News Column

Dressed for 'Bollywood'

October 10, 2013


Oct. 10--It was bad enough that Nidhi Yasha chose a fashion design career over following in her family's academic, medical and engineering footsteps, but when she was casting about for work four years ago, there were few options available in her native India.

She had just returned from Beijing, where she had been a buying agent for European brands, but the global recession hit and she found herself without a job waiting for her as promised.

The only jobs available were in the seemingly recession-proof India film industry, which is among the world's most prolific, churning out 800 to 2,000 films annually that are watched by more than a billion people around the globe. So Yasha told herself, "OK, let's try something new."

Since then she's started her own company, NY Studio, and has created costumes for about 40 Bollywood films and telefilms, including the epic "Mahabharata," which has been running four years on Indian television. She's even established a niche for herself by specializing in historical and fantasy costumes.

Yasha's costumes are among those featured in the "Bollywood & Beyond: Costume in Indian Film" exhibition on view in the East-West Center Gallery through Jan. 12. The exhibit, co-curated by Cheri Vasek, an assistant professor of theater at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and EWC Gallery curator Michael Schuster, looks at various epochs important in Indian consciousness, including the Mughal era, the British Raj, post-independence, contemporary India and an imaginary science-fiction future to paint a picture of Indian aesthetic values as depicted through film.

Although Bollywood is often equated with colorful, superficial song-and-dance entertainment, that is a relatively new genre. For most of the nation's 100 years of filmmaking, costumes merely echoed the rest of society in stories that dealt with social issues and rural life, an experience familiar to 70 percent of India's population.

Through the 1930s, Yasha said, the films employed no costume designers. Art directors simply picked out saris and simple cotton textiles to reflect demure, docile villagers. In the black-and-white era they didn't worry about embellishment and details that would get lost in the medium. The focus was on finding the colors that would translate into the right shades of gray on screen.

One of the reasons the India film industry is so beloved is that for most of those 100 years, film was the dominant medium of communication.

"TV only came to India in the late 1980s, as an educational tool," Yasha said. "There was no Vogue or Harper's Bazaar. We had no magazine culture. We just had cinema. If you wanted a particular dress, you'd give movie tickets to your tailor and tell him what you wanted to have made, and he'd make notes in the theater."

To this day in India, Yasha said, if you want bangs, you wouldn't ask for bangs or fringe, but for a Sadhana cut, named after Sadhana Shivdasani, who popularized the style in the 1960s film "Love in Simla."

The 1950s saw the modernization of the Indian film industry as world fashion changed with the end of World War II and the introduction of Christian Dior's ultrafeminine "New Look" in 1947, the same year that India won its independence from the British. In Indian cinema, Western clothing replaced saris, and for the first time, actors appeared in Americanized T-shirts and trousers.

"The films were different, more expressive because of the cultural awakening and desire for self-expression," Yasha said, adding that in the pre-independence days it was more important for people to hold on to culture and traditions to avoid losing their identity to the British.

Through her research, she saw how foreign influences "changed the culture, how the country responded and took everything in." This has sparked her interest in history, and she would like to write a book on the history of clothing and costume in India.

In the sheer silks she employs in "Buddha," a TV series about the life of sixth-century prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became a religious leader, Yasha notes how progressive Indian society was before the arrival of Islam, which dictates modesty. Apparel at the time was simply draped, with no concern over partial nudity.

Today costumes are on par with wedding garb. "You may not be able to eat for the rest of your life, but families will go all out for a wedding," said Yasha, who's had individual costumes made for as much as $50,000. Bejeweled costumes of the Mughal era might weigh 40 to 60 pounds. The reflectivity of mirrors and jewels in the costumes is important as a reflection of the dazzling nature of the individual, but it comes at a price.

"I've seen actresses getting bruises on their neck from the jewelry," said Yasha, who added that people from India are more accustomed to the weight than those from other nations. Even so, she will go through four to five tests with actors to gauge their comfort level and ability to move in the costumes. Workarounds include detachable skirts that can be removed between takes. But if it came down to a choice between comfort or the need for ornamentation, she said the costume will win.

And that has left its mark on society.

"To this day brides want a (60-pound) dress," Yasha said. "I'm tempted to renew my vows with my husband. At the time I got married, I didn't have my own workshop. I could have done so much better."

As for her doubting parents, she said, "They've just started believing I might be doing something worthwhile, and when I write a book, I'll be redeemed."


East-West Center Gallery

Oct. 13: Screening of "Two Acres of Land," directed by Bimal Roy, about a man trying to protect his two acres of land from the local landlord, 1 to 4 p.m.

Oct. 20: "Bollywood Alive" introductory dance workshop, 2 to 4 p.m.

Nov. 3: "Don't Call It Bollywood!" An Introduction to Tamil Popular Culture," illustrated talk by UH English professor S. Shankar, 2 to 3 p.m.

Nov. 10: Screening of "Jodhaa Akbar," Part 1, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, about the romance between a Muslim Mughal emperor and a Hindu Rajput princess, 2 to 4 p.m.

Nov. 17: Screening of "Jodhaa Akbar," Part 2, 2 to 4 p.m.

Nov. 24: "Designers, Artists, Artisans": The People Who Make Bollywood Costume Magic," illustrated talk by Cheri Vasek, guest curator and UH Department of Theater and Dance assistant professor, 2 to 3 p.m.

Dec. 1: "Music in Bollywood," illustrated talk by Teri Skillman, Hamilton Library curator, 2 to 3 p.m.

Dec. 8: Screening of "Robot," a science-fiction film about a scientist who creates a sophisticated android robot in his likeness with the intention of its joining the army, 1 to 4 p.m.

Dec. 15: Screening of "Bobby," directed by Raj Kapoor, a love story about two young people from different castes, 1 to 4 p.m.

Jan. 5: Screening of "Sholay," directed by Ramesh Sippy, a Hindi action-adventure film that draws on American Westerns, about two thieves who find themselves in a small village and growing fonder of its inhabitants, 1 to 4 p.m.

Jan. 12: "Unexpected Crossings: A Curator's Journey," illustrated talk by research assistant Eva Enriquez, relating her experiences in India in preparation for the exhibition, 2 to 3 p.m.


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