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Meet Bhanu Athaiya who won India its first Oscars in 1983 for Richard Attenborough’s movie ‘Gandhi’

Besides the prestigious Oscars, the legendary costume designer won two National Awards- for Gulzar’s mystery drama, Lekin (1990), and 'Lagaan', directed by Ashutosh Gowariker.

The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, are global film industry awards for creative and technical brilliance. These awards are considered the most prestigious and significant in the entertainment industry. This year, on March 12th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted the 95th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

With India shining brightly at the 95th Academy Awards this year, bagging two awards, one for RRR’s song Naatu Naatu and the other for The Elephant Whisperers, it is a fitting moment to remember Bhanu Athaiya, the first Indian who brought home the coveted statuette in 1983.

Bhanu Athaiya and her early life

Bhanu Athaiya was an Indian costume designer who won the first Academy Award for India for Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi, which swept the Oscars in 1983 with eight awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Ben Kingsley, for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi. Bhanu Athaiya won the award for Best Costume Design along with her British collaborator John Mollo.

A still from ‘Gandhi’ (Source: YourStory)

Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye or Bhanu Athaiya was born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra in 1929. She was the third of seven children of Annasaheb Rajopadhye, a painter and photographer from a wealthy family, and Shantabai Rajopadhye. Her father died in 1940.

After finishing her formal education at the age of 17, Bhanu came to Bombay (now Mumbai) and lived with a woman whose mother worked at Eve’s Weekly, a popular magazine. Her job as a magazine illustrator led to a job at a boutique, where she began creating her own designs despite never having attended fashion school. This drew the attention of India’s film industry to her.

The legendary costume designer had a fulfilling career spanning six decades

She began her career as a costume designer in Hindi cinema with Guru Dutt’s 1956 superhit C.I.D. Athiya worked for over six decades in close to a hundred Indian films. Aamir Khan starrer Lagaan, an Oscar-nominated film, was among her credits.

A still from movie ‘Lagaan’

She collaborated with top Bollywood talent and designed costumes for acclaimed Hindi movies like Teesri Manzil, Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Guide, Brahmachari, Waqt, Razia Sultan, Karz, 1942 – A Love Story, and Swades, to name a few.

The directors with whom Athaiya worked read like the Who’s Who of Indian cinema, including Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, BR Chopra, Yash Chopra, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Ashutosh Gowariker, Jabbar Patel and Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

From Mumtaz’s ensemble in the song Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche in Brahmachari (1969), Bhappi Sonie’s superhit Bollywood movie starring Shammi Kapoor to Sadhana’s fitting churidar and knee-length tunic in Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965). From Waheeda Rehman’s austere look in Guide to Zeenat Aman’s sensuous one in Satyam Shivam Sundaram to Sridevi’s iconic look in Chandni, she was that veteran who shaped the aesthetics of Hindi cinema through her prolific work. Whether conjuring up oomphs or reproducing mundane reality, as in the Oscar-winning film Gandhi, Athaiya understood the importance of her task and executed it flawlessly.

Mumtaz’s ensemble in the song Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche in Brahmachari (1969) (source: Film Companion)
Sridevi in Chandni (L), Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Source: Pinkvilla, Amarujala

Notably, when she was hired for “Gandhi,” she was by some distance the most in-demand costume designer in India.

“Richard Attenborough was making a complex film and needed someone who knew India inside out,” Athaiya told Eastern Eye, a British weekly newspaper, in an interview published in 2020. “So much had to be contributed, and I was ready for it.”

In 2012, after Athaiya learned she had a brain tumour, she returned her Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles for safekeeping after her death.

“I have no regrets at all. I am very happy that my Oscar has gone to the right place,” she told the news agency PTI at the time. She had previously donated several documents, photographs, production notes and letters about the making of Gandhi to the Academy.

She died in Mumbai on October 15, 2020. She was 91 years old.

Besides the prestigious Oscars, the legendary costume designer won two National Awards- for Gulzar’s mystery drama Lekin (1990) and the period film Lagaan directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (2001) in her glorifying career which spanned over six decades.

How many times has India brought home the Oscars?

In 1992, nearly a decade after Bhanu Athaiya won India’s first Oscars in 1983 for Gandhi, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which organises the Oscars, gave Indian director Satyajit Ray an honorary Oscar “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”

17 years later, at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009, legendary music composer A R Rahman and sound engineer Resul Pookutty received the prestigious award for their contributions to Danny Boyle’s record-breaking film Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman won two prizes that night: Best Original Song for Jai Ho, which he co-wrote with lyricist Gulzar, and Best Original Score, while Pookutty received Best Sound Mixing.

This year, once again, India dazzled at the 95th Academy Awards, with RRR’s song Naatu Naatu winning Best Original Music and The Elephant Whisperers winning Best Documentary Short Film.

How many Indian films have been nominated at the Oscars?

Indian films have been nominated three times in the Best International Feature Film category, previously known as Best Foreign Language Film.

Mehboob Khan’s epic Mother India was the first Indian movie to be nominated in 1958. The film, starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Raaj Kumar, was a massive hit in India and is still considered one of the greatest Indian films ever made.

In 1989, Mira Nair’s feature debut Salaam Bombay! was nominated, also for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on the life of Mumbai’s (then called Bombay) street children, the drama won a number of international awards, including the Camera d’Or and Audience award at the Cannes Film Festival, but eluded the Oscar voters.

Lagaan, the Bollywood musical set in colonial India, was the last film to earn an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2002. 

Late Indian producer Ismail Merchant and American filmmaker James Ivory received three Best Picture Oscar nominations for their Hollywood films, A Room With a View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day (1993).

The documentary genre has had the most Indian nominations, beginning with The House That Ananda Built in the Best Documentary (Short) category in 1968.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra, a well-known Bollywood director and producer, was also nominated for an Oscar for one of his early films, An Encounter with Faces. In 1979, the documentary, which focused on the lives of children in orphanages, was nominated for Best Documentary (Short).

In 2022, Writing with Fire, directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, made history by becoming the first ever Indian film to be nominated for Best Documentary (Feature).

Rahman’s 2009 success was followed by two further nominations in 2011, for Best Original Song and Best Original Score for the film 127 Hours, his second collaboration with Boyle.

Bombay Jayashri received another music nomination in 2013 for her contribution to the critically acclaimed Ang Lee film Life of Pi. Jayashri was nominated for Best Original Song for her song Pi’s Lullaby, which she wrote and performed.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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