Manish Malhotra, once Bollywood’s makeover guru, now reeks of predictability, says Poorva Rajaram
WHY WAS Sana’s (Aishwarya Rai) wedding ceremony cruelly derailed in Endhiran? The plot tries to convince you it’s because an angry Sana-obsessed dead robot came back to life. But those who know better will agree that the vengeful gods of south Indian wedding etiquette were objecting to her jhataak, sequined Delhi-mall wedding sari. There is no pretence that Rai wasn’t imported from Bollywood. After all, Tamil films do survive on appropriated clothing — but why does she have to look boring? Sana struts around Chennai in one insipid nylon salwar kameez after another. The only person who can answer this is the costume designer in the 18th year of his reign in Bollywood, who Endhiran imported from Bollywood along with Ash — Manish Malhotra.
Malhotra began designing outfits for films in 1992 when he was 25. He is credited with making film fashion contemporary and giving Manisha Koirala, Kajol and Madhuri Dixit sexy makeovers. His career coincided with the growing professionalisation of film fashion. Clothes stopped being the personal clothes of a star or dug out of a wardrobe stash by an assistant. They began to be designed with research and nuance, for context, character and plot. This gave designers a chance to create an individual stamp.
Malhotra began with promise; his designs had airiness and energy. The early part of his career can boast of the zeitgeist charm with which he dressed Urmila Matondkar in Rangeelain 1995, a movie that won him the Filmfare Award for Best Costume Designer. Urmila’s frilly patchwork dress, short black vest and high-waisted frayed denim shorts in the song Yairegave new meaning to the title of the film. Or the brutally simple and suggestive white shift on the beach in Tanha Tanha? Not only did these clothes seismically create imitations and trends, they were actually sexy. He achieved similar results throughout the 1990s in Khamoshi, Raja Hindustani and Dil To Pagal Hai.
Towards the end of the 1990s, as his individual fashion brand was consolidated further and his career had branched into runway fashion, Malhotra’s spark gave way to blinding pomp. Remember Bole Chudiyan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in 2001. The whole family, with all its unity and moral integrity, wore shiny red and cream splotches of Punjabiised fashion. Nobody looked remotely attractive or interesting, they just looked ornate. It was a new low for film fashion.
As the synthetic Malhotra bandwagon chugged on into Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Kal Ho Na Ho, we were getting two kinds of clothes — a ‘Rahul’ look with a branded, marked polo T-shirt on blue jeans; or the attempts to recreate the high-life: transparent sequinned saris, beige lehengas and silver blouses.
So what makes his clothes glamorous? Because they are worn by glamorous people in glamorous locations? His website lauds his designs “for their fusion of colours, style and glamour”. Announcing that your clothes are stylish is like saying that people don’t avert their eyes at the sight of your art. Today, Malhotra’s clothes draw inspiration from his previous designs.
The current climate for film fashion is vibrant. Dabangg had a well-explored and arresting floral motif in both the men’s and women’s clothing. Ishqiya had those famous printed saris, polyester with prints instead of sequins. After a long time, there was a Bollywood movie with saris that looked they could belong to someone other than a Page 3 social climber. With such room for experimentation, there are no excuses for creative stagnation.
Endhiran should have been a designer’s dream — footloose futuristic imaginings contrasted with daily wear. Instead of transporting viewers eons away to a faraway planet, there is something terribly this-worldly about the clothes: leather purple leggings (on two occasions) and fledgling attempts at bling. Even the recent nostalgia filled Action Replay is another missed opportunity — a polka-dotted salwar kameez adds no texture to even a faux 1970s world. Neither do neon colour scheme clothes designed through the cliched lens of flower power and hippie bling.
Malhotra need not switch to regional authenticity. Sartorial bombast can be relished in films. But only a tiny spectrum of the interesting fashion we see around us makes it to the movies. Glamourthemed film fashion — Malhotra’s distinction — draws on a warped repository. It’s a good thing Endhiran is the stuff of fiction. The future still holds the possibility of intriguing clothes.