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STYLIST NO. 1

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In february, Manish Malhotra completes two decades in costume design. Around 1,000 films on, Manish effortlessly retains the tag of B-town’s big daddy designer. In town over the weekend for The Chivas Studio show — ahead of a month-long trip to New Zealand for nephew Punit malhotra’s directorial debut I Hate Love Stories starring Sonam Kapoor and Imran Khan — he spoke to t2 about his long run at the top of the game, and how he got there.

The conversation, of course, was not uninterrupted. Manish was Blackberried, thanks to an Awards night on Sunday. In between phone calls from Kareena Kapoor — when he got busy convincing her to dance in heels — and checking snaps from Saif Ali Khan and choosing his tees, Manish got talking...

Twenty years in films and fashion…. How did it all begin?

“PRIYANKA’S VERY ENERGETIC — SHE’S A MAST PUNJABI — ALWAYS EXCITED AND HAPPY!”

Well, I actually began as a model in 1989 but I was always interested in the movies. Fashion those days had just picked up. Ensemble had opened and the only designers around were Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. I didn’t have money to make a collection and launch myself, so I thought the next best way was to join films. Those days costume designing was looked down upon. The industry was dominated by women and I was the first male to come around!

The first few years were a struggle. Cheques always bounced and suppose we were due X and Y amounts, we got paid only X.

Which is the first actress you dressed?

My first assignment was a song for Juhi Chawla in Swarg. Then, in 1990 I did Apradhi for Shilpa Shirodkar. I remember the first garment: it was a funeral scene and she was meant to wear a white salwar kameez. The director had said: “Make it sexy”!

So, did you make it sexy?

Well, we did some fittings!

Looking back, how do you see your contribution to the industry?

“KAREENA IS LIKE MY SISTER. I AM MOST COMFORTABLE WORKING WITH HER.... I LOVE HER IN THIS ORANGE SARI IN THE 3 IDIOTS RAIN SONG”

I brought about the concept of styling a Bollywood film. I began travelling to source items. I thought to myself, how can I stand out from the prevailing designers? What could be my USP — not for extra money but as an extra or a perk to the film? I then started designing the total look — hair, make-up and accessories, for no extra charge. I started discussing with make-up artists. Rangeela and Raja Hindustani were the first big hits of this package.

When I came in, I wanted to eliminate shine and OTT jewellery from Bollywood but I have to admit my love for bling!

Today, when I see mainstream designers looking up to films and wanting to be a part of the industry, I feel proud. I began with Sridevi, Juhi and Madhuri Dixit. Then I worked with Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon and Manisha Koirala. Then came Rani Mukerji, Aishwarya Rai, Preity Zinta and Kareena Kapoor. Soon there was Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif. The latest batch is Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone. And I am still around!

Even today when anyone compiles a list of “cutting-edge” stylists, my name features in it. It’s been 20 years and my look is still contemporary. I can still do a trendy Pyaar Impossible! and when critics say that the best thing about the film is the styling, it is definitely a high!

You are a makeover specialist, too…

“SONAM KAPOOR IS BEAUTIFUL AND ALL HER SHOOTS SHOW HER FASHIONISTA SIDE VERY WELL... AND NO, SHE IS NOT DATING MY NEPHEW!”

Yes, I am (smiles)! Makeovers are very script-driven. I look at the character very closely. It also depends on the person, their body and their body language. Some of my favourite makeovers have been Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela, Karisma in Raja Hindustani, Shilpa Shetty in Dhadkan, Priyanka in Dostana and, of course, Kareena from Refugee to Mujhe Kucch Kehna Hai.

You will also see Sonam’s makeover in I Hate Love Stories. She plays a young, approachable girl you can see at Cafe Coffee Day, wearing regular tees and jeans, not in her Balenciagas!

Is your nephew Punit dating Sonam?

No, not at all! Rumours! One paper in Mumbai also carried a story on how I was upset with Punit, but all this is quite ridiculous!

Why is colour king for you?

Colour is most important because that is how I see design. Colour is how I imagine design. I never studied fashion; I only loved to sketch and paint. My favourite colour, of course, changes from time to time. At one point it was beige and coral, then turquoise and now I am back to nudes.

Kajol is looking good in My Name is Khan. Has she lost weight?

WITH KAJOL IT’S NOT ABOUT THE WEIGHT. IT’S ABOUT THE FRESHNESS, THE PERSONALITY, THE SMILE… . MY NAME IS KHAN IS NOT A SURAJ HUA MADDHAM!

You know, with Kajol it’s not about the weight. It’s about the freshness. It’s the personality, the smile… Khan is not about fashion. It’s not a Suraj hua maddham. Kajol plays a hairstylist in San Francisco so in the first half she wears colourful clothes. It’s chilly so she’s wearing a lot of jackets and trousers. In the second half, she is at home so she is wearing more tracks and sweaters. There are some ethnic clothes but they are not Manish Malhotra saris. The red sari she is wearing is what she would buy from a local ethnic shop there, not couture-made from here!

How do you feel when an Aki Narula does a Kurbaan or an Anaita Shroff Adajania does a Love Aaj Kal?

Honestly, I don’t have time to feel anything. I can’t do every film. Moreover, I don’t want to do every film. My mainstream business is far more lucrative. I can’t do so many films because with films comes intense travelling and commitment. I have mainstream collections to produce and stores to stock!

How did the Manish Malhotra label come about?

Ironically, my mainstream business turns 10 as my costume career turns 20! It was in 1999 that Yash and Avanti Birla came to me and asked me to open a store. That lasted for a year and then I was with Sheetal Design Studio for three years. Six years ago I launched the label Manish Malhotra. We don’t do pret, only couture and diffusion and quintessentially modern Indian clothes. I feel happy when young NRIs who don’t usually wear traditional clothes have started wearing mine. They especially loved Kareena’s asymmetrical blouse from K3G or Preity’s beige and turquoise lehnga from Kal Ho Naa Ho.

Delhi was good for me last year in terms of business. There were lots of weddings and showings. Next I will target Calcutta. The city has lovely designers and great craftsmanship. I will come with my signature style.

What is the secret to being on top for two decades?

I have only one secret, and that’s hard work. I rate hard work more than talent. I don’t know whether I have talent but I do know that I can work hard. Talent is something you can choose to use or not. I am willing to take a chance and that might have helped me, too.

Also, I am often asked what is the secret of my creativity. I think being creative is easy but what is difficult is sustaining it. I have always tried to evolve as a person, keep my mind open. I travel a lot. I am a very sensitive person. It also helps to be objective.

I am glad that I can look at a piece of my work and say that this is mediocre or this can be better. It is important to be confident and have conviction in what you represent. I have worked very hard to create what is called the Manish Malhotra look. And I am proud to say that it is so convincing, so signature yet so changing with the times. That comes with knowing what works today.

And actresses know that after 20 years, I have wisdom!

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