How to Make a Modern Hindi Cinema Blouse

Manish Malhotra, Neeta Lulla, Sheetal Iqbal Sharma and Subarna Ray Chaudhuri talk about how the blouse — rather than the sari — gives main character energy.
How to Make a Modern Hindi Cinema Blouse
How to Make a Modern Hindi Cinema Blouse

Karan Johar’s Rani Chatterjee (Alia Bhatt)  from Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023) is a no-nonsense, puts-misogynistic-politicians-in-their- place kind of a journalist. She is also very sexy. Her introduction shot shows her working on her laptop, wearing a slinky little robe, sipping coffee. Then come the money shots of Rani getting dressed — putting on a blouse that plunges deep and is held in place by a delicate strip of fabric and tassels that bob with mischievous playfulness. When the camera moves to the front, the blouse reveals its plunging neckline. The design, packing glamour and sensuality, becomes a device that contributes to Rani’s characterisation, conveying with style that Rani is a self-assured woman who dotes on her own self-expression. 

For Rani’s sarees and blouses (generally sleeveless and incorporating knots and tassels), designer Manish Malhotra said he was given no “strict guidelines”, but director Karan Johar’s brief was clear. Rani had to be “both glamorous and rooted in Indian heritage”, Malhotra told Film Companion. For Johar, Rocky aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani needed to be in direct dialogue with Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and an homage to Bollywood’s legacy of romantic cinema, to films like Chandni (1989), Dilwale Dulhani Le Jayenge (1995) and Johar’s own filmography. “Karan wanted Rani's character to be in sarees embodying the essence of a modern Indian woman who proudly blends tradition with a progressive outlook,” Malhotra said. 

Bold and Gorgeous

Malhotra is not new to this quest of fashioning something that becomes a mainstay in the public fantasy. “No one has made blouse cuts so bold and yet so gorgeous like he has,” stylist Eka Lakhani told Film Companion (Lakhani has worked with Malhotra in Rocky aur Rani…). There is a sexiness his blouse designs have been able to define, as Chandni from Main Hoon Na (2004), Neha from Dostana (2008), Naina from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) or Rani from Rocky Aur Rani show. “It’s a collaborative effort where I meld my design sensibilities with a careful balance of staying true to the character's essence while infusing elements of style and glamour that align with the actress portraying the role,” said Malhotra. “This process is particularly nuanced, as it varies depending on the roles they inhabit. For instance, in Main Hoon Na, where Sushmita Sen portrayed a tall, poised university professor, I designed a chiffon saree that exuded sensuality while retaining a traditional essence suitable for the academic setting. Conversely, for Priyanka Chopra's character in Dostana, a spirited, independent woman in Miami often seen in bikini tops, crop tops, and shorts, I opted for a metallic tone sequin saree to resonate with the vibrant ‘desi girl’ persona depicted in the film. Alia Bhatt in Rocky aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, who portrays the modern Indian woman, effortlessly combines traditional attire like the saree with a contemporary mindset,” he added. 

If the blouse has risen beyond being an accessory to the sari and tapped into some serious main character energy, then it’s mostly thanks to mainstream Hindi cinema. While individual films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!! (1994) and Main Hoon Na (2004) became trendsetters, the filmmaker whose cinema has perhaps played the biggest part in the blouse’s ascent is Sanjay Leela Bhansali — so much so that Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), pardon the pun, ruffled director Pradeep Sarkar enough to inspire what would end up becoming a new trend in blouses with the film Parineeta (2005). “He (Sarkar) strictly told me I don't want a Sanjay Leela Bhansali thing,” recalled designer Subarna Ray Chaudhuri. “He mentioned to me that he doesn’t want that (Devdas) look because that's garish. He wanted the film to be closer to real life.” Sarkar told Chaudhuri that he wanted the designs to be authentic, but at the same time, gorgeous. 

Chaudhuri decided to steer away from the frills and the ruffles, popularised by Satyajit Ray’s Charulata and other adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore stories and tried to visualise “something which will become a part of fashion for the future”. Chaudhuri’s research included spending time at the British Library in Kolkata and chatting with “old aunties” to understand their clothing choices and patterns. “Pradeep-da was very particular about the blouses, the cuts and the back. He said it should not be backless, but reveal much of the back,” Chaudhuri said. To create something that felt rooted in the Sixties but also modern, the designer flitted between Nehru place in Delhi and Shyambazar in Kolkata, sourcing fabrics, old Banarasi sarees and patchwork materials. In Kolkata, she found an old gentleman who had kept a collection of old sarees, several of which Chaudhuri bought and upcycled and to create the silhouettes worn by Balan in the film. The blouse seen in the song  ‘Piyu Bole’ is made with Banarasi fabrics that come from three different sarees. 

Stretching the Imagination

One of the most gorgeous blouses was adorned by Rekha in her special appearance in the film. The actor is notorious for doing meticulous research on what outfits she will wear for a particular outing. “She said, ‘I want a saree which will be draped easily. It should be a stitched saree, but it should not look like a stitched saree’,” Chaudhuri said, adding that Rekha also brought in sketches. Her final ensemble in ‘Paheli Zindagani’ has a shimmery black blouse with lavish bead and stone work, along with hanging crystals that were hand-embroidered to the bottom. This glamorous upper garment was visible through the stitched net saree, which may not have be historically faithful to the Sixties, but then again, what are stories for if not to stretch our imagination? 

Sarkar’s reservations about Devdas notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films have repeatedly established themselves as the gold standard of blouses as much for their beauty as their ability to subtly convey details about the wearer. In Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), for example, Gangu (Bhatt) is shown wearing floral tight-fitting blouses in her early years, before graduating to organza and chikankari materials. In a key scene, Gangu wears a neckline with a sweetheart shape that accentuates her cleavage, turning the accessory into a power move. “She had to have a powerful vibe. There was never a brief for the blouse patterns or designs, yet it had to look from the period of late Fifties or Sixties,” Sharma told Film Companion.

In addition to the information Sharma found in Hussain Zaidi’s book, which mentions she used to wear a lot of white with gold ornaments, Sharma visited the Asiatic library in Mumbai and sifted through newspaper archives for pictorial references. “We had to rely a lot on old photographs of women from Bombay or the Life magazine Archives to see the fashion and style,” said Sharma, “Also she was from Bombay,  and she was inclined to become an actor, so we took a lot of inspiration from yesteryear stars and actresses to see that influence in Gangu’s style.” A detail that was added was the style of tucking her saree pallu into the neckline of her blouse.

Back to the Top

Long before Gangubai Kathiawadi, for Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), designer Neeta Lulla created for the heroine Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) a silhouette that was elegant and rooted in Indian aesthetics, without feeling typical. “She (Nandini) is a well educated Gujarati who has a mindset of her own. At the same time, she lives in the village and has the inbuilt cultural traits of a Gujarati girl. So whatever you (Lulla) can come up with, which is a little more contemporised, it should keep the essence of Gujarat,” Bhansali told Lulla, who had been designing for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan since her beauty pageant days.

To prepare for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Lulla did a car tour with Bhansali and other heads of departments in and around Bhuj, in Gujarat. The designer took note of the bandhani silhouettes and how mirror-work was embellished onto them, and managed to source everything she needed for the film from Gujarat. “Instead of doing a bandhani lehenga which I felt would look too cumbersome, I wanted to do an organza lehenga which had more girth and more flirty in its feel on the lehenga. It was more sensuous, more romantic,” Lulla said. Instead of the Indian katori choli, the designer incorporated Edwardian cuts.  “I incorporated my own design philosophy of the Edwardian silhouettes, which are very romantic and very flattering with the traditional Gujarati fabrics and the bandhani and mirror work. That's where the magic happened,” Lulla said. In ‘Nimbooda’, a sangeet song in the film, Lulla went with an unusual aquamarine colour. The outfit had a corset blouse with a square neck. For ‘Chand Chupa Badal Mein’, a romantic number, she chose an elegant mix of indigo and lavender — Lulla said she has never been able to replicate that colour since — and teamed the sari with a blouse that had cap sleeves and a corseted neck to give an Indo-Western feel. The response that her designs for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam received initially felt intimidating. “In my head, I was saying, ‘Neeta, your career is over’, because how will I ever better this?” Lulla’s Indo-Western blouses, which had gripped the public’s fantasies, catapulted her into unexpected stardom.

Sometimes adding an eccentric edge, sometimes refashioning traditional fabrics, sometimes blatantly sensual, and sometimes crafted to be like armour, the blouse in mainstream Hindi cinema has effectively been a mirror of modern femininity. They’re statements of not just style, but also self-assuredness by women who consider their desirability to be incontestable, who aren’t daunted by a little vanity and who cheerfully turn their backless blouses to conservatism.

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