Manish Malhotra On The Evolution Of Costume Design In His 30 Years In Bollywood, Film Companion
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In his 30th year in the film industry, famed costume designer Manish Malhotra spoke to Anupama Chopra about the evolution of clothes in Hindi cinema, the significance of costume in creating characters and why Rangeela was a turning point.

Edited Excerpts:

The first time I interviewed you was in December 1993 for India Today magazine. It was an article called “scene stealers”. I read it again and I was thinking here we are, both still doing things we love. Lots to be grateful for.

Yes, absolutely and I still remember there was a film called Aflatoon, where in one song Urmila Matondkar had worn 20 chiffon sarees. In those days we used to go to Switzerland and shoot those songs, and I remember your last line in that interview was ‘watch the film only for Manish Malhotra’s chiffon sarees, and for nothing else’. I still remember that.

I am currently reading a book called The Big Good-bye and it’s about the making of Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown. And it’s amazing because Jack Nicholson, who’s the hero of the film is saying about the Costume Designer Anthea Sylbert, that when he wore her clothes, he needed to act less because the clothes already did some of the work for him. As I read that, I was wondering if this happens in Hindi cinema. For someone like you who was one of the first to say “script kya hai, situation kya hai?” How do you balance making an actor look good, which is always a number one priority, and making the costume authentic to the character?

When I started my career, what was happening was that there were lovely costume designers like the Bhanu Athaiya and so many others doing good work, but I think the late 80s saw a complete fall of terms of costume or look or any such thing. If you see Raj Kapoor’s films, or Guru Dutt’s films, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor they had great style in 60s and 70s. But somewhere when I came into films, it was basically about glamour. In one scene the actress has long hair, in the next scene she has short hair. How does that happen? I can understand that clothes changed but how do the haircuts change?  The brief at that time was ‘she must look good’ and the character ends there. But where is she from? Where does she live? Is she educated? Is she rich? Poor? So what I started doing was in my own way was making character sketches.

There were very few directors at that time who were very certain about what they wanted, otherwise the brief was all glamour. I remember after Dil Toh Pagal Hai, it did change and the brief used to be ‘she is a modern dresser like Karisma Kapoor’ or ‘she is Indian dresser like Madhuri Dixit then chiffon, transparent kurtas’. Based on how we styled their characters. Then I started to say ‘in this film Urmila you’ll wear these kinds of clothes, Karisma let’s do this kind of a storytelling in this, Kajol let’s do this’, so I started to build a look which would stay with you and tell you that that character dressed this way.

Even in commercial films where maybe it’s not about great performances, looking good all the time is also a job and sometimes even more difficult because when you’re trying to be real. But, when everything has to be proper, from your eyelash to the fall of the fabric to the embroidery to make you look slimmer, fitter, all of that is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s more work.

Even in commercial films where maybe it’s not about great performances, looking good all the time is also a job and sometimes even more difficult because when you’re trying to be real. But, when everything has to be proper, from your eyelash to the fall of the fabric to the embroidery to make you look slimmer, fitter, all of that is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s more work.

Also, when I came into films, Western clothes used to be tailored, and it was Yashji who said ‘I don’t like it, I prefer western clothes to be picked up and put together’, so I would actually pickup clothes, cut, re-cut them so that they fit more properly in a film. You know put one sleeve over the other, cut readymade skirts into a shorter skirt or make a blouse out of a skirt and things like that. So, it was styling mixed with costume designing.

Do you remember when you started having conversations about character when it went passed this just make her look good?

It was the 1995-1996 lot of films which had directors like Aditya Chopra, Ram Gopal Varma, Karan Johar, Dharmesh Darshan that changed it. I remember meeting Ram Gopal Varma and he narrated Rangeela to me. I was so happy that I remember going home and telling my sister in law, who used to work with me, that ‘my God somebody actually narrated a subject to me today and they thought that costumes are important and I am important to the film’. So it was in 1995 when things started changing, but that was only 30% of film directors. There was still 70% for whom the brief was ‘she has to look good’.

 

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