Revisiting Rangeela, 25 years on: How Ram Gopal Varma's path-breaking film changed Bollywood's fashion trends
Manish Malhotra’s costume design not only changed Urmila Matondkar’s onscreen image but elevated the importance of the wardrobe department on a film set.
When we first meet Mili 25 years ago, the young background dancer is peering into a bioscope on a street corner. She throws up her arms with joy, stands, and tosses her patchwork cap in the air. She wears a flowing, floral mini that is paired with shin-high, lace-up, chunky boots. This was a look that was rooted in the irreverence of the punk-rock scene. Its off-screen iterations instantly became shorthand for 'cool girl.'
The year was 1995 and the film was Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela.
This was a bumper year for Bollywood, which explains why Rangeela often gets overlooked between the comedic stylings of David Dhawan and Govinda in Coolie No. 1 and Aditya Chopra’s trans-European romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Rangeela, though was that rare film which trained its lens on the inner-mechanics of film industry and was successful at the box office. The audience could not get enough of Mili (Urmila Matondkar), the ambitious background dancer, or the two men vying for her – tapori Munna (Aamir Khan) and suave film star Raj Kamal (Jackie Shroff).
That the film has aged well would be an understatement, given its immeasurable impact on Bollywood and desi pop culture. It marked the Hindi film debut of Varma who went on to give us landmark films like Satya and Company. Rangeela was also A R Rahman’s first original Hindi film album, and won him his first Filmfare Award for Best Music Director (he has won a dozen more since). There was Ahmed Khan’s choreography, and the MTV video-styled song picturisations broke new ground for Bollywood and set the tone for decades to come.
And then, there was Manish Malhotra’s costume design that not only changed Matondkar’s onscreen image but soon became street fashion. Rangeela elevated the importance of the wardrobe department on a film set. This was reflected in Filmfare instituting an award for costume design with Malhotra as its first recipient.
Whether it was the Sadhana fringe, the Mumtaz sari drape from Brahmachari or the knotted top and mini skirt that Dimple Kapadia as Bobby wore in the '70s, our films have influenced the sartorial sensibilities of generations. Only a few directors like Raj Kapoor and Yash Chopra though paid attention to what their characters were wearing. In most films, costume design was a much-neglected department with actors some times wearing their own clothes for a scene or outfits being planned the night before a shoot. Unless the film had a very specific setting, there was little attention paid to its 'look.'
During the pre-production of Rangeela, Varma wanted the stylist who had dressed Sridevi in his Telugu film Govinda Govinda to do the same Matondkar. Only he did not know who the stylist was. Actor Jugal Hansraj, who had worked with Matondkar in Masoom, and was a friend of Malhotra, connected them. The designer was called to Hyderabad for a meeting with Varma. “Ramuji narrated the whole script to me in that meeting. I was just so excited because in those days directors would get offended if I asked them for the story. They would only tell you, 'There are so many songs and so many scenes or we want four Indian outfits and three Western',” remembers Malhotra. Varma’s brief to Malhotra was simple – keep the clothes trendy but realistic.
In the beginning, Mili’s wardrobe primarily consisted of hot pants, knotted tops, and skater dresses in solid colours. When she is with Munna, her look is more youthful – jeans, caps, her hair in braids. With Raj Kamal is where Mini transforms into the desirable heroine ready for her big debut. She is dressed in vibrant bikini tops paired with a matching sarong or a mini skirt with voluminous hair that would put the Brazilian blowout to shame.
The 'Hai Rama' song is a rare instance in the film where Malhotra dressed her in Indian wear. “This was one of the last songs we shot, and we had done all kinds of Western looks. I realised that we hadn’t done a sari so I recommended it, and Ramuji instantly agreed. I gave Urmila a plain black sari, a bandhani lehenga, and used gadhchola to fashion an outfit that draped to look like a sari but was short, tight, and fitted,” he says. ‘Short, tight, and fitted’ could describe almost every outfit in the film that Mili wears.
Soon after the release, tangerine skater dresses, peplum dresses, and knotted denim shirts began making their way into wardrobes around the country. Malhotra was also working on Raja Hindustani and Dil Toh Pagal Hai around the same time,and all three films are credited as being important landmarks in the style revolution of their leading ladies.
“Clothes were earlier mostly made by tailors but Rangeela started the concept of styling as a whole.
I was also involved in the make-up and hair discussions. There were higher budgets, which meant that if a character was based in London, I could go to London and source clothes for them. We started using international brands,” he says. One of the biggest indicators of this change was that designers started getting credited at the beginning of the film, and not in the end credits.
Looking back, the '90s with its loud pops of colour, clashing prints, and OTT accessories, might not have been the most fashionable of decades but this is when the movie and fashion industries converged in our country, particularly with the slew of models and beauty pageant winners that entered the industry during these years. These days, it would be unheard of for a film not to have a designer or stylist on board, and designers hoping to make it big often look towards Bollywood for validation. It was Rangeela though, that set this ball rolling — something very few people still remember, as the film celebrates its 25th anniversary today on 8 September.
All images from Facebook.
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