India’s first Oscar winner & costume designer Bhanu Athaiya dies in Mumbai home


India’s first Oscar winner & costume designer Bhanu Athaiya dies in Mumbai home

Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner, died at her home on Thursday after extended sickness, her daughter mentioned. She was 91. Athaiya, who gained an Oscar for her work in the 1983 epic movie “Gandhi”, handed away peacefully in her sleep, her daughter Radhika Gupta informed PTI. The final rites occurred on the Chandanwadi crematorium in south Mumbai. “She passed away early this morning. Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain. For the last three years, she was bedridden because one side (of her body) was paralysed,” her daughter said.

The Kolhapur-born Athaiya, who worked till just five years ago, began her career as a costume designer in Hindi cinema with Guru Dutt’s 1956 superhit “C.I.D.”. She went on to work in over 100 films.

She won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi”, with Ben Kingsley as the Mahatma, along with John Mollo. The lavish biopic of Mahatma Gandhi swept the Oscars with eight awards.

“It’s too good to believe. Thank you Academy and thank you Sir Richard Attenborough for focusing world attention on India,” Athiaya had said in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards.

In 2012, Athaiya returned her Oscar to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for safe keeping.

In an interview to PTI, the veteran designer had said she doesn’t have regrets about giving the award back. “I’ve wished this for a while. I wish to thank the Academy for serving to me. Many Oscar winners in the previous have returned their Oscars for secure maintaining. It is a practice with the Academy,” she had said.

Athaiya was apparently worried for the safety of the trophy. She had previously donated “an enormous assortment of papers referring to “Gandhi” to the Academy.

Recalling the second her title was introduced, Athaiya had mentioned fellow nominees informed her she was a frontrunner for the very best costume award. “I was sitting in the audience with the other nominees in my category. They all told me that they did not stand a chance to win the Oscar. They told me my canvas was huge so I would definitely win the award. In my mind, I had told myself that I had done my best, that I had done justice to Gandhiji’s name and the freedom movement.

“When they referred to as my title, I didn’t permit myself to get carried away. I calmly went on the stage and thanked Sir Richard and the Academy. When I went backstage, I used to be shocked as there have been so many photographers taking footage. But it was an excellent feeling. I used to be comfortable,” she recounted.

The veteran who defined the aesthetics of Hindi cinema through her prolific work created some of Bollywood’s best-remembered looks, including Vyjayantihmala in “Aamrapaali”, Waheeda Rehman in “Guide” and Zeenat Aman in “Satyam Shivam Sundaram”.

One of the most respected names in the film industry, Athaiya also worked with noted filmmakers like Yash Chopra. And in a career of more than five decades won two National Awards — for Gulzar’s mystery drama “Lekin” (1990) and the period film “Lagaan” directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (2001).

Things did not change much after the Oscar win, she said in 2010. The costume department continued to be a neglected part of the Indian film industry.

“Costumes have an enormous position in making a movie look actual and plausible, however Indian filmmakers have by no means given due significance to it and these days the development is to simply buy groceries overseas and put issues collectively. In my opinion that’s not the proper factor to do,” she said at the launch of her book “The Art of Costume Design” published by Harper Collins at the time. 

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