The only woman technician on the crew of Gandhi (1982), Bhanu Athaiya sat with her colleagues at the 55th Academy Awards night. Nervous about the nomination — Best Costume Design for Gandhi — she smiled faintly, her gaze flitting between the stage and her friends. When her eyes met Richard Attenborough’s, the film’s director seated a few seats away, he blew her a kiss. Her nervousness subsided.
“It was a small act on his part, but it helped me deliver a coherent speech on stage when I was announced the winner alongside John Mollo,” Athaiya recounts.
At her Warden Road studio, in Mumbai, the 85-year-old costume designer holds a framed photograph in her hands. It has her with Attenborough and his wife, actor Sheila Sim, with the Oscar statuettes placed in front of them. Pointing towards Attenborough in it, she says, “He was one of a kind; he put India in the spotlight.”
It’s been 31 years since her Academy win and Athaiya is quite unwell, but the news regarding the Gandhi director’s death has visibly disturbed her. Athaiya’s daughter Radhika Gupta says that the loss is personal to her, given that she shared a warm friendship with Attenborough and Sim.
Athaiya had a distinguished, three-decade-long career behind her in the Hindi film industry when Gandhi was offered to her. It was Simi Garewal who fixed Athaiya’s meeting with Attenbor ough in 1977. “What my mother brought back from her meeting was the observation that Attenborough was a very simple man,” says Gupta.
Attenborough and Athaiya shared their love for attention to detail and Athaiya also learnt a lot from him. “He knew about Indian culture more than many Indians, such as the details of what the railway coaches had looked like or what it meant to live a Gandhian life. He had been researching on the subject for over 15 years,” says Athaiya. In fact, in the ’70s, Attenborough turned down several acting offers to focus on the film. He spent two years in pre-production for Gandhi. He even got her to take Ben Kingsley to explore Delhi, to get acquainted with Indian culture as well as historic landmarks.
Work on the film went on for nearly four years and Attenborough was always appreciative of Athaiya’s patience. For instance, for the scene depicting the Mahatma’s funeral, with three lakh people, Bhanu spent hours tying dhotis.
After the film, Attenborough and Sim stayed in touch with her through letters. For a book on her, The Art of Costume Design, she requested the actor-director to contribute. He obliged with an insightful and endearing letter, which has been used as the foreword.
In 2009, Sim was diagnosed with dementia and admitted to a sanatorium . This came a continued…