Home / Arts & Humanities / Languages, Linguistics & Literature / Bollywood and Beyond: Costume in Indian Film
Bollywood costumes

Bollywood and Beyond: Costume in Indian Film

“Bollywood” is often used synonymously for the Hindi-language film industry, based in Mumbai (Bombay). Other major Indian film centers are located in each of the significant language regions. The Indian film industry is the largest and most prolific in the world, producing between 800 and 2,000 films annually.

UH Mānoa assistant professor of theater Cheri Vasek answered these questions about the research behind her new exhibit on costume design in Indian film, “Bollywood & Beyond,” at the East-West Center through January 12, 2014.  For more information, visit the East-West Center website.

Kaunānā:  When and where did you conduct the field research that supports “Bollywood & Beyond”?  Who else is/was involved?

Vasek:  I carried out two field research trips to India for this project.  The initial investigation was a joint effort of myself, and a costume design colleague from Hunter College (New York), Deepsikha Chatterjee.  The research was funded through a generous grant from USITT (United States Institute of Theatre Technology).

We were investigating the working process of costume creation in Indian film.  Our research centered on four major film production locations in India:  Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkatta.  We interviewed dozens of directors, producers, costume designers, dressmen, makeup artists and hair stylists.

I was so profoundly moved by the exquisite craftsmanship and artistry I encountered that I wanted to share those magnificent objects with a wider audience.

Upon my return to Hawai’i in August 2011, I spoke with Dr. Michael Schuster, Curator of the East-West Center Art Gallery, about the possibility of creating an exhibition. We planned for an exhibit two years out, in Fall 2013, and coinciding with the 100th year of Indian cinema.

Dr. Schuster is my excellent co-curator on the exhibition. Both he and Arts Program Director Bill Feltz were very supportive and encouraging.  They have been wonderful to work with.

A second field research and artifact collection trip was planned for summer 2012.  Unfortunate funding limitations caused us to reschedule for summer 2013.  So I was working on a very tight timeline this summer, collecting materials in July for an exhibition in September.

In fact, we contemplated scrapping or postponing the project.  I guess I was just too determined, and too passionate about the research, to let that happen!

Kaunānā:  What were the basic methods for your study?  Where did you go and what did you observe and/or collect?

Vasek:  For the 2011 field research, our primary method was interviews, combined with observation of film professionals at work.  In 2013, I continued to expand on the interview and observation methodology, as well as collecting materials.

Many of the items are in poor condition or are no longer around.  I encountered many stories about entire inventories of costumes and props being burned after the wrap of a film, because there was no place to store them.  I also heard stories of the costumes being ruined, because they were stored in go-downs (warehouses) that were flooded repeatedly during the monsoon season.  And, until very recently, most producers were not thinking about these items as worthy of being preserved.  In such a highly productive industry, producers are focused on the next film project.  So there simply was not a culture of preservation.

This made tracking down and acquiring authentic items from the films quite challenging.  Definitive identifications of items has also been challenging.  Sometimes, we have significant pieces but no one can remember what film they were for.

Kaunānā: Were you surprised by any of what you found?

Vasek: I find myself intrigued by the very synergistic, entwined relationship between film costuming and fashion.  Many of the most successful film costume designers today, are successful high-profile fashion designers.  Many entered the film industry, became favored designers of film stars, and that patronage launched their fashion careers.

All this goes back to the 1950s, when a newly independent India was redefining itself.  Throughout the culture, there were impulses to return to what was essentially Indian – that is, to rediscover Indian-ness. It was happening in film, in fashion, in literature.

At that time, there were limited resources for communicating fashion trends.  A few ladies’ magazines existed, but they did not reach all levels of society.  But films did have that comprehensive reach.

Contemporary films were one of the most effective means by which the average person on the street learned about the latest fashion trends.  Ladies would buy a film ticket for their tailor, and ask him to then create a dress like the one the leading lady wore.

The first designer to have this kind of widespread cultural impact is Bhanu Athaiya.  Now in her mid-80’s, she is a highly acclaimed and immensely productive designer, with a career spanning 50 years and 100 films.   She is probably best recognized in the West for having won that academy award for her costume design for Gandhi.  She forged the model upon which many designers today have built their empires.

Kaunānā:  Why does this research matter / what are the implications of what you discovered?

Vasek:  Indian film, created in Bollywood and several other regional film centers throughout India, is a vibrant and visually dynamic creative expression. Indian film centers are recognized as highly productive work environments, rapidly producing large-scale films that explore a variety of social, historical and cultural themes. India produces between 800 and 2000 films annually.

Distribution is widespread within India, and beyond, to an increasingly appreciative international audience.

The visual impact of costume choices is integral to the aesthetic of this medium.  The scale of the work (sometimes 500 or 1000 extras in a scene) creates significant logistical challenges for the costume area.

Kaunānā:  What is the costume designer’s part in this process?  How is it organized and supported logistically?

Vasek:  Accessible literature on the Indian film industry focuses on the work of actors, directors, cinematographers, and production designers.  Very little information is available on the working process of the costume designer and their team.

Kaunānā:  What do you like best about this exhibit?

Vasek:  I like the range and variety we’ve been able to put together. Most of these items have never been shown publicly – not in India, and not internationally.

For example, we have 20 original drawings from Bhanu Athaiya.  She has never been parted from her sketches before.  So this is an enormous honor, to be able to show her work.

I love how Indian film is a window in to Indian culture.  I love the intensity and joyfulness of it.  I love how Indians are so very present and engaged.

I also love the Indian chai (tea) that is a requisite part of every visit to a designer’s studio.  Magically, it just appears!  There is something so lovely about sitting together and taking tea.  It focuses on the immediate, on the sharing.

Learn more:  Event Handout