Bhanu Athaiya - India's first Oscar winner walks down memory lane

By Madhusree Chatterjee

Mumbai, Feb 20 (IANS) Twenty-seven years ago, she made history when she became the first Indian to win an Oscar. Now, as two other Indians are again within kissing distance of that prized statuette, Bhanu Athaiya walks down nostalgia lane to remember that 1982 day when she won the Oscar for best costume design for "Gandhi".

The Mumbai-based designer, who has worked in over 100 films and wrote herself into the record books with her work in Richard Attenborough's epic movie "Gandhi", is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and therefore cautious about commenting on A.R. Rahman and Resul Pookutty.

India has found its place in the Academy's walk of fame with Danny Boyle's movie "Slumdog Millionaire", based on a novel by Indian bureaucrat Vikas Swarup. The movie has picked up 10 nominations, including three for composer Rahman -- for best original score and two for best original song - and one for sound engineer Resul Pookutty who has been nominated along with two others for achievement in sound mixing.

As an excited India awaits Oscar night with anticipation, Athaiya is also upbeat. But circumspect.

"As a voting member of the Academy, I am not supposed to comment on the movie or the nominees. But I congratulated Rahman for his nomination (best musical score) in many television channels.

"I had worked with him earlier in 'Lagaan' and 'Swades'. He mostly works out of his studio in south India. We meet at some stage during the making of the movies we work in. He is very versatile and has such a rich education," Athaiya told IANS.

The designer recalls the day she was auditioned for "Gandhi".

"Richard Attenborough interviewed me in July 1982 and then he auditioned me. In 15 minutes, he told the office that he had found a designer. He asked me to join the team at the Ashok Hotel in Delhi on Sep 1. The shooting was supposed to commence Nov 1."

Working on "Gandhi" was tough.

"It was difficult because we had to show 50 years of the Mahatma's life in various locations, including Dandi. In South Africa, Gandhi was young and he changed over the years; it was difficult to capture the look. There were other sequences too - where hundreds of people in period costumes had to be used. You can well imagine the kind of study I undertook to create the look.

"I had to do the job single-handedly. I had to compete with an international crew and the challenge was to match their standards. But I managed to create the look of the times."

When the Oscar nominations were announced, "Gandhi" featured in a big way.

"And I was asked to go to the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles for the awards. Five movies, 'La Traviata"' 'Sophie's Choice', 'Tron', 'Victor/Victoria' and 'Gandhi' were contending for the Oscar. But before the awards, my fellow designers predicted that the Oscar would come my way because the canvas of the movie was so huge."

She remembers what she said on stage while Attenborough. "This is too good to be true. Thank you, Sir Richard Attenborough for focusing world attention on India."

Soon after being honoured by the Academy, Athaiya was nominated as a voting member. She gets Oscar ballot papers every year and has the right to comment on a movie and select it.

Athaiya has worked in over 100 movies since the 1950s, with noted filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Ashutosh Gowarikar and Conrad Rooks. Apart from an Oscar for "Gandhi", Athaiya has won national awards for costumes in "Lagaan" and "Swades".

"'Lagaan' was a challenging exercise because it was a fiction set in 1893. A lot of studies went in for it, but 'Swades' was a smaller challenge because I had to create the wardrobe for an NRI living in New York. I had to make sure that it had not been picked off the shelves of New York so that the producer could be comfortable with the budget," Athaiya said.

Having started her career in 1956 with "CID", Athaiya is still going strong and is working on her third Marathi movie.

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