Saturday, March 23, 2002

Making designer statements

Sumona Roy

Designers turn to cinema to showcase their creativity
Designers turn to cinema to showcase their creativity 

SO Rohit Bal designed the costumes for Anil Kapoor and Rani Mukherji in Nayak. Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla are bales deep in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period drama, Devdas. Ritu Beri, of course, just did Madhuri Dixit’s clothes in Yeh Raaste Hai Pyar Ke and Ritu Kumar is designing costumes for Taj Mahal in which Aishwarya Rai plays Mumtaz.

Anna Singh cannot suppress her amusement at this growing trend of India’s top-line designers turning to cinema to showcase their creativity. "Ten years ago when I gave up mainstream designing and decided to work for films, there was so much of condescension in the couturier fraternity," remembers the diva, best known for Madhuri’s purple backless choli in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.

Indeed, much has changed since as the thin line dividing fashion designing and costume designing gets increasingly blurred. Bhanu Athaiya, who won an Oscar for Gandhi, could not outgrow the reputation of being "mere costume designer", despite being the most respected name among couturiers.


"Designing for films is now a respectable profession," observes Vimla Deohans, a fashion trade analyst. "Earlier, dressing the stars meant coming up with pretty clothes, which the public would or would not copy. Today, it means being a consultant for everything the star wears — the hair, make-up, jewellery and how these are projected not just on screen, but also on magazine covers and publicity stills."

The objective clearly is to reach out to the masses and nothing is left to chance. If Amitabh Bachchan’s knotted shirt (from Deewar), Sadhana’s body-fitting salwar-kameezes or RajKumar’s white shoes were a rage, it was by sheer accident. They were not designed consciously to set off a fashion trend. And nobody knows the names of their designers at any rate.

Explains Anna: "Film designing had become the refuge of the star sister, best friend, choreographer and so on, which translated into some horrific styling. Since a lot of professionals are coming into the field these days, we can expect some good news."

Manish Malhotra is credited with having ushered in this trend with makeovers for Urmila Matondkar (Rangeela) and Karisma Kapoor (Raja Hindustani). Today, he is the most sought after designer for all high profile filmmakers ranging from Subhash Ghai and Yash Chopra to Karan Johar and Sooraj Barjatya.

"When Manish Malhotra and Neeta Lulla started designing for films, they did not have their labels," Deohans points out. "Today, they are household names by virtue of dressing the stars. No advertisement or ramp show can give a designer as much exposure and mileage as cinema offers. Cinema is almost like a religion in India."

Jani and Khosla has other reasons for getting into films: "We were constantly seeing rip-offs of our designs on the screen. So we decided we might as well get into the business ourselves and ensure the designs got promoted under our label."

Hollywood had, of course, showed the way. When Julia Roberts received her Oscar for Erin Brockovich last year, dressed in a vintage Valentino gown, she ensured the fading label some electric attention. Little wonder, the Oscars are regarded as the biggest fashion show on earth — couture reputations are made and broken on that single day.

India has nothing comparable to that event, but designers often try to cotton on a star spectacle. So last year, Jani and Khosla made Bachchan, Dimple Kapadia, Sonali Bendre and Raveena Tandon, among others modelled their creations. Likewise, Shah Rukh Khan strutted Bal’s outfits at the Omega fashion show, while Urmila had Malhotra’s designs on the ramp. These events guaranteed front-page visibility.

But then, designing for films also has its hazards. Designers are forced to deal with irregular schedules, temperamental stars, producers who do not pay up on time and so on... factors, which are considered part of the notorious "Bollywood system". It can be a nightmarish experience for many and kill creativity.

Says Beri, who is on a Jean Louis Scherrer contract in Paris: "I agreed to do Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke only because of Madhuri Dixit, whom I find utterly beautiful. But my experience with the producer left me scarred. In fact, my admiration for Manish has gone up considerably after the experience. How does he find the time and energy for his seasonal collections and also deal with Bollywood?"

Malhotra has no problems: "I love it. I love the stars. Let me tell you, a lot of people in high society are equally temperamental and insecure. In films, there is added drama. For example, Sridevi was a queen — the things she taught me about costume designing made working for others a cakewalk?"