Man­ish Mal­ho­tra: Up Close & Fash­ion­able

How did a Ban­dra boy, the son of an air-con­di­tion­ing busi­ness­man, with no fash­ion train­ing and only a love for films, be­come Bol­ly­wood’s su­per­stylist? Meet...

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - by Aastha Atray Banan

F OUR DAYS be­fore Lakmé Fash­ion Week’s Au­tumn/ Win­ter 2014 fi­nale, the 8th floor of a mid-town Mumbai five-star ho­tel is chaotic. De­signer and Bol­ly­wood stylist Man­ish Mal­ho­tra is try­ing to de­cide which model will look best in what bridal avatar at the fi­nale.

“Who has a flat stom­ach here?” he asks. “You? Come try the sari.”

He pauses, look­ing slightly wor­ried, lines form­ing on his fore­head. “Maybe we can try this lehenga on Carol or Sand­hya?”

Sud­denly, he smiles, look­ing at a male model. “Maybe you can trim that beard a bit? You can’t look like a ter­ror­ist!” And then he looks at another model. “You need cof­fee,” he says.

There are a few laughs and he’s back to work. “I should change some­thing. Some­thing doesn’t look right,” he muses. And then he asks a by­stander, “How’s it look­ing?” She is flus­tered. “Lovely!” she man­ages to say, caught by sur­prise. He gives her a smile and an ‘I-hopeit-all-turns-out-good’ look. Then it’s back to the edit.

Purn­ima Lamba, head of in­no­va­tions at Lakmé, says that while dis­cussing the theme of the fi­nale with Mal­ho­tra (which was bridal), the first thing she told him was: ‘Tell me what you are known for, and let’s not do that.’ “And Man­ish was su­per ex­cited. He’s an in­cred­i­ble col­lab­o­ra­tor,” she says.

That could be Mal­ho­tra’s mantra th­ese days as he rein­vents him­self as a de­signer – let­ting his de­signs re­flect his ma­tu­rity and his growth, even as they still re­tain that ‘Man­ish Mal­ho­tra’ charm. The re­sult was this – there was no gold at the fi­nale, and that could be a first for Mal­ho­tra, who is known for his metal­lic em­broi­dery and chif­fons. In­stead, we saw pal­ettes of grey and pur­ple, lots of mir­ror work, OTT head­gear and em­broi­dered capes.

“This was a very con­trolled col­lec­tion,” ob­serves Anaita Shroff Ada­ja­nia, the show’s stylist and Mal­ho­tra’s old friend. “Most de­sign­ers are shy to learn, but not Man­ish; he is like a sponge, he just wants to ab­sorb. When he first started out, he was more about out­fits. Now he’s more co­he­sive and thinks of the out­fit as part of a col­lec­tion. He still loves what he stands for, but wants to grow.”

RAGS TO RANGEELA

It’s taken Mal­ho­tra a long time to reach this space; a space where he is known not only as the ulti- mate Bol­ly­wood de­signer but as a fash­ion mav­er­ick as well. What’s common to both tags is his mass ap­peal, whether it’s in­spir­ing mil­lions to wear hot pants and knot­ted tops like Ur­mila Ma­tond­kar did in Rangeela (1995), or mak­ing sure ev­ery other bride wants (or at least tells their tai­lor to copy) a Man­ish Mal­ho­tra en­sem­ble for their wed­ding, like their favourite star, Kareena Kapoor Khan.

Born into a typ­i­cal Pun­jabi fam­ily in Mumbai, Mal­ho­tra is the son of an air-con­di­tion­ing business owner. But even as a child, he was only in­ter­ested in movies – the songs, the colours, the cos­tumes and the ac­tresses (Sridevi was his favourite). As he had a knack for sketch­ing, in his 6th stan­dard, he joined a paint­ing class. “I was good in sci­ence only be­cause my di­a­grams were good,” he laughs. “Math­e­mat­ics was ter­ri­ble.”

But the Ban­dra boy wanted to move out of his sub­urb and went to El­phin­stone Col­lege to study. That’s where he got hooked to English movies in ad­di­tion to Bol­ly­wood. To sup­ple­ment his pocket money, he con­ducted sur­veys for mar­ket re­search agen­cies, and mod­elled for ads such as Gold Spot and Close-Up. But he wanted to see the world. “I saved ` 90,000 and went to Bangkok and Sin­ga­pore. That quest to see the world and ex­plore was al­ways there,” he says.

Though he loved cin­ema, Mal­ho­tra didn’t know many film peo­ple (though his cousin Lali was mar­ried to David Dhawan), and spent a lot of time won­der­ing how to break in. On his re­turn from Bangkok, he joined a bou­tique called Equinox, where he spent his time sketch­ing and drap­ing the man­nequins. Then one day in 1987, he de­cided to hire two tai­lors and just started tak­ing or­ders.

“Ob­vi­ously, I wasn’t go­ing to join the fam­ily business,” he says. “My par­ents didn’t un­der­stand this, but came around even­tu­ally.”

It was at this time that En­sem­ble opened in Mumbai, which was

one of the first multi-brand stores that gave In­dian de­sign­ers a plat­form for show­cas­ing their de­signs. It could have been a game-changer for Mal­ho­tra but as he says, he didn’t have money to even think of mak­ing a col­lec­tion. “I didn’t have the money to go abroad, I was late with my NIFT (Na­tional In­sti­tute of Fash­ion Tech­nol­ogy) ap­pli­ca­tion, and didn’t have the money for a col­lec­tion,” Mal­ho­tra says. “So I de­cided, why not movies? To me, the cos­tumes were look­ing re­ally bad.”

It wasn’t a smooth start for him. David Dhawan of­fered him a chance to style Divya Bharti for a song in 1989. “I re­mem­ber the look I gave her (I shopped at the Taj) – it was a black bro­cade skirt and a gold top. But the movie was shelved,” he says. He then de­signed clothes for Juhi Chawla for a song in Swarg (1990), but his big break came when celebrity pho­tog­ra­pher Rakesh Shrestha in­tro­duced him to Sridevi, and con­vinced her to use him as a stylist for a photo shoot. Mal­ho­tra’s foot was in the door. In the next one year, he was work­ing with Sunny Deol, Chunky Pandey and Sridevi. The first movie they did was

Gum­rah in 1993, and her fit­ted, em­broi­dered waist­coat with black den­ims in the song Tere Pyaar Ko

Salaam was a fresh look at a time when hero­ines were swathed in ruf­fles, satin and dowdy lay­ers.

He doesn’t re­mem­ber, though, where his de­sign aes­thetic came from. “It was all my imag­i­na­tion,” he says. “I had never even stud­ied de­sign. Movies were hard. In those days, cheques bounced all the time. And there were all th­ese fe­male de­sign­ers, with books of work, and I was the young boy who sketched. I won over the ac­tors quickly, but mon­e­tary val­i­da­tion was hard to come about.”

Then Ka­jol danced in the rain in her white mini skirt in Dil­wale

Dul­ha­nia Le Jayenge (1995) and peo­ple be­gan to no­tice Mal­ho­tra. And fi­nally, the turn­ing point in his ca­reer ar­rived with that sem­i­nal movie, Rangeela (1995), which changed the way we looked at the curvy In­dian hero­ine for­ever.

A STITCH IN TIME

We’re chat­ting over lunch at the Lakmé Fash­ion Week Win­ter/Fes­tive 2014 fit­tings, where Mal­ho­tra con­fesses he loves food like any other Pun­jabi. “The other day Kan­gana [Ra­naut] was over for lunch and she said, ‘Do you eat like this ev­ery day?’ And I was like, yes, I am Pun­jabi.” He pauses for a brief con­ver­sa­tion with model Deepti Gu­jral. “I want to look like you. You know some­one told me that day, ‘Weight toh chala jayega, but face kaun badlega?’” he tells her. It’s ob­vi­ous he’s got a knack for mak­ing peo­ple laugh.

Then we go back to “No one can take that away from me,” he says. “Rangeela changed the way the film in­dus­try saw cos­tume de­sign – Film­fare in­sti­tuted the Award for Cos­tume De­sign for the first time ever, which I won. I did that. It was my turn­ing point. For a guy who had never trav­elled, I was in and out of Switzer­land and London.”

It was dur­ing Rangeela that he re­alised that Bol­ly­wood was not such a bad place after all. “I met film di­rec­tor, Ram Gopal Varma, who nar­rated the whole movie [ Rangeela] to me. I was so happy.” Other in­stances that re­stored his faith in the in­dus­try were a visit to Yash Chopra’s house for Aaina (1993), where Pamela Chopra won him over with her class. “She was just so el­e­gant”, he re­calls. And the time when Yash Jo­har called him for a project and asked whether he could send over an ad­vance of ` 10,000, a rare thing in a world of de­layed pay­ments.

Rangeela ar­guably has been one of the sex­i­est movies ever. How can any­one for­get Ur­mila danc­ing on Versova beach in skintight red leg­gings and a tank top? “I in­tro­duced the word styling, with­out even know­ing what that meant,” says Mal­ho­tra. “I took the first step. As long as I live, it will

al­ways be that – Man­ish Mal­ho­tra came and changed the way movies looked.”

He also did the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble – made an ac­tress look sexy with­out look­ing vulgar. It’s no won­der then his star shone brighter post Rangeela. Karisma and Kareena Kapoor are die-hard fol­low­ers, so are Ka­jol, Priyanka Chopra and most re­cently, Alia Bhatt, who in her movie Humpty

Sharma ki Dul­haniya says, “Mai shaadi karungi toh Kareena wala de­signer lehenga pe­henke karungi”, and also walked the ramp for Mal­ho­tra in his lehenga. Like Alia, there are brides all over the coun­try who die for the Man­ish chif­fon sari or em­broi­dered lehenga.

FASH­ION FOR­WARD

But in the last three years, Mal­ho­tra’s work has been more about main­stream fash­ion than Bol­ly­wood or bridal. For Man­ish, it was just a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. Other than the fi­nale which, with its greys and deep reds, was qui­eter in ap­peal, his open­ing col­lec­tion for Lakmé Fash­ion Week Win­ter/ Fes­tive 2013 last Septem­ber was sur­pris­ing, with its cool sharara pants, Ra­jasthani koti tops and cus­tom zari work. “To­day I am en­joy­ing this phase; the business of fash­ion in­ter­ests me,” says Mal­ho­tra. “Peo­ple wait for my col­lec­tions. I launch them in my store the same day I launch them on the ramp. That’s the belief the client has in me.”

So how come women so far apart in aes­thet­ics, as Kareena Kapoor Khan and an aunty in Kan­pur, both lust for that Man­ish sari?

“I think I am in­ter­ested in peo­ple. I may not be eclec­tic, but I have a con­nect with the au­di­ence that makes me popular,” says Mal­ho­tra. “That’s be­cause I am still part of an au­di­ence my­self. I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I go to the the­atre wide-eyed. I have never been the one who knows it all. I am in touch with re­al­ity.”

It’s not al­ways been about the ac­co­lades, though. Many crit­ics over the years have spo­ken about Mal­ho­tra’s “rep­e­ti­tion” and tsk-tsked over his “bridal de­signer” tag. But he seems equally dis­mis­sive about the anal­y­sis. “For me, it’s never been about that critic who said, ‘Oh, it’s not out of the box’. I didn’t prom­ise that. I promised to do what I do best,” he says. “My true call­ing is In­dian wear. When peo­ple think of a sangeet, re­cep­tion or shaadi, they think of me. I want clothes that make sense.”

To­day he em­ploys 300 em­broi­der­ers in-house, 160 work­ers in Kashmir and 140 work­ers in Mi­jwan (Ut­tar Pradesh). “That’s not mass – my em­broi­dery takes three months to do,” Mal­ho­tra says. “It’s a lot of in­vest­ment. How is that mass? But the con­nect is mass. I know my buyer. She is a young girl who wants to look glam­orous, whether she is fat, dark, fair or short. She wants to be her­self.”

His suc­cess re­lies on his instincts as much as his tire­less dis­po­si­tion. Ev­ery­one tells us that no one works harder than Mal­ho­tra. “He is so dis­ci­plined and a mult­tasker,” says chore­og­ra­pher Lubna Adams. Make-up artist Cory Walia can’t stop prais­ing Mal­ho­tra. “No one has a stronger work ethic. He also knows what he is ca­pa­ble of and doesn’t try and be somebody else.” And he man­ages to be fun nonethe­less. “He might be go­ing crazy at work, but he is still so af­fa­ble,” says Walia.

FILMI FRILLS

Ac­tor Im­ran Khan backs Mal­ho­tra’s belief that he knows what works. “Dur­ing

I Hate Luv Sto­rys (2010), I sec­ond guessed many of his choices for me,” he says. “But when I saw them on screen, I was like ‘damn, this is what he meant’. He knows what colour, tex­ture and fab­ric will look good on screen.”

And as Kareena, who met him first when she was nine years old while vis­it­ing her sis­ter Karisma on the sets of Deedar (1992), says, “In the fash­ion world, where ev­ery­one is try­ing to be some­one, Man­ish Mal­ho­tra is just him­self – un­apolo­get­i­cally glam­orous and sparkly. What he has done for In­dian fash­ion is that he’s made it reach out to ev­ery In­dian.”

Hun­dreds of girls would have rushed to their tai­lor and or­dered the Mad­huri Dixit-style sheer kur­tas after Dil Toh Pa­gal Hai (1997); or the red bell bot­toms Kareena Kapoor wore in Kabhi Khushi

Kab­hie Gham (2001); and more re­cently, col­lege girls went back to the eth­nic chic look he cre­ated for Alia Bhatt in 2 States (2014). Whether it’s his styling ex­per­tise, his trade­mark chif­fon saris, gold em­broi­dery lehen­gas or his new avatar as the so­phis­ti­cated clothes­maker for the mod­ern In­dian bride, his great­est strength lies in stay­ing true to his own style.

“I read this quote by Tom Ford that I iden­tify with,” says Mal­ho­tra. “He said some­thing to the ef­fect that he doesn’t pre­sume he is a big artist, he just gets up and does what he loves and if peo­ple like that, he is sat­is­fied. I am the same. I will never change as a per­son, I will just evolve. When new­com­ers like Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan say that if they walk the ramp for Man­ish, it’s a sign they have made it, that’s a sign of re­spect you can’t beat.”

Crit­ics be damned. Man­ish Mal­ho­tra has had the last word.

A GOOD FIT At the fit­tings for his show, Man­ish may be all business, but he al­ways finds a mo­ment to laugh

MY MAN­ISH Kareena Kapoor Khan is a big fan of the Man­ish brand

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