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Last Updated 23.10.2018 | 5:38 PM IST
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Book Review: Bhanu Athaiya – The art of costume design


Once you are through turning over those 200 odd pages of ‘Bhanu Athaiya – The art of costume design’, there are a few questions that come to mind:

1) Was this really an autobiography of one of the most famed Bollywood costume designers of all time?
2) Was this book meant to be a crash course on costume designing?
3) Was this an exercise of ego boost by one of the veteran members from the film fraternity?
4) Last but definitely not the least, what exactly forms the target audience of this book?

There are plenty of reasons that such questions crop up. First and foremost, the book – despite presented as an autobiographical tale of Oscar winner costume designer Bhanu Athaiya – isn’t quite fleshed out in much detail. Ok, so one certainly doesn’t expect n-th level of write ups around what happened in the personal and professional life of Bhanu. However, one still expects a little more from a book rather than brief introduction around the growing up years, Bhanu’s fascination for designing, her earlier stint at fashion magazines and her gradual move to the world of movies way back in the 50s. Also, for someone with a huge body of work behind her (she has worked in more than 125 films till date), there certainly would have been quite some stories to tell.

However, this is the very aspect which is missing in this book which just touches upon at the surface level and leaves it there. A reader does get to know about the various encounters that Bhanu had with some of the best in business in the era gone by (Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, F.C. Mehra etc.) but is never quite exposed to how her relationship grew over the years. At maximum, there is some hint given around her earlier meetings and bare minimum logistical details (how and where she met them) and that’s about it. Of course, there is a thin rope which is required to be walked in the process of detailing around this because anything in excess could anyways lead to boredom. However, too little is also not quite value for money and this is what one feels on going through this highly expensive book.

Thankfully, the element that still brings in a sense of ‘paisa vasool’ (and that too only for those who wish to know a little more about the costumes from the era gone by) are through various sketches and stills from the films that Bhanu had worked on from the 50s till Swades. While she did work quite extensively with the likes of Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt on some of their biggest and most memorable projects, Bhanu had also associated herself on number of smaller films. However, the book doesn’t mention even one such film and the focus remains only on her bigger projects.

Yes, when references are made to films like Gandhi, Shri 420, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Reshma Aur Shera, Guide, Alibaba Aur 40 Chor, Nikaah, Teesri Manzil or Lagaan, it only turns out to be quite obvious because they have been etched in a cine-goer’s memory for years. But what about those 100 odd other films for which she has designed costumes? There must have been important people from these films as well. There must have been certain challenges working on these assignments too. There must have been actors who would have worn costumes that would be worth remembering. This is why one has right reasons to believe that the book is a half baked job because it only talks about the biggest accomplishments but nothing that was anything lesser.

In fact the only place where some level of detailing goes into the book is the chapter where Bhanu describes her association with the film Gandhi. Right from an arrangement being made for her first meeting with the film’s director to the deadlines she had to meet to the meticulous manner in which she had to get everything in place to the accolades that came on the release of the film to the Oscar win, Bhanu talks about the glorious phase that she enjoyed then.

Having said that, (as mentioned earlier) the sketches and stills from the past do make one turn over pages eagerly. The layout as well as the overall quality is such that it lends a classy feel to the book. Also, the book is more picture focused with bare minimum text there only to support and adjoining still. Though for Bollywood aficionados, this could well be a quick journey into the past, it is not quite a wholesome experience. Reason being that there would have been dozens of other major designers over the time period gone by who could possibly be having an entirely different take on the state of affairs.

This is why at the end of it all, the book only solves the purpose of a personal account of a costume designer who has managed a well deserved place for herself under the sun and now wishes to share her experience with the rest of the world. Moreover, no individual – howsoever talented he or she may be – can’t be expected to work alone and given the body of her work, one has all the right reasons to work that Bhanu would have had close associates and assistants. Any mention or even a fleeting remark around them? None at all! Sad.

In the times when even Shah Rukh Khan fans would think twice about shelling out Rs. 2000/3000 on a biography of his, one wonders how many would actually queue up to pick an autobiography of a costume designer, despite an Oscar award to boast of!

Price: Rs. 2500/=

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