“There is ultimately no question that films impact the way many Indian women dress, and this is what we raise a toast to in 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes,” Sujata Assomull writes in her introduction to the Roli Books publication. “In picking out some of fashion’s most iconic moments in film, this book traces the cultural history of both cinema and costume design in India, and will be of interest to fashion students, art historians and anyone who enjoys Bollywood.” The text for the entries, by Assomull, and the accompanying illustrations, by Aparna Ram, hope to show “how Indian fashion has changed through the years, how it always reflects the aesthetics of the time and how it impacts everyday style”. Here are edited excerpts about 10 iconic costumes down the decades.
Madhubala in K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960); BN Trivedi (wardrobe in-charge)
Director K. Asif wanted everything to be as authentic as possible, from the grand sets to the beautiful jewellery, which was all real. Footwear was ordered from Agra, crowns were made by the skilled craftsmen of Kolhapur and much of the jewellery came from the city known for its goldsmiths, Hyderabad. Fabrics were rich, with silk brocades embroidered with real zari, and colours were regal and vibrant.
In the film’s most famous song, ‘Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya’, Anarkali wears a style of dress that is popular with Kathak dancers – a high-waisted kameez with a full skirt. In striking red and light blue, the look is completed with a Mughal-style cap and lots of jewellery. The famous silhouette is known as the anarkali, after the renowned courtesan herself.
Vyjayanthimala in Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali (1966), costume designer Bhanu Athaiya
A historical film set in the fourth century, Amrapali is based on the love story between the court dancer, Amrapali, and the king of Magadh, Ajatashatru, with Vyjayanthimala and Sunil Dutt playing the lead characters… In the movie, as the court’s most talented dancer, she is dressed in a way that represents both her poise and her sensuality. The ‘Amrapali sari’, as it is now known, is a dhoti drape worn with a bustier.
Bhanu Athaiya, the costume designer behind this look, travelled to the Ajanta caves to study the frescoes of that time in order to incorporate them into her designs (the mahurat of the film was held at these caves too). The most remembered Amrapali outfit is in a distinct shade of orange – a colour that, in the Buddhist era, came from a dye made from parijat flowers and was the chosen hue of monks’ robes.
Mumtaz in Brahmachari (1968), costume designers Bhanu Athaiya and Chelaram
By the time Brahmachari hit the screen, Mumtaz was already a seasoned actor. But it was an orange sari from this film that helped turn her into a style icon. Needing to twist her hips for the song ‘Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche’, Mumtaz was nervous about dancing in a sari. So her costume designer, Bhanu Athaiya, came up with the perfect solution: a pre-pleated sari with a zip on the side. This flame-coloured sari was the precursor to what is now known as the ‘concept sari’. Draped almost like a second skin around the hip and knee, the bottom had a lehenga effect. It was worn low, ensuring it showed off Mumtaz’s curves.
Zeenat Aman in Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), costume designers Zeenat Aman (for herself)
…Zeenat was brought up in the West and her model-like figure and face ensured that the camera fell in love with her. It was as if the role had been written for her. It is her pink kurti with marigold garlands worn as necklaces and bracelets, oversized tinted glasses, hoop earrings and long red tika from the song ‘Dum Maro Dum Mit Jaye Gham’ that has become the iconic look of the Indian hippie movement.
Dimple Kapadia in Raj Kapoor’s Bobby (1973), costume designers Rishi Kapoor (for himself), Stylo, Mani Rabadi and Satyawan
Throughout the film, Bobby wears clothes that play to the fact that she is a Christian girl, and nearly always dons a cross locket on a chain. At the same time, the costume designer, Mani Rabadi, who was responsible for many of the most fashion-savvy films of the time, kept things full of spunk in this film. Dimple possessed a strong sense of body confidence that was not associated with a young star from Indian cinema in that era, and was able to carry off every look. Wearing a bright red bikini in the pool scene, she became an instant sex symbol.
Surprisingly, it is not the bikini that Bobby is remembered for, but the polka-dot blouse tied above the waist and worn with a short, black, front-buttoned skirt. It evoked an image that was naughty yet innocent, demure yet sensual – and is also the outfit that Bobby wears for her first kiss with Raj.
Smita Patil in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), costume designer Archana Shah
The costume designer for the film was Ketan Shah’s then wife Archana Shah. She is the author of a book on the textiles and traditions of Kutch, Shifting Sands, which explains how the costume design of this film was such an exacting process. Smita’s mirrorworked, low-backed kapadus (the type of blouse worn by women of that region) and tie-dye cotton odhinis, mainly in the colour of spices, were true to the way women of this region dressed.
Archana recalls that she picked up most of Smita’s outfits and jewellery from Kutch and then carefully altered them to fit her.
Rekha in Rakesh Roshan’s Khoon Bhari Maang (1988), costume designers Harish Kale, Pramila Roshan, Kachins, Madhav Tailors, Leena Daru, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla
This Rakesh Roshan movie was inspired by the popular Australian television mini-series Return to Eden, and Rekha’s look as Jyoti is that of Grace Jones meets Joan Collins from Joan’s role in the iconic 1980s American television show, Dynasty. The big shoulders, the bling, the lamé, the turbans, the oversized sunglasses and the in-your-face make-up – this no-holds-barred wardrobe consisted of everything that made the 1980s the 1980s. Sandeep Khosla, who worked on some costumes for the film (mainly for Sonu Walia), recalls that Rekha was very involved in what she wore.
Karisma Kapoor in Dharmesh Darshan’s Raja Hindustani (1996), costume designers Masculine, Jewel and Manish Malhotra (for Karisma Kapoor and Archana Puran Singh)
Karisma played Aarti Sehgal, a big-city heiress who falls in love with Raja, a taxi driver, played by Aamir Khan. For this film, she had long straight hair and subtle make-up, and her clothes had a feel of sophistication. This is considered to be her ‘makeover film’, and behind this look was Manish Malhotra, who credits its director, Dharmesh Darshan, for insisting that Karisma change her look for this project.
Manish says, ‘We kind of toned down Karisma. We were very influenced by the 70s and 60s. I changed her curly hair to straight hair. With her eyes, I was very keen that she wear brown lenses. And I remember when we went to try these lenses, her eyes were watering, and Babitaji (Karisma’s mother) said, “She won’t be able to wear it”, and I told Lolo (Karisma) that it’s looking so good on you that you’ll never face a camera without it!’
Aishwarya Rai in Sanjay Gadhvi’s Dhoom 2 (2006), costume designer Anaita Shroff Adajania
Even today, it is Aishwarya’s image in a turquoise-blue swimsuit that you probably recall when you think of the Dhoom series. In actuality it was a one piece with a cutout, and it was layered with a bikini top inside and a short white skirt below it. No one had ever expected that Aishwarya could look hotter than a ‘Baywatch babe’ – and it was Anaita Shroff Adajania who made it happen.
Known for bringing high-end fashion to the silver screen, Anaita sourced this swimsuit from Rio De Janerio (much of the film was shot there), and completed Aishwarya’s look with highlighted sun-kissed hair, drop earrings and a cuff.
Says Anaita, ‘My whole idea with Dhoom 2 was to use brands very unpredictably as I felt this would create an overall cutting-edge style for the viewer. I remember giving Ash [Aishwarya] a Pucci gown to wear when she’s lounging at home. Now, you can’t get more fashionably eccentric than that.’
Deepika Padukone in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani (2015), costume designers Anju Modi and Maxima Basu (supporting cast)
For the second time, Bhansali chose to work with Anju Modi for many of the costumes in the film. She is known for her knowledge of textiles and embroidery, and this shows in the outfit worn by Deepika Padukone as she dances in the song ‘Deewani Mastani’. She wears a dhani-coloured kalidaar anarkali over a multi-panelled ghagra with a pair of ijhaars and looks nothing short of ethereal while she is dancing.
Although Peshwa women historically wore heavier fabrics, the designer opted for diaphanous material to give the outfit a graceful look and also make it more film-friendly. It was embroidered with gota patti as opposed to heavier embellishments to reduce the weight of the garment.
During her research, Anju found a miniature portrait of Mastani wearing a Persian hat, and in keeping with this, the jewellery was kept Persian, which is why the hand ornaments were made without using precious stones, and just with flat, antiquated gold.
Excerpted with permission from 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes, text by Sujata Assomull and illustrations by Aparna Ram, Roli Books.