Bhanu Athaiya is one of India’s top costume designers with a repertoire of over 100 films under her belt. Sadly, she passed away in the early hours of Thursday, October 15, 2020. At the ripe age of 91, Bhanu still had the world captivated with her colorful imagination and thoughtful execution.
Not only was she a prolific career woman in the Bollywood industry, but also the first Indian to win an Oscar! In 1982, she won her Oscar for her costume design for the motion picture Gandhi. She shared this accolade with John Mollo.
For the longest time, she was the only woman in the costume industry. Becoming a pioneer for the Indian costume industry, Bhanu blazed the trail for women into the field! However, like anyone in the field of arts, her work has been immortalized.
From brilliant designs to inspired outfits, we can go back to her whenever we desire by watching the many films she has worked for. Throughout her life, Bhanu Athaiya has costumed some of the most brilliant female characters on screen.
Here are some of those impressive women!
Waheeda Rehman in Guide
The talented actor has often talked about how her role in Guide was challenging and refreshing. While women of the time were predominantly taking up romance or drama roles, Waheeda Rehman took the mantle of Rosie. This character was a woman who subverted the status quo and societal expectations! As Rosie, she was the first adulterous heroine in mainstream Hindi cinema. One who leaves behind an unhappy marriage and embarks on a successful career as a singer and dancer with the help of her lover, Raju.
Gayatri Joshi in Swades
As Geeta in Swades, Gayatri Joshi left a deep impression as a woman committed to her vision of bringing education to all. Bhanu Athaiya’s costuming brought out the simplicity and strength of her character. Coupled with Gayatri’s beauty, this made a statement to behold. She is a strong advocate for women empowerment and gender equality and wins all hearts.
Hema Malini in Razia Sultan
A film to be remembered, Razia Sultan is known for Bhanu Athaiya’s costuming. It is also remembered for the infamous homosexually-charged moment with Hema Malini’s Razia Sultana and Parveen Babi’s Khakun. The clothing in this period piece is extraordinary and has been lauded and brilliant. Hema Malini’s Razia in the film breaks barriers and sets a very high standard for all women in Bollywood!
Vyjayanthimala in Amrapali
Amrapali did not really turn many heads when it came out. However, Vyjayanthimala in the gorgeous strapless blouses and draped dhotis sure did get the attention of the watchers. Her beauty, grace, and talent were pushed forward by the costuming choices of the film. Since the film is set in the Buddhist era, Bhanu Athaiya traveled to Ajanta caves to seek inspiration for the costumes. Vyajayantimala’s Amrapali plays a courtesan who drives the narrative with her actions. She is shown as a powerful and independent woman who makes her own choices, including the choice to turn down a powerful king at the end to choose a path of her heart’s calling… that of a mendicant.
Hema Malini in Meera
In Meera, Bhanu Athaiya returns to the annals of history once again to dress up Hema Malini as the famed Meera Bai. The film follows Meera’s journey of devotion and rebellion. As such, Bhanu does full justice to her transformation from a princess to a saint. Hema Malini as Meera stands out in the scenes in which she refuses to bow down to social norms and customs. She stands up for herself against the powerful patriarchs, and voices out her truth with clarity and courage.
Sophia Amoruso from Girlboss once said:
“Clothing is ultimately the suit of armor in which we battle the world.”
The same holds true for all films. The characters come alive with the beauty and dedication of Bhanu Athaiya’s craft.
Bhanu has worked with noted filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Richard Attenborough, and many more. She has been a part of many important, record-breaking films in the history of Bollywood and beyond. From Pyaasa to Lagaan, her costumes have played a major role in ensuring the success of these endeavors!
In the foreword to her memoir, The Art of Costume Design, Richard Attenborough described her as “the revered doyenne of Indian costume designers.”
Bhanu Athaiya has been an irrevocable part of the rich history of Bollywood. Her work has shaped many lives over the years. Without a doubt, she has been a guiding light and inspiration to the many women who have come after her.
Here is to fondly remembering the master of her craft!
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