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Bhanu Athaiya: The subcontinent’s first Oscar winner

  • Published at 11:11 pm July 26th, 2019
Indian costume designer Bhanu Athaiya | Facebook

Dhaka Tribune’s Showtime looks back how the unsung and extraordinary Marathi woman won the prestigious award in 1983 before Ismail Merchant, Satyajit Ray, or AR Rahman won theirs

A video clip from 1983 recently resurfaced on social media, reminding that the subcontinent’s first Oscar winner was not Ismail Merchant, Satyajit Ray, or AR Rahman, butIndian costume designer Bhanu Athaiya.

The clip was uploaded on the official  YouTube channel of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who award the Oscars, in 2014. In light of the video, Dhaka Tribune’s Showtime looks back how the unsung and extraordinary Marathi woman won the prestigious award.

Although the subcontinental countries are yet to taste success in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars, they have triumphed in technical award categories since the 80s, starting with Athaiya. 

Bhanu Athaiya was born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra in 1929. She was the third of seven children born to Annasaheb and Shantabai Rajopadhye. Her father Annasaheb was a painter who died when she was just nine years old.

Athaiya started her career as a freelance fashion illustrator for various women's magazines in Mumbai, including the then popular Eve's Weekly. Her career as a film costume designer began with designing clothes for Guru Dutt's films, starting with C.I.D. (1956). 

She was also the costume designer for famous Dutt films such as Pyaasa (1957), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). 

In her career spanning 50 years, Athaiya has received numerous awards. She jointly won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design with John Mollo for her work in the 1982 Richard Attenborough film Gandhi. The award was given to her at the 55th Academy Awards in 1983.

Athaiya also won two Indian National Film Awards, in 1991 and 2002. Filmare gave her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, for her contributions to Indian and world cinema.

Athaiya retired from the industry in 2004. Her last film was Swades, starring Shah Rukh Khan, in that year. She was also the costume designer for Academy Award nominated film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, which starred Aamir Khan.

Harper Collins published her book The Art of Costume Design in 2010.

In 2012, Athaiya returned her Academy Award to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because she felt that her family would not be able to take care of the prestigious trophy after her death.

A common misconception in the subcontinent is that Satyajit Ray was the first of its residents to win an Academy Award, when he received an Oscar for Best Director for his film Pather Panchali. The filmmaker also received an Honorary Academy Award in 1992 for his lifetime achievement in cinema. 

In 2008, Indian musician AR Rahman became the first Asian to win two Oscars in the same year. He jointly won the Best Original Song award for co-writing the Slumdog Millionaire track Jai Ho with popular Indian lyricist Gulzar, and also won the Best Original Score Award for the same track.

Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won two Best Documentary Short Subject Awards for Saving Face (2011) and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015).  

Indian born filmmaker Ismail Merchant (birth name: Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman) also won the Best Picture award for his film A Room with a View in 1986, but his achievement is not considered to be one for the subcontinental, as the film was a British production. However, in 2002, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India.