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Disco designers: The colourful loves of Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla

Blinded by their love for the aesthetically pleasing and each other, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla let us into their private space like they’ve never done before!

brunch Updated: Sep 29, 2018 23:52 IST
Nikhil Khanna
Nikhil Khanna
Hindustan Times
Abu Jani,Sandeep Khosla,Bollywood
Abu Jani and his life and business partner, the buoyant Sandeep Khosla, are now in their 32nd year of business – and love – together(Prabhat Shetty )

“We like to do things in a lavish yet elegant manner. That’s just how our style is – a celebration of life,” murmurs Abu Jani. He and his life and business partner, the buoyant Sandeep Khosla, are now in their 32nd year of business – and love – together.

Lavish yet elegant is an understatement; we are sprawled in the duo’s apartment in Juhu in Mumbai – the apartment is a jewel-box of curiosities. Silver bibelots, a wall of sculptural heads in metal, some very nice art (including a sublime early Manjit Bawa, much before the cows came home), sofas meant for deep lounging, brobdingnagian bouquets of flowers towering in vases.

“Heaven knows there are far more important things in life, but a badly-laid table is a no-no!” —Sandeep Khosla

A month ago, Abu and Sandeep hosted a dinner for Jaya Bachchan’s birthday in these intimate rooms. A small gathering comprising the Bachchans – the Big B owning the room as always, a bubbly Shweta, her great-looking son Agastya Nanda, a rambunctious Amrita Singh, her gorgeous daughter Sara, a resplendent, for there’s no other way to describe him, Karan Johar (bright-eyed and curious), an oddly coy Gauri Khan, the mighty, towering Pinky Reddy, the discerning filmmaker Mozez Singh… everyone collapsed everywhere, far away from the paparazzi who, as per Bollywood practice, are always alerted by zealous, pushy publicists to arrive at airports, parties and other gigs.

Abu and Sandeep have made this practice absolutely verboten – the stars are their friends and the duo don’t need the oxygen of publicity to sell clothes. That privilege, or lust for O2 thereof, goes to another fashion designer in Mumbai, who, they dismiss, witheringly as a ‘mere stylist.’

Life, the universe, and everything

What makes these two stand out in a word is, talent ( Prabhat Shetty )

For Sandeep, life was and is a privileged industrialist background in Kapurthala (he had a brand of electric fans named after him), Welham School (boys, not girls), Doon School and then a struggle in leather manufacturing, a move to Mumbai, sharing digs, the glorious realisation of fashion, slogging it, slumming it, meeting Abu, making an extraordinary partnership and then fame based on a blazing talent. For Abu, the narrative begins with a storied Bohra family, a mad shift in educational institutions because of his restlessness and dyslexia, a struggle, the meeting with Sandeep, his innate understanding of the beauty of Mumbai – the Anglo-Indians, Parsees, Khojas, Gujaratis, Muslims and what they brought to design, and then success like no other.

What makes these two stand out? In a word, talent. Neither of them is professionally trained and that, in a way, has allowed them to experiment as their career moved up the graph. Inspiration has come from everywhere – Africa, dogri pyjamas worn by hill-men from Himachal Pradesh, the epic movie Pakeezah (1972) with a long-suffering Meena Kumari playing a tragically camp courtesan to stunning effect, bandhini, zardozi and then sophisticated chikan, that extraordinary embroidery from Lucknow. It’s also the city of Mumbai and its fabulous cosmopolitanism, its innate drive to succeed and its great professionalism that has taken Abu and Sandeep to where they are.

“We love Deep House, Abida Parveen, Donna Summer and new Bollywood, but new tech means we are dependent on friends to make us CD!” —Abu Jani

And now, relative calm reigns in Juhu – the two never stop working, that’s a given – but there are realisations, and boy, what opinions! We talk about copying designs, something endemic in fashion. “What can I say,” says Sandeep, “Copying is hitting below the belt – no pun. I hate people being dishonest and unfair. A Bollywood designer literally posts people outside our factory to take our staff away! Design, for God’s sake, don’t do just ticky-tacky rip-offs,” he exclaims.

They wonder if indeed this is an offensive, unthinking time when, as Abu says, “People don’t want to learn, they have a lack of discipline and would much rather flirt with mediocrity than excellence.”

I ask if they feel New Money (James Crabtree in his superb, new book, The Billionaire Raj, calls it the ‘Bollygarchy’) has bought a new Gilded Age to India, an age where colossal designers like them have seen massive money spends on weddings, clothes, jewels and events. This could be an age in India where grim social issues – and huge gaps between rich and poor – are disguised with a veneer of glitter over rotting copper. “When we started 32 years ago, a new generation of multi-millionaires had risen to prominence; they were open to ideas and to design and art. The people we worked with allowed us to experiment and gave us wings to fly,” says Sandeep.” Now, you have a few of the very moneyed open to ideas. More than glitter, the terrible thing is the entitlement you see now and how that breeds a culture that is purely surface. Don’t get me wrong – money, old or new, fuels patronage and change and it’s presumptuous to dismiss it. But yes, a lack of appreciation, the grasping for more all the time, the dismissal of values held sacred, is deeply worrying. These are the things that cause the divide.”

That perhaps, and the fact that they came up the hard way instead of it all being handed on a platter, makes them vigorously unsnobbish.

Style statements

The city of Mumbai and its fabulous cosmopolitanism, its innate drive to succeed and its great professionalism that has taken Abu and Sandeep to where they are ( Prabhat Shetty )

For anyone in the a creative field like fashion design, the muse would be all important. Abu and Sandeep have had several muses: Jaya Bachchan (“a classic with great dignity”), Dimple Kapadia (“zany, eccentric in a posh way, part Boho, a free-spirit”), Sonam Kapoor (“a madcap and courageous dresser who has broken every rule”). Before that, of course, was the original, nonpareil Sunita Pitamber, the boys’ great friend who once, while dismissing the drip-drip of arriviste in Bombay (it was Bombay then), said, rather savagely, that café society was now ‘Nescafe society’ and that ‘that’s about all that’s happening.’ Iteration, and then some.

“People would much rather flirt with mediocrity than excellence!” —Abu Jani

I fire-bomb them with more questions on Bollywood style, and the lack of it. So Priyanka Chopra is someone who ‘hasn’t got her due yet’, but ‘her carriage and her confidence’ make her a favourite with them. When I ask them about the very odd outfit Chopra wore at Prince Harry’s wedding – the one in which she appeared to have eaten well the night before – they demur gently. Aishwarya Rai – an independent dresser if ever there was one – is, to them, ‘breathtaking.’ Rekha is ‘the queen’ while Shahid Kapoor ‘dances superbly, acts seriously and dresses eclectically’. Ranveer Singh, exhausting to watch for this writer – a tiresome Jack-in-the Box – to Abu and Sandeep, most graciously, is exceptional and owns every moment. Phew! What about Amrita Singh then? Amrita Singh is their best friend, bar none – she is the pulsating heart of this house, unexpurgated, earthily uncensored (her view of Lutyens Delhi would make the wanton blush), the boys absolutely live for her. They both deeply miss the late Nargis Rabadi, or Shammi Aunty as she was always addressed, who was a great early supporter of theirs and with whom they had a film club. Shammi Aunty, along with Waheeda Rahman, Asha Parekh, Helen, and Sadhana, would come for lunch and bond like sisters. Those lunches still happen with the others in the group, and the mind boggles, quite frankly, at what the conversation at a luncheon like that could be.

Living the dream

As we sit down for lunch, staff in pristine white emerge from the kitchen, silver thalis held aloft at shoulder height and swing and swoop them down on the table. The repast is sophisticated; Tendli (baby courgette), a robust Junglee Meat dripping off the bone like a fine pate, Bori Cutlets made from minced lamb, delicate Parsee Patrani Machee (steamed fish in banana leaf with a slathering of fresh mint chutney), and a silky Prawn Balchao. Mary, their cook, has been with them for 22 years, and it shows.

“We live a food dream,” says Sandeep, “And we churn out new things all the time. We are very critical of a badly-laid table – it’s not a pretention on our part, and heaven knows there are far more important things in life, but a badly-laid table is a no-no!”

“A Bollywood designer posts people outside our factory to take our staff away! Design, for God’s sake, don’t do ticky-tacky rip-offs” —Sandeep Khosla

What moves them? Music for one. “We love Deep House, Abida Parveen, Donna Summer and new Bollywood, but changing technology means we are dependent on friends to make CDs for us even now in this day and age,” says Abu. Both men are movie savants (an upstairs room in the apartment has a crazy jigsaw of DVDs from floor to ceiling; an incredible collection), and the books they like are the big, fat and juicy ones on art, fashion, architecture and jewels. They are quite cheerful about not being ‘major readers.’ Abu loves anything BBC, while Sandeep is partial to Pornhub. And what annoys them? Abu is the more sanguine one, while Sandeep froths at seeing their knock-offs stretching from Chandni Chowk to China.

What are they proud of? Too many things they refuse to speak about, but Devdas (2002) and the experience of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and winning the National Award, was stellar, and recently working with Rhea Kapoor for Veere di Wedding (2018) was also beyond standout.

As we wind up, the two are getting ready to throw another vast dinner. Karan Johar, no shrinking wallflower himself, says of the duo, “Abu and Sandeep are millennials stuck in veteran bodies! Apart from their brilliance as designers, they live the high life with abandon – Abu’s singing and Sandeep’s dancing are off sync – but both are beyond adorable.”

Outside, the paparazzi may be gathering but they won’t be allowed in.

Delhi-based Nikhil Khanna is the founder and executive chairman of Avian Media. He began his career as a copy writer in the ad world and contributes to a number of publications

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From HT Brunch, September 30 , 2018

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First Published: Sep 29, 2018 22:21 IST