After 17 years of visiting India repeatedly, on his quest to make a film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Richard Attenborough finally got down to starting the venture in 1980. The veteran British director had realized that India is a complex country, with myriad cultures, castes, religions and communities. The production was not going to be an easy task to handle and he also knew that he required an Indian costume designer.

With this in mind, he had asked his production office to arrange for interviews with the best costume designers in India. By this time, I had been working in Hindi cinema for around 25 years. A few years before this, I had done another international film, Siddhartha, directed by Conrad Rooks. The leading lady of that film Simi Garewal and I had become good friends and kept in regular touch.

The Bombay-based casting director of Gandhi was Dolly Thakore. She asked Simi to get in touch with me. In those days I did not have a telephone. Directors would send their assistants to my workshop if they had to contact me, and my life went on quite smoothly. Simi arrived at my workshop and said to me, ‘Listen carefully — a foreign film director is coming to India to make a film on Gandhi. Would you like to work on it?’ I did not respond immediately. A number of questions were passing through my mind. I thought to myself, would I be able to do it? The stark look of Gandhi’s dhoti was frightening in comparison to the razzle-dazzle of Hindi cinema. Simi shook me and said, ‘This is an important assignment and a great opportunity to show your talent! I am fixing an appointment for you to meet the director. Carry your biodata and wear nice clothes. Both of you will have a lot to talk about.

Bhanu Athaiya and Ben Kinsgely on the sets of Gandhi. Image credit: Bhanu Athaiya.

The audition was held at the Sea Rock Hotel at Bandra in Bombay where Lord Richard Attenborough’s production office was located. Richard looked at my biodata and we chatted for around 15 minutes, so that he could get an idea about my understanding of India. At the end of it, he informed his team that he had found his costume designer for Gandhi. He then gave me the script and asked me to meet him the following day to discuss it. What a script it was! It brought tears to my eyes. The next day, Richard told me to join the team at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi from the first of September. I told him that I had a few assignments on hand and required some time to free myself. ‘Don’t worry darling, we will find a way out,’ he said in his characteristic simple style. ‘We will arrange for you to come back to Bombay over 12 weekends to complete your pending assignments.’ A fair solution to the problem!

Gandhi (1982).

Richard went back to London and returned to India only when the shooting commenced. From then on, it was entirely my responsibility to look at each and every costume requirement and do the needful. It was a daunting task as the life span of 50 years of a global icon had to be recorded on celluloid.

An Indo-British co-production, Gandhi was considered a major film. All the heads of department like the director, scriptwriter, cameraman, production and set designer came from England. I was the only Indian head, sharing the costume department with John Mollo, the Oscar-winning costume designer of George Lucas’ cult classic Star Wars. Mollo handled the British costumes while I handled all the Indian costumes. I had to be prepared in just three months. Covering a span of half a century, with so many events, incidents and changes in time and style, was not easy. The looks of the principal characters had to undergo constant change with age, as the story progressed. I worked day and night, like a person possessed, to meet the deadline. I would comb the museums and libraries in Delhi to gather all my reference material.

Mahatma Gandhi’s modest shawl and dhoti stand out amidst the suits and livery. Image credit: National Film Development Corporation.

Gandhi was filmed mainly on location in India, with one scene in South Africa, and some scenes at the Lancashire Mills and London studios. Ben Kingsley came to Delhi much before the shooting began. He would practise yoga daily, and study Gandhi’s speeches and learn to spin khadi.

He asked me to take him and Rohini Hattangadi. the actress who played Kasturba, to the Delhi museums so that he could familiarize himself with Gandhi’s life.

Ben had been told that I had the best reference material and he requested me to prepare a wall full of Gandhi pictures from my collection so that he could draw inspiration from them. He also asked me to introduce him to the basic philosophy of Gandhi’s simple attire of the dhoti and shawl.

As the freedom struggle wears on, Kasturba Gandhi switches from saris with embroidered borders to handloom robes. Image credit: National Film Development Corporation.

Meanwhile, the other main characters of the film started coming in for fittings. The biggest hall at the Ashoka Hotel, Delhi, was filled with hundreds and thousands of costumes on racks, and mountains of bundled-up dhotis and kurtas, and piles of footwear. Apart from the principal and character actors, I also had to prepare the wardrobe for the crowds. Every other scene had crowd shots of hundreds and thousands of people – and everyone had to look appropriate to the location and time. I would leave the Ashoka Hotel at 5 a.m. every day. The wardrobe and catering departments were the first to arrive on set. I had nine assistants to dress the crowds, so that they could be ready for the shoot at 9 a.m. The extras would alight by the hundreds from buses, and they would line up at the catering table for breakfast. This was my time to select the right people to be in the front rows, as well as the others for the different scenes.

Many extras needed hair-cuts to look like pre-1947 characters. Most of the male characters had to be trained to tie dhotis. Image credit: National Film Development Corporation.

Richard brought the first cut of the film to Bombay for a screening meant for the key Indian cast and crew. Later in the evening, I went for dinner at the Taj Mahal Hotel with him, his wife Sheila, and Simi. He also completed dubbing the film in Hindi at that time. Among others, Pankaj Kapoor dubbed the voice for Gandhi, and Simi dubbed for Candice Bergen, who played the role of Margaret Bourke-White in the film.

The film was premiered at the Vidhan Bhavan in New Delhi. The then President of India, Giani Zail Singh, was present, along with Lord Attenborough, some of the British actors and all the Indian cast. Gandhi was a great success and audiences the world-over were captivated. People said that they emerged as changed human beings, on leaving the cinema hall after seeing the movie. India became a place of pilgrimage afresh for Gandhi admirers. Visitors went to Mani Bhavan in Bombay, to pay him homage, and to the Khadi Bhandar to ask for ‘Gandhi cloth’ or khadi. Designers in New York were inspired to use the dhoti-salwar and Nehru jackets in their fashions. These became a hit along with the tunic, kurta and pant.

Different threads for different leaders. Image credit: National Film Development Corporation.

Gandhi received many nominations at the BAFTA and for the Oscars. I was sent to attend the Oscar awards by Columbia Pictures (now Sony Pictures) the following year. As I sat in the black limousine, on my way to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Academy Awards ceremony, my travelling companion, the scriptwriter of Gandhi. John Briley, turned to me and said, ‘I have a hunch that you will get the award and it will be a well-deserved one.’

Inside the auditorium, I was seated along with the other four nominees in my category for the films La Traviata, Victor/Victoria, Sophie’s Choice and Tron. All the four nominees said that they didn’t stand a chance and that the Oscar would be mine. When I asked them why they felt this way, they said it was because my canvas was so huge.

One of the first categories announced that evening was costume. When John and my names were called out, I walked up to the stage amidst the thundering applause and received the golden statue. As required, I made a small speech: ‘This is too good to be true. Thank you Sir Richard Attenborough for focusing world attention on India. Thank you Academy.’ As I started to walk down the stage, I saw Richard blowing kisses to me from the front row!

Gandhi wins the Oscar for costume design.

Later, when I was taken inside the press room, I was confronted by several dozen press photographers and popping flashbulbs. I felt lost and surprised like a little child, and I took a few moments to take the scene in my stride and finally muster up a smile.

Meanwhile, back home in Bombay. Simi rushed to my workshop to inform my staff that I had won the Oscar for best costume design. Simi had been a huge support throughout the entire shoot. Since I didn’t have any quick means of communication, she would pass on messages to Richard from me and receive communications from him, for me. In fact, she had taken special interest to ensure that I wore the right outfit to the Oscar ceremony!

Richard Attenborough, his wife and actress Sheila, and Bhanu Athaiya at the Oscars in 1983. Image credit: Bhanu Athaiya.

After I received the award, I learnt that the famous film critic Chidananda Dasgupta (film-maker and actor Aparna Sen’s father) had commented on Doordarshan: ‘We knew that Attenborough would get the award, and Ben Kingsley would get the award. But we were surprised that of eight awards, six went to the technical area. On second thoughts, we realized that it is the smart work of the technicians that made the story look like history was once again unfolding in front of our eyes.’

After my return to Bombay, I was visited by the Oscar-winning costume designer for Dr Zhivago, Phyllis Dalton, who told me: ‘Out there in L.A. the producers think that India comes all ready-made. All you need to do is come here with a camera and go out and shoot. All thanks to you. My compliments to you.’

Excerpted with permission from The Art of Costume Design, Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, HarperCollins India.