's second period-drama to go to the Oscars. And third Indian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Film; the first being Mother India. Who did Mother India lose by a single vote to? Federico Fellini's Night of Cabiria (1957).

Dev Anand attempted to secure an Oscar nom, with Athaiya on board the adaptation of RK Narayan's The Guide—with an English version directed by Tad Danielewski, collaborating with which Nobel laureate as screenwriter? Pearl S Buck.

Athaiya's top collaborations appear to be with Guru Dutt, who gave her the big break with CID (1956), followed by Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Other two top directors for whom she was the go-to person for costumes were Yash Chopra and Raj Kapoor.

Which Raj Kapoor film with Athaiya as dress designer was the first to be shot abroad? Sangam. Which Yash Chopra, Athaiya collaboration had the 1935 Quetta (Pakistan) earthquake as its backdrop for inspiration? Waqt. According to Dilip Kumar, there were three roles that he eventually regretted rejecting: Baiju Bawra, Zanjeer, and? Pyaasa.

Speaking of long careers, slightly off-kilter: Name the Shah Rukh Khan film, that's written by Abrar Alvi (best known for Kagaaz Ke Phool, Pyaasa), with music composed by Naushad (of, among others, Mughal-e-Azam and Mother India fame)? Guddu. Never heard of it? Good.

But you know Gowariker's Swades (2004), that Athaiya designed the least clothes for SRK. Because his character Mohan Bhargav, visiting a village only for a few days, repeats just as many clothes as you can fit into a suitcase. Which SRK-Athaiya costume piece released with the tagline, 'For some dreams, one lifetime is not enough'? Om Shanti Om.

The day she died, I remembered her from a question tucked away in my personal quiz notes that I've quoted from my phone: Bhanu Athaiya designed what dress that became a rage with the song 'Aaj kal tere mere pyar ke charche ' in the Shammi Kapoor starrer Brahmachari, because the heroine just couldn't dance in the saree that was part of original costume? 'Mumtaz' saree (with readymade pleats and zipper), which she invented.

Have only started. You can do a day-long quiz around Athaiya, without even mentioning clothes, let alone: Who was the first Indian (until now the only woman) to win an Oscar, which she promptly returned to the Academy, soon as she learnt that Tagore's Nobel prize had got stolen from Shantiniketan!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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First Published: 21 October, 2020 06:51 IST

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