It is one of my most cherished works”, says ace fashion designer Manish Malhotra, who has won the Best Original Costume Design Award for Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical at the Broadway World India Awards.

Malhotra is one of Bollywood’s most celebrated and sought-after costume designers. For this interview with Guardian 20, he told us that he has taken time out from “the biggest of all bridal appointments”.

Working on Feroz Abbas Khan’s stage adaptation of Mughal-e-Azam was an important step in the designer’s career. “It was a very big experience,” Malhotra says, “and I had a very good time. It was very stressful, but I think it all worked out really well. And now the award has made it even better. So I am happy. I enjoyed working with Feroz [Abbas Khan]; Namrata [Ahmed], the producer; Mayuri [Upadhya], the choreographer. Just for this play, I was at the NCPA [National Centre for the Performing Arts] for eight days from morning to night. I was hysterical because if I say ‘yes’ to something, I never want to compromise.”

The award, Malhotra says, is a “special one”. “It is the first time that I have designed for this extravagant, musical play. And I have just got an award for it. It just makes you feel that your decision worked.”

The 51-year-old designer started his career as a model while studying at Mumbai’s  Elphinstone College, and then moved on to become a costume designer in Hindi films in 1990. He speaks to us about the differences between designing costumes for films and plays. “In the plays, there had to be a lot of velcros because your actors have to quickly change.  It’s like what I do when I do costumes for actors when they do dance or comedy.

“But this particular show was something very different for me because there were 600 costumes required in a very short span and unlike movies, where you make a costume and then you can always wait because the song goes into continuity or something, here [in plays] they have understudies. So, the clothes for understudies also have to be ready on time.”

For his Mughal-e-Azam costumes, Malhotra used real zardozi, pure velvet, pure brocade, brocade from Benaras and bandhani. The designer explains that he only wanted to use “very rich and pure fabric” to make costumes. He also tells us that some lehengas in the play were made of pure bandhej.

The dancers’ costumes were made of pure fabric, too. “Initially, I thought that the dancers’ clothes can be made of a lighter fabric,” Malhotra says. “But Mayuri and Feroz Khan said that they wanted very pure fabrics. So, even the dancers’ costumes were done with pure fabric—pure silk, pure brocade.”

The common motifs that run through the 600 costumes were “the texture” and “the exceptional touch of royalty”, as the designer informs us.

Malhotra is a big fan of Mughal-e-Azam, the movie. He tells us that the costumes worn in the original initially served as a reference point. He says, “The movie is also one of my favourite films. I have seen it a lot of times. And that was a reference point. But everything in the play is different. So, the film was my first inspiration and starting point.”

The designer looks back at the experience as an enriching one, and is up for designing costumes for plays in the future too. He says, “I love grandeur, I love cinema, I love regal and royal clothes, I love glamour. So, something that keeps me excited, I would love to do. Of course, I would love to do a play. It has been an enriching experience. It has been a new experience. Definitely, it was a challenge. Like I said, the 600 costumes were made in two months but truly everything was put together in the last ten days. But I learned so much. I was doing something new, which was so challenging and also very helpful.”

Priyanka Barve as Anarkali in an elaborate lehenga designed by Malhotra.

Malhotra never had any formal training in fashion design. He made a mark in Bollywood as a costume designer with films like Rangeela, Raja Hindustani, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Dil To Pagal Hai among others. On how the industry has changed in all these years, he says, “Styling has taken over designing. There is more styling today than actual designing. But in my case, there was a lot of designing. I had to buy things, cut them, make them and all of that.”

The designer’s name is synonymous with style and fashion in India. He has worked with leading names in the entertainment industry, the likes of Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt, Anushka Sharma, Kajol, Parineeti Chopra. But Sridevi and her daughter Jahnvi seem to be Malhotra’s favourite as he confesses that he would love to design clothes for them again and again.

“I worked for Sridevi at a time when I was very new and I have learned a lot from her,” he says. “She is a huge star and to date, we are friends and work together. We do a lot of work together. And, of course, Jahnvi. Her launch film is close as well.”

As for Hollywood, Malhotra expresses his wish to some day design clothes for Meryl Streep. He says, “I would love to meet Meryl Streep because I love her as an actress. I think she is fabulous. So, let us see if I ever get a chance to meet her and then may be design for her.”

Filmmakers like Karan Johar, Yash Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani, and Imtiaz Ali have all worked with Malhotra in the past. And for years, he was known as a Bollywood designer. It was quite late in his career that he launched his own label.

About his journey from the silver screen to the runway, he says, “Yash and Avanti Birla [of the Birla group] asked me to open a store when I was only a professional doing costumes. And because of them, I said yes. From there, I moved on to start my own label 12 years ago. Before me, such things never happened, because a costume designer was a costume designer and a fashion designer was a fashion designer. It took me time to blend the two things. And the last eight years for the label have been phenomenal. To juggle between the two is very taxing, it is very stressful. But I love to work, I am obsessed with work and that’s why somewhere I can manage it.”

As our conversation nears its end, I ask him about the bridal trends that are likely to dominate the industry this year. “I think brides are becoming very experimental. For this summer, they are a little away from red. And there are lots of different colours for their bridal day. In the winter, there are a lot more reds. Brides these days know what they are looking for. Young people today exactly know what they want and it is just so fabulous,” he says, signing off.


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