Zeenat Aman: ‘I’ve never looked better than I have in clothes by Bhanu Athaiya’ - Hindustan Times
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Zeenat Aman: ‘I’ve never looked better than I have in clothes by Bhanu Athaiya’

ByShireen Quadri
Jan 12, 2024 09:34 PM IST

At the launch of the exhibition, ‘Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya,’ in Goa, the actor spoke about working with the Oscar-winning costume designer

“Bhanu was a true blue designer. What we have now are mere stylists,” said Zeenat Aman, the sassy seductress of the Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, at the launch of the exhibition, Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya, organised by luxury auction house Prinseps at Aguada in Goa’s refurbished cultural hub inside the Port and Jail complex in Candolim. Zeenat, who broke the mould with her edgy onscreen sartorial choices, recalled several anecdotes from her collaborations with Bhanu, including the most memorable costumes and films. Curated by Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, the event showcased Bhanu’s journey from an artist to a costume designer in Hindi cinema to becoming India’s first Oscar winner in the Best Costume Design category with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Some iconic designs from Bhanu’s personal collection were also on display.

Bhanu Athaiya with her Oscar for her work in Gandhi (1982). She is still the only Indian to have won the award in the Best Costume Design category. (Courtesy Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya, organised by luxury auction house Prinseps) PREMIUM
Bhanu Athaiya with her Oscar for her work in Gandhi (1982). She is still the only Indian to have won the award in the Best Costume Design category. (Courtesy Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya, organised by luxury auction house Prinseps)

Zeenat Aman at the event. (Courtesy Prinseps)
Zeenat Aman at the event. (Courtesy Prinseps)

Athaiya’s daughter Radhika Gupta revealed that as she grew older, Bhanu often complained that she hadn’t been given her due. In 2012, when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, she became desperate to archive the works in her personal collection to safeguard her legacy. However, no museum was willing to take the whole lot. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), (originally the Prince Of Wales Museum), said their calendar was booked for the next five years and they would not be able to even look at anything before that. Athaiya wrote to some ministries and the only response she got was: “Bhej dijiye, hum dekhte hain kya ho sakta hai (Send them over; let’s see what we can do).” This casual response frustrated, saddened and eventually made her lose faith in the system.

The theft of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize medal from Santiniketan in 2004 set the alarm bells ringing for Bhanu. “My mother used to keep her Oscar award in her workshop under lock and key. After this news, she took it up to her room and said she would not keep it in the workshop because it might get stolen,” said Gupta. When Athaiya went to LA for an event organised by the Academy to felicitate all women costume designers, other women designers told her that they had returned their Oscars to the Academy to be preserved. “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a corner and my mother, too, gave a lot of stuff related to Gandhi to the Academy, and ultimately returned her award for safekeeping,” Gupta added.

Part of the display at the exhibition. “Athaiya pioneered the concept of the pre-stitched sari in Hindi cinema. She made the first one for Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965) and for Mumtaz in Brahmachari (1968). These saris had zip at the back and were so comfortable that the actors could twist, bend and run effortlessly in them. “ (Courtesy Prinseps)
Part of the display at the exhibition. “Athaiya pioneered the concept of the pre-stitched sari in Hindi cinema. She made the first one for Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965) and for Mumtaz in Brahmachari (1968). These saris had zip at the back and were so comfortable that the actors could twist, bend and run effortlessly in them. “ (Courtesy Prinseps)

Till date, this is the only Oscar that an Indian has won in the costume design category. According to her daughter, Athaiya dressed nearly all of the three lakh people in funeral scene in Gandhi: “There were people from various communities and she tied all their dhotis and turbans herself; she would tie about 1500 every two hours. When Gandhiji lands in Mumbai, he wears the Kathiyawadi dress and his wife wears a white sari embroidered with M all over. Kasturba Gandhi had done it herself; my mother recreated that sari.” Incidentally, Athaiya pioneered the concept of the pre-stitched sari in Hindi cinema. She made the first one for Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965) and for Mumtaz in Brahmachari (1968). These saris had zip at the back and were so comfortable that the actors could twist, bend and run effortlessly in them.

Zeenat Aman, who has made a comeback on social media where her pithy recollections and remembrance of things past has won her a legion of Gen-Z admirers, was quite overwhelmed while recalling those zipped saris. The actor, whose Bun Tikki is set to release later this year, said her saris helped her perform seamlessly without having to worry about handling them. Sitara Jaan, her character in her forthcoming film, wears only pre-stitched saris designed by Manish Malhotra. Aman says the experience has rekindled her love for saris.

Known for her unconventional roles in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Qurbani, Yaadon Ki Baarat, Dhund, Don and Manoranjan, Aman worked with Athaiya on 15 films. “Bhanu was mild-mannered, non-intrusive, ever-smiling, and always gentle. Working with her was a sheer pleasure. The costumes varied according to the demand of the scene. Her silhouettes were magnificent. I don’t think I have ever looked better than I have in clothes designed by her,” she said.

Zeenat Aman and Dev Anand in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) (Film still)
Zeenat Aman and Dev Anand in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) (Film still)

“I had a good bonding with my costume designers. We’d discuss the scene, the context, the character, the kind of clothes the character was expected to wear, and the significance of the colour or the fabric in a particular scene. It was special with Bhanu because she was interested. The director, too, would give his brief. There was an ecosystem, with people coming together to create something new — a certain thought, mood or sequence,” she said. She referred particularly to the qawwali scene in Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977). “There was a lot of back-and-forth between us about what to wear and how to present it. The characters that Bhanu designed for me and for my films were all so different. She had a mannequin in her studio so that I didn’t have to do a hundred trials; after we would discuss everything, the costume would be ready; I could perform with that outfit as soon as it was sent to me,” she recollected.

In Alibaba Aur 40 Chor (1980), Zeenat sported a variety of headgear, including turbans. All of them were designed by Athaiya. Reminiscing about playing a drug addict in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), she said: “The audience accepted me. They loved that character; I won a Filmfare award for that. Similar scripts poured in: for instance, Heera Panna (1973), and Roti Kapda aur Makaan (1974). Producers wrote roles for me that had shades of grey.”

Athaiya often said she was lucky to have dressed up Zeenat Aman because she was the first person in Hindi films who could carry off western wear perfectly. “That gave my mother the liberty to experiment with different styles and fabrics. Earlier also, she had worked for heroines like Nadira in Shree 420, but the styles were not quite Western. For Satyam Shivam Sundaram, she never thought she could create something with so little fabric and make it look so stunning,” Gupta said.

Athaiya’s most acclaimed Hindi films include Amrapali, Waqt, Brahmachari, Teesri Manzil, Guide, and Reshma Aur Shera. The costumes prompted women to demand that their tailors create rip-offs that were as close to the original as possible. Another iconic costume linked closely to its wearer was Sadhana’s well-fitted churidar paired with a knee-length tunic in Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965). The style became a rage among college girls.

“Athaiya’s first film was with Kamini Kaushal in Aas (1952). Next, she went to Ajanta as an artist to study technical architecture. The costumes in Amrapali (1966), which were inspired by Ajanta’s cave paintings, became so popular that she recreated them for different characters and films. One example was Rekha costume in Sawan Bhadon (1970). “ (HT Photo)
“Athaiya’s first film was with Kamini Kaushal in Aas (1952). Next, she went to Ajanta as an artist to study technical architecture. The costumes in Amrapali (1966), which were inspired by Ajanta’s cave paintings, became so popular that she recreated them for different characters and films. One example was Rekha costume in Sawan Bhadon (1970). “ (HT Photo)

Incidentally, Athaiya arrived at costume designing after trying to find a foothold in the art world. In 1958, she became the first fashion designer to exhibit her art. Before her, the Hindi film industry made do with tailors or dressmakers. Given her art background, she always first sketched the costumes she was asked to design. “They were works of art and now they are mostly part of museums,” said Indrajit Chatterjee, founder and director, Princeps, adding that about 100 costumes from Athaiya’s personal collection will travel to other parts of the country.

Athaiya’s first film was with Kamini Kaushal in Aas (1952). Next, she went to Ajanta as an artist to study technical architecture. The costumes in Amrapali (1966), which were inspired by Ajanta’s cave paintings, became so popular that she recreated them for different characters and films. One example was Rekha costume in Sawan Bhadon (1970).

Zeenat first worked with Athaiya in Dhund (1973), in which she wore mostly saris. “I really loved the western dresses from Pukar. They resonated with me. It had the Portuguese-Indian influence and I loved the way Bhanu’s clothes looked.” The costumes in Pukar were inspired by Piet Mondrian’s paintings and used colour blocking. Athaiya tweaked the bold red, yellow and black stripes and made the Mondrian dress look totally stylish.

“There was a delicate touch in her work. We shared a great rapport. I love the fact that there’s so much variety in the costumes she designed for me. They were all distinct from one another,” Aman said.

The star did not get to keep any of the costumes. “The only two items that I possess from the 1970s are a hat and a belt. The costumes normally belonged to the producer. After the completion of a film, most producers would give them to the extras or junior artists. They were used and re-used and we never really got to keep any of them,” said the actor who is set to begin a fresh chapter of her life at 72.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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