In Milan Lutheria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), a female protagonist relived the ultimate male fantasy of the 70s by wearing the knotted and polka-dotted Bobby blouse. The nostalgia for Bobby is so strong that when Twinkle (or Tina) Khanna was styled for her debut film Barsaat (1995), she wore minis and blouses inspired by the most famous character ever played by her mother. Karan Johar, obsessed with the same style template, wanted Khanna to play a pivotal role in his Kuch Kuch Hota Hai but when she refused, picked Rani Mukherjee to play the part. The character was called Tina and wore clothes that recalled Bobby’s sporty minis.
When Farhan Akhtar reworked on Don, he picked up an iconic jacket from the Chandra Barot original and referenced it in the new version. The same jacket that Amitabh Bachchan wore in the song, ‘Khaike paan Benaras wala.’ And as we increasingly look back to mine our classic hits, we find that the design idioms being coined then had a resonance that has gone missing from our cinema today. Which dancing star today has the originality of Helen or the courage to pull off the feathered, glittering concoctions that she wore? The woman behind most of these unforgettable costumes is however, forgotten today and the name Mani Rabadi does not ring too many bells.
Rabadi who passed away in 2013 was to cinematic costumes what RD Burman was to Hindi film music. She had the ability to grant a creation the sheen of instant recall, to make it unforgettable like a tune that won’t leave you alone. Think Bobby where even a minor character like Aruna Irani wore gowns that screamed glamour. Or Don where both Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman exemplified the cool 70s with their flared suits, scarves and stylish goggles. Neetu Singh’s dresses in Khel Khel Mein have been copied but never really bettered. Sharmila Tagore’s seductively wrapped blanket and Rajesh Khanna’s gorkha cap in Aradhana remain iconic. As do Rabadi’s costumes for Parveen Babi in Amar Akbar Anthony. Helen of course loved Rabadi for the insanely creative cabaret costumes she created for her with chicken feathers, sequins, beads, net and frills. In recent times there was Maine Pyar Kiya where Bhagyashree wore a hand-painted white dress in the famous pigeon song and then changed into a few fantasy dresses gifted to her by the hero on a bedecked terrace. Rabadi’s frills and flounces were both modest and provocative. Treading this fine line between too much and too little was her special ability and no matter how she dressed her muse, the woman in question was always a lady, never a tramp. Her ability to make blockbuster costumes was visible in the hysteria created by Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’s crazily popular sarees and the ghagras worn by Madhuri Dixit.
Rabadi was not subtle. She loved glimmer but there was coherence and mass appeal in her work that at the same time never became pedestrian. Perhaps this dignity that the skimpiest of her costumes gave to her heroines came from her respect for the female body. She celebrated the female form, never objectified it. That she could also pull off character driven design was established when she won the National Award for her work in Vijaya Mehta’s Peston Ji in 1982. Rabadi who was the sister of much loved senior actress Shammi, styled the Hindi film heroine as an individual, stamping her with an individuality and identity that did not come from a cookie cutter and that is what we will remember her for.