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FeaturesCinema & TVBhanu Athaiya, first Indian to win an Oscar, dies at 91

Bhanu Athaiya, first Indian to win an Oscar, dies at 91

Published: 16th Oct 2020 2:48 pm

Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, the first Indian to win an Oscar, passed away in Mumbai on Thursday aged 91.Her daughter, Radhika Gupta, said that the costume designer was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain eight years ago and was bedridden for the last three years as one side of her body was paralysed.

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One of her closest friends, Garewal, said Athaiya was suffering from dementia and didn’t remember anything, any of the films, except Gandhi. “It was very hard to talk to her. I felt sad… Is this what happens to talented human being? It is a huge sense of loss. She had brain tumour too for eight years. Maybe it was time for her to be at peace. She has left a legacy,” Garewal said.

Athaiya, who won an Academy Award for her work in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi, had a prolific career in India, working on some 200 films, including Bollywood classics such as 1965’s Guide and 1980’s Karz.

A trained fashion illustrator, she began designing costumes for films in the 1950s, later telling the Indian Express daily that she saw her career as “a way to express myself and let my imagination soar”.By the time Attenborough was ready to make his magnum opus, Athaiya had already made a mark in the Hindi film industry, working with some of its top stars, including Hema Malini and Mumtaz.

In the foreword to her book The Art of Costume Design, Attenborough wrote: “It took me 17 long years to set up Gandhi, my dream film, and just 15 minutes to make up my mind that Bhanu Athaiya was the right person to create the many hundreds of Indian costumes that would be required to bring it to the screen.”

The only Indian woman to win an Oscar, she continued to work well into her seventies and was honoured with the National Film Award for her work in the 1991 mystery Lekin… and in the 2001 Oscar-nominated epic Lagaan.

Her last film was the 2004 social drama Swades.Recalling her Oscar win, she wrote in her book: “When they called my name, I was in a daze. I don’t even recall who handed me the award. All I managed to say was ‘This is too good to be true’.” In 2012, she returned her trophy to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for safe-keeping.

Several Bollywood personalities, including producer Boney Kapoor, actors Simi Garewal, Aamir Khan, Renuka Shahane and designer Neeta Lulla, mourned her death.

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