Ram Kamal Mukherjee

Couture, Kapda Aur Dukaan!


By Ram Kamal Mukherjee

Fashion is not my cup of tea. Flash bulbs, ramps, backstage drama, furry hairdos and don’ts. I don’t understand draping and gaping at models. But I like fabric. I like craft. I love tradition. So does that leave me on the border line of being a fashionista? On that note, am I threat to Sonam Kapoor? Oh no!

I have always liked the texture of costumes in films. I always felt that dressing up Indian characters is difficult. Recently, when I visited a desi couture store in Mumbai suburbs, I realized that there is so much more to our crafts and embroidery. Hand-woven fabrics are rarely used in films, mostly because of the cost. Are we losing out on our desi fabrics in films, because we are heavily into promoting foreign brands? While Sonam, Deepika and Alia’s of the world takes pride in flaunting Louis Vuitton clutches, Charles and Keith stilettos and Dolce Gabbana in their films, why we never spot even an Anne Hathway at Ritu Kumar or Satya Paul? Are we repeating our own history? Are we shying away from dhoti, kurta, saree and salwar kameez? Are we getting wooed by Bollywood?

Generally, producers in Bollywood prefer to sign a costume designer for the film and expect them to give a ‘packaged deal’. This includes their remuneration and the costume for the entire cast. If the lead actor is big enough for his boots, then he would ask for A-list designers. So, we when you watch Priyanka Chopra wearing Manish Malhotra chiffon in ‘desi girl’ song, you cannot expect Kirron Kher to wear a Sabyasachi. So, the palate of a commercial Hindi film looks vastly different from commercial French, British or an American film.

b2ap3_thumbnail_bhanu-athaiya_040813035652Bhanu Athaiya won Oscar for her contribution in Gandhi in 1983; I revisited the film almost a decade later just to realize that costume plays an important character in the look of a movie. From Rohini Hattangadi’s seasoned saree to Om Puri’s sweaty kurta, Bhanu made all characters wear costumes and not the other way round. On a desi ground, Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan remains one of my favourite films in India for costume. Apart from Asha Bhonsle’s ‘velvet’ voice, fabrics used in Umrao Jaan can be considered as a catalogue for any courtesan film. Not many eyes would value the importance of a jarring Zardausi and jaded Jaamdaani. Rituparno Ghosh (Chokher Bali), Priyadarshan (Kanjeevaram) and Aparna Sen (Sati) tried their level best to match up with west.

The vision of costume in cinema has a lot to do with the vision of director. For example, Bhanu worked with Richard Attenborough in Gandhi and with Kamal Amrohi in Razia Sultan, but there has been a vast difference in both the films. Primarily an artist, Bhanu believes that it’s always a challenge to recreate the bygone era, but it’s tougher to create contemporary costumes. “There is always a reference point when you are working on period drama, but contemporary fashion requires different acumen,” said Bhanu after her critically acclaimed work in Lagaan. Bhanu always felt that there are various crafts and fabrics which are rarely used in films. Thanks to Yash Chopra that a generation grew up only on chiffons and sweaters.

IMG_5209I almost woke up from the chiffon-dreams when I recently visited designer Anita Dongre’s Grass Root. I realized that she is probably the one who is working on future fashion. A massive charkha placed inside the well designed store at Bandra, drew my attention. “That’s gifted by Shabana Azmi,” says a visibly proud Ms Dongre, who took almost three years to figure the latest collection and three months to design the store. Azmi liked the fact that Dongre was trying to rescue the dying crafts of India and bringing it back in vogue. Dongre doesn’t want to work as costume designer in films. “That’s too demanding a job, for the kind of freedom and money they offer,” explains Dongre who has been featured in Stardust Style Secret for more than a year.

Dongre is working with Bachiben Burabhai Ahir – an 80 year old woman, who has been working on handicrafts under Self Employeed Women’s Association (SEWA) since she was 12. Stunning Ahir embroidery from Radhanpur, Patan is a craft that is carefully guarded by the Ahir tribes from Gujarat. “Trust me,” says Dia Mirza, “I can eat up this store.” She regrets that most films prefer international brands and fabrics, thus majorly ignores Indian attire. Mirza who acted in Pratim D Gupta’s Bengali film Paanch Adhyay experimented with Indian fabric and the result was stunning. Actress Bipasha Basu had jokingly mentioned me once that, “It took me a Rituparno Ghosh film like Sob Charitro Kalpanik, to wear a Bengal tant saree, otherwise directors prefer me in swim suits!” Though she was being witty, but there is definitely much more to munch beyond the wits.

Renowned women activist Ela Bhatt, also known as ‘gentle’ revolutionist feels that, “Handicrafts are not a thing of past but they are our future.” Foreign brands are taking over the market and mind of younger generation. Few years ago Hema Malini made a valid observation that, none of the actresses of this generation (barring Vidya Balan) wears Indian outfit at awards. Gowns have taken over sarees. “Indian women are blessed with different figure, and saree always compliment such features. I think Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Vidya Balan looks stunning in Indian outfit,” said Hema Malini. Same applies for men, who are only spotted in suits and jeans. “Only Abhishek Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan sports ‘Nehru’ jacket, sherwani and kurta at formal events. But barring him, not too many actors like to wear Indian outfit for awards. They reserve it for National Award day, that too if they ever win,” says Ana Singh with a pinch of sarcasm.

I have always believed that we need to revisit our tradition and incorporate them in films. Matka silk from Bhagalpur, banarasi, tussar, jute and various fabrics and block prints could be used in films and fashion shows. I think when the wisdom of yesterday sees the light of tomorrow, tradition passes on. This is probably the only way to make our villages self-sustainable so that our villagers are not forced to migrate into already over-crowded cities. Actress Diana Penty voices my feelings too. “I believe our art forms are synonymous with our identity. If we forget these, then soon we will forget ourselves too,” she says.

Unfortunately we barely make gritty urban stories any more. So the chances of traditional fabrics making way to celluloid will take some time. But that shouldn’t deter fashion designers to promote desi-ness in films. Almost 15,000 women are working from the deserts of Banaskantha, and thanks to actors like Shabana Azmi and Kangana Ranaut who often promotes craft and traditional wear.

I think it’s high time that we kill the ‘Devil’ in us, who only wants to wear a ‘Prada’!

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