Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, who won the first Academy Award for India, has died at the age of 91. She won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1983, along with John Mollo. The expansive film, with Ben Kingsley playing the Mahatma, swept the Oscars with eight awards.
Athaiya’s daughter Radhika Gupta said that she died on Wednesday morning in her sleep; she was suffering from a strain of pneumonia.Her last rites took place at Mumbai’s Chandanwadi crematorium in south Mumbai “She passed away early this morning. Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain. For the last three years, she was bedridden because one side (of her body) was paralysed,” her daughter said.
The Kolhapur-born Athaiya began her career as a costume designer in Hindi cinema with Guru Dutt’s 1956 superhit C.I.D. It was an impressive start to a career that spanned over 100 films and six decades. Her filmography included Oscar-nominated film Lagaan. She worked with top Bollywood talent and designed costumes for Teesri Manzil, Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Guide, Waqt, Razia Sultan, Karz, 1942 – A Love Story and Swades, to name just a few .
In her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, Athaiya had said, “It’s too good to believe. Thank you Academy and thank you Sir Richard Attenborough for focusing world attention on India.” In 2012, Athaiya returned her Oscar to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for safe keeping. In an interview to PTI, the veteran designer had said she doesn’t have regrets about giving the award back. “I have wanted this for some time. I want to thank the Academy for helping me. Many Oscar winners in the past have returned their Oscars for safe keeping. It is a tradition with the Academy,” she had said.
Athaiya was apparently worried for the safety of the trophy. She had previously donated “a huge collection of papers relating to Gandhi to the Academy.
Recalling the moment her name was announced, Athaiya had said fellow nominees told her she was a frontrunner for the best costume award. “I was sitting in the audience with the other nominees in my category. They all told me that they did not stand a chance to win the Oscar. They told me my canvas was huge so I would definitely win the award. In my mind, I had told myself that I had done my best, that I had done justice to Gandhiji’s name and the freedom movement.
“When they called my name, I did not allow myself to get carried away. I calmly went on the stage and thanked Sir Richard and the Academy. When I went backstage, I was surprised as there were so many photographers taking pictures. But it was a great feeling. I was happy,” she recounted.
The veteran who defined the aesthetics of Hindi cinema through her prolific work, created some of Bollywood’s best remembered looks, including Vyjayantihmala in Aamrapaali, Waheeda Rehman in Guide and Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.
One of the most respected names in the film industry, Athaiya also worked with noted filmmakers like Yash Chopra. And in a career of more than five decades won two National Awards — for Gulzar’s mystery drama Lekin (1990) and the period film Lagaan directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (2001). Things did not change much after the Oscar win, she said in 2010. The costume department continued to be a neglected part of the Indian film industry.
“Costumes have a huge role in making a film look real and believable, but Indian filmmakers have never given due importance to it and nowadays the trend is to just go shopping abroad and put things together. In my opinion that is not the correct thing to do,” she said at the launch of her book “The Art of Costume Design” published by Harper Collins at the time.
(With inputs from PTI)