Sunday, November 15, 2015

Draping history

 The Amrapali has been the template of women’s costumes in showbiz. Tracking the history of this bustier-dhoti drape in mythological and period films, serials, and cabaret songs too

Period as a genre is here to stay, whether on the small screen, with mythological serials breaking the stranglehold of saas-bahu soaps, or fantasy films like Baahubali: The Beginning and Puli on the big screen. While these dramas, like most things Indian, have male protagonists, the women, or rather, what they wear, is drawing huge attention – much of it about the Amrapali outfit, the dhoti drape with a bustier and a dupatta thrown over the head, which has travelled through decades of showbiz.

The origins

Bhanu Athaiya, the doyenne of costume design, started it all when she gave actress Vyjayanthimala her look for the title role in Amrapali (1966). “There was no reference for Amrapali,” remembers the Sir JJ School of Art gold medallist, who has designed costumes for over 100 films and got India its first Oscar for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

Athaiya took director Lekh Tandon’s concept for the film as a challenge. She visited the Ajanta caves to study Buddhist frescoes of the era. In fact, so authentic was her design that it became a template for women’s costumes in all period films. In trademark modesty, Athaiya credits Vyjayanthimala: “She was a beautiful, trained dancer and an accomplished actress. She gave the costume its legendary status.”

Ask her about the current Amrapalis, and she admits to being more than underwhelmed. “Do these people, who say their outfits are the ‘Amrapali’, even know who Amrapali was?”

Bikini-Amrapali fusion

Film historian Mukul Joshi says this classic look, with a skin-toned full-sleeved blouse, was worn even by the late Jayshri Gadkar, who mostly played a mother. “Rather than accentuate, it was thought wise to tone down the actresses’ more-than-ample hips. So, the dhoti was replaced by a lungi-like garment with a pleated centre,” he underlines, as he recalls Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, the first mytho-fantasy series to take Indian TV by storm. “People may find the look and styling for Kaushalya (Gadkar) and also Sita (Deepika Chikhalia) quite dowdy, but that was 28 years ago!”

This look changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the arrival of cabaret costumes, a collision of the two-piece bikini with the Amrapali. The best example is Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram, where again, Athaiya was designer. “Zeenat Aman’s character wears skimpy cholis and ghaghras that remind one of the bikini,” says Joshi.

There are many references of the Amrapali for designers today, but over three decades ago, the biggest production challenge while filming Utsav, based on the fifth century Sanskrit play Mrichakatika, was designing costumes. “Once the costume garnered rave reviews, many — including Rekha, who played lead character Vasantsena — tried to hog credit,” laughs playwright, actor, and director of this classic, Girish Karnad. “My designers Jayoo and Nachiket Patwardhan worked hard on the look.”

Jayoo too laughs as he recalls Karnad’s brief: “A true depiction of the period, or get fired.” A big challenge was creating the evolutionary stage of the modern sari. “It was like finding the missing link between the Amrapali outfit and sari. I read many descriptions, studied sculptures and attempted the drapes on myself.”

Others like Anu Vardhan, who styled the characters in Asoka, says Utsav was a reference point. “Though Kareena insisted on Manish Malhotra, Santosh Sivan (director) told me to give Manish a basic outline for the Amrapali costumes.”

Vardhan finds Kareena’s look in the song San Sanana bewitching. “The maroon minimalist outfit was a beautiful contrast to the greenery around.” She also explains why she strayed clear of the colourful palette for the Amrapalis for Asoka's wife Devi (Hrishitaa Bhatt). "She’s Buddhist. So, we kept it a subdued ochre, not very different from Hinduism.”

The Indian film industry is still recovering from the bikini-Amrapali collision as seen in Baahubali and Puli. Tamannaah Bhatia, the seductive warrior in Baahubali, was floored by her outfits. “It conveyed grandeur without being dressy and unreal,” adds the actress, all praise for designer Prashanthi Tipirneni, who referred to Raja Ravi Verma paintings.“I wanted them to flow and accentuate beauty without being loud and distracting. So, there was no embroidery or heavy stone work.”

TV follows big screen

Though TV followed in the footsteps of film from the ‘80s, it hasn’t been easy. “Small budgets and tight schedules means designers have to scrounge to make things work,” says Nikhat Mariyam Neerushaa, who has been designing for TV for over a decade.

Currently working on Suryaputra Karn, she admits to trying every variation on the Patiala dhoti, including lehengas. “A good scarf/dupatta around the waist helps play with the look. Also, since not many are comfortable with exposing the back and shoulder like traditional bustiers, blouses are tailored to replicate the look in the front.”

This fan of Athaiya says she also liked the look in Shyam Benegal’s TV series Bharat Ek Khoj (She particularly remembers the smouldering Draupadi reprised by Sujata Mehta). “Those will be reference points for anyone working on a period look.”

The slim-yet-curvy look that the Amrapali outfit underlines led to churidaar-pyjamas being stitched with folds to appear draped; a look pulled off with elan by Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture. “Her outfit was in rich pink, with a slight slimming effect that highlighted the body contours,” says Neerushaa.

During the shoot, Balan had told this writer, “I’ve grown up watching actresses wear Amrapali outfits and rollick in the hills. That I got to wear a classic costume coming down from the silent movie era, was really special.”

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