Call him a Bollywood stylist.
Call him a bridal designer.
Call him a fashion maverick these days.
Call him what you will.
Manish Malhotra will always be just
Manish Malhotra. No more. No less
Four days before Lakmé Fashion Week’s Autumn/ Winter 2014 finale, the 8th floor of a mid-town Mumbai five-star hotel is chaotic. Designer and Bollywood stylist Manish Malhotra is trying to decide which model will look best in what bridal avatar at the finale. "Who has a flat stomach here?” he asks. “You? Come try the sari.” He pauses, looking slightly worried, lines forming on his forehead. “Maybe we can try this lehenga on Carol or Sandhya?”
A good fit: At the fittings for his show, Manish may be all business, but he always finds a moment to laugh
Suddenly, he smiles, looking at a male model. "Maybe you can trim that beard a bit? You can’t look like a terrorist!" And then he looks at another model. "You need coffee," he says.
There are a few laughs and he’s back to work. "I should change something. Something doesn’t look right," he muses. And then he asks a bystander, "How’s it looking?" She is flustered. "Lovely!" she manages to say, caught by surprise. He gives her a smile and an ‘I-hope-it-all-turns-out-good’ look. Then it’s back to the edit.
Purnima Lamba, head of innovations at Lakmé, says that while discussing the theme of the finale with Malhotra (which was bridal), the first thing she told him was: ‘Tell me what you are known for, and let’s not do that.’ "And Manish was super excited. He’s an incredible collaborator," she says.
That could be Malhotra’s mantra these days as he reinvents himself as a designer – letting his designs reflect his maturity and his growth, even as they still retain that ‘Manish Malhotra’ charm. The result was this – there was no gold at the finale, and that could be a first for Malhotra, who is known for his metallic embroidery and chiffons. Instead, we saw palettes of grey and purple, lots of mirror work, OTT headgear and embroidered capes.
"This was a very controlled collection," observes Anaita Shroff Adajania, the show’s stylist and Malhotra’s old friend. "Most designers are shy to learn, but not Manish; he is like a sponge, he just wants to absorb. When he first started out, he was more about outfits. Now he’s more cohesive and thinks of the outfit as part of a collection. He still loves what he stands for, but wants to grow."
Rags to Rangeela
It’s taken Malhotra a long time to reach this space; a space where he is known not only as the ultimate Bollywood designer but as a fashion maverick as well. What’s common to both tags is his mass appeal, whether it’s inspiring millions to wear hot pants and knotted tops like Urmila Matondkar did in Rangeela (1995), or making sure every other bride wants (or at least tells their tailor to copy) a Manish Malhotra ensemble for their wedding, like their favourite star, Kareena Kapoor Khan. Born into a typical Punjabi family in Mumbai, Malhotra is the son of an air-conditioning business owner. But even as a child, he was only interested in movies – the songs, the colours, the costumes and the actresses (Sridevi was his favourite). As he had a knack for sketching, in his 6th standard, he joined a painting class. "I was good in science only because my diagrams were good," he laughs. "Mathematics was terrible."
But the Bandra boy wanted to move out of his suburb and went to Elphinstone College to study. That’s where he got hooked to English movies in addition to Bollywood. To supplement his pocket money, he conducted surveys for market research agencies, and modelled for ads such as Gold Spot and Close-Up.
But he wanted to see the world. "I saved Rs 90,000 and went to Bangkok and Singapore. That quest to see the world and explore was always there," he says.
Though he loved cinema, Malhotra didn’t know many film people (though his cousin Lali was married to David Dhawan), and spent a lot of time wondering how to break in. On his return from Bangkok, he joined a boutique called Equinox, where he spent his time sketching and draping the mannequins.
Then one day in 1987, he decided to hire two tailors and just started taking orders. "Obviously, I wasn’t going to join the family business," he says. "My parents didn’t understand this, but came around eventually."
It was at this time that Ensemble opened in Mumbai, which was one of the first multi-brand stores that gave Indian designers a platform for showcasing their designs. It could have been a game-changer for Malhotra but as he says, he didn’t have money to even think of making a collection.
"I didn’t have the money to go abroad, I was late with my NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) application, and didn’t have the money for a collection," Malhotra says. "So I decided, why not movies? To me, the costumes were looking really bad."
It wasn’t a smooth start for him. David Dhawan offered him a chance to style Divya Bharti for a song in 1989. "I remember the look I gave her (I shopped at the Taj) – it was a black brocade skirt and a gold top. But the movie was shelved," he says. He then designed clothes for Juhi Chawla for a song in Swarg (1990), but his big break came when celebrity photographer Rakesh Shrestha introduced him to Sridevi, and convinced her to use him as a stylist for a photo shoot.
Malhotra’s foot was in the door. In the next one year, he was working with Sunny Deol, Chunky Pandey and Sridevi. The first movie they did was Gumrah in 1993, and her fitted, embroidered waistcoat with black denims in the song Tere Pyaar Ko Salaam was a fresh look at a time when heroines were swathed in ruffles, satin and dowdy layers.
He doesn’t remember, though, where his design aesthetic came from. "It was all my imagination," he says. "I had never even studied design. Movies were hard. In those days, cheques bounced all the time. And there were all these female designers, with books of work, and I was the young boy who sketched. I won over the actors quickly, but monetary validation was hard to come about."
Then Kajol danced in the rain in her white mini skirt in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and people began to notice Malhotra. And finally, the turning point in his career arrived with that seminal movie, Rangeela (1995), which changed the way we looked at the curvy Indian heroine forever. A stitch in time
We’re chatting over lunch at the Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2014 fittings, where Malhotra confesses he loves food like any other Punjabi. "The other day Kangana [Ranaut] was over for lunch and she said, ‘Do you eat like this every day?’ And I was like, yes, I am Punjabi."
He pauses for a brief conversation with model Deepti Gujral. "I want to look like you. You know someone told me that day, ‘Weight toh chala jayega, but face kaun badlega?’" he tells her. It’s obvious he’s got a knack for making people laugh.
Then we go back to Rangeela. "No one can take that away from me," he says. "Rangeela changed the way the film industry saw costume design – Filmfare instituted the Award for Costume Design for the first time ever, which I won. I did that. It was my turning point. For a guy who had never travelled, I was in and out of Switzerland and London."
It was during Rangeela that he realised that Bollywood was not such a bad place after all. "I met film director, Ram Gopal Varma, who narrated the whole movie [Rangeela] to me. I was so happy."
Other instances that restored his faith in the industry were a visit to Yash Chopra’s house for Aaina (1993), where Pamela Chopra won him over with her class. "She was just so elegant", he recalls. And the time when Yash Johar called him for a project and asked whether he could send over an advance of Rs 10,000, a rare thing in a world of delayed payments.
Rangeela arguably has been one of the sexiest movies ever. How can anyone forget Urmila dancing on Versova beach in skin-tight red leggings and a tank top?
"I introduced the word styling, without even knowing what that meant," says Malhotra. "I took the first step. As long as I live, it will always be that – Manish Malhotra came and changed the way movies looked." He also did the seemingly impossible – made an actress look sexy without looking vulgar. It’s no wonder then his star shone brighter post Rangeela.
Karisma and Kareena Kapoor are die-hard followers, so are Kajol, Priyanka Chopra and most recently, Alia Bhatt, who in her movie Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya says, "Mai shaadi karungi toh Kareena wala designer lehenga pehenke karungi", and also walked the ramp for Malhotra in his lehenga. Like Alia, there are brides all over the country who die for the Manish chiffon sari or embroidered lehenga.
But in the last three years, Malhotra’s work has been more about mainstream fashion than Bollywood or bridal. For Manish, it was just a natural progression. Other than the finale which, with its greys and deep reds, was quieter in appeal, his opening collection for Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2013 last September was surprising, with its cool sharara pants, Rajasthani koti tops and custom zari work.
“Today I am enjoying this phase; the business of fashion interests me,” says Malhotra. “People wait for my collections. I launch them in my store the same day I launch them on the ramp. That’s the belief the client has in me.”
Also read:Amitabh Bachchan's the most stylish Bollywood personality: Manish Malhotra
So how come women so far apart in aesthetics, as Kareena Kapoor Khan and an aunty in Kanpur, both lust for that Manish sari?
“I think I am interested in people. I may not be eclectic, but I have a connect with the audience that makes me popular,” says Malhotra. “That’s because I am still part of an audience myself. I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I go to the theatre wide-eyed. I have never been the one who knows it all. I am in touch with reality.”
It’s not always been about the accolades, though. Many critics over the years have spoken about Malhotra’s “repetition” and tsk-tsked over his “bridal designer” tag. But he seems equally dismissive about the analysis.
“For me, it’s never been about that critic who said, ‘Oh, it’s not out of the box’. I didn’t promise that. I promised to do what I do best,” he says. “My true calling is Indian wear. When people think of a sangeet, reception or shaadi, they think of me. I want clothes that make sense.”
Today he employs 300 embroiderers in-house, 160 workers in Kashmir and 140 workers in Mijwan (Uttar Pradesh). “That’s not mass – my embroidery takes three months to do,” Malhotra says. “It’s a lot of investment. How is that mass? But the connect is mass. I know my buyer. She is a young girl who wants to look glamorous, whether she is fat, dark, fair or short. She wants to be herself.”
His success relies on his instincts as much as his tireless disposition. Everyone tells us that no one works harder than Malhotra. “He is so disciplined and a multi-tasker,” says choreographer Lubna Adams. Make-up artist Cory Walia can’t stop praising Malhotra. “No one has a stronger work ethic. He also knows what he is capable of and doesn’t try and be somebody else.” And he manages to be fun nonetheless. “He might be going crazy at work, but he is still so affable,” says Walia.
Actor Imran Khan backs Malhotra’s belief that he knows what works. "During I Hate Luv Storys (2010), I second guessed many of his choices for me," he says. "But when I saw them on screen, I was like ‘damn, this is what he meant’. He knows what colour, texture and fabric will look good on screen."
And as Kareena, who met him first when she was nine years old while visiting her sister Karisma on the sets of Deedar (1992), says, "In the fashion world, where everyone is trying to be someone, Manish Malhotra is just himself – unapologetically glamorous and sparkly. What he has done for Indian fashion is that he’s made it reach out to every Indian."
Hundreds of girls would have rushed to their tailor and ordered the Madhuri Dixit-style sheer kurtas after Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997); or the red bell bottoms Kareena Kapoor wore in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001); and more recently, college girls went back to the ethnic chic look he created for Alia Bhatt in 2 States (2014).
Whether it’s his styling expertise, his trademark chiffon saris, gold embroidery lehengas or his new avatar as the sophisticated clothes-maker for the modern Indian bride, his greatest strength lies in staying true to his own style.
"I read this quote by Tom Ford that I identify with," says Malhotra. "He said something to the effect that he doesn’t presume he is a big artist, he just gets up and does what he loves and if people like that, he is satisfied. I am the same. I will never change as a person, I will just evolve. When newcomers like Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan say that if they walk the ramp for Manish, it’s a sign they have made it, that’s a sign of respect you can’t beat."
Critics be damned. Manish Malhotra has had the last word.
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From HT Brunch, October 12
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