The 1950s was the first decade of India as an independent, sovereign country. After the excitement of the 30s and 40s, it is a decade in which the excitement lies in nation-building. This was a decade of nationalisation in which a number of institutions and projects (e.g. State Bank of India (1955), Bhakra Dam (1955), HMT (1953)) were initiated and the making of a national identity was seriously underway. A browse though the photodivision site will indicate many visits by foreign dignitaries – Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Zhou-enlai, Che, Jesse Owens all visited. The decade marked the beginning of the Republic Day parade intended to showcase India’s varied and differing cultures as well as culture as a national project, e.g. the Lalit Kala Academy came into existence in 1954.
India had its first general elections in 1951/52. It set in motion a one-party rule at the centre that only changed in 1977.
1951 onwards we had Five Year Plans, based on the then Soviet Union’s planning model.
1953 marked the beginning of states based on linguistic considerations with the creation of the then Seemandhra leading to the States Reorganisation Act. By the end of the decade, Bombay State split into two to form Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The Hindu Marriage Act intended to bring about reform was enacted in 1955. Amongst other things it increased the legal age of marriage and introduced inheritance for daughters.
India was not the only country to free itself from colonialism. The 1955 Bandung Conference brought together several of these countries in Asia and Africa with the intent of economic co-operation and to oppose colonialism.
At the end of the 1940s India was dependent on imports for many materials. This didn’t change in some areas but textiles of the non-handloom kind were increasingly made in India. You can see this in clothing of the time, with art silk, rayon, georgette and nylon becoming more readily available.
The arts – and in particular the movies – brought about an “Indian look”. While regional differences remained, what we wore was increasingly similar across states, be it the sari or the salwar kameex. The six yard sari drape we are familiar with kind of became the “Indian look” in this decade including longer more Indian hairstyles, the bindi and the gajra.
Usually I try and include a piece on an actress of the decade. But this decade has a long list of well known actresses who are still remembered, amongst them Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Vyjayanthimala, Suchitra Sen, Savithri, Bhanumati, so I will pass. Though Bhanumathi gets a honourable mention as a writer, actress, producer and director which was rather unusual for the decade. This was also a decade of strong roles for women, even when the roles are cast in the “ideal Indian womanhood” mould.
Year of photograph: 1956.
There is nothing as much of its time as the period film – see successive Jane Austen adaptations for e.g. I am therefore not terribly fussed about authenticity in period films, though it is always pleasurable if filmmakers do their homework and you get a film that feels truly authentic.
First off the bat, I really liked Lootera. As you will see, it is a work of love and not a movie that puts its 1950s heroine in a Manish Malhotra sari for the modern audience:). The post is intended as a simple comparison between the way it was in the 50s and the way we wish to perceive it today. This perception is subjective yet even my aunt – an easily satisfied movie viewer – felt it wasn’t always 1950s in tone. So I will also try and isolate elements in the movie costuming that could lead to this feeling.
Lootera is set in a specific year, 1953. In which year the West Bengal Estates Acquisition Act was implemented, the effects of which form a crucial part of the film. The heroine, Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), is the daughter of a zamindar. Though not explicitly stated in the film, the family is probably orthodox Hindu and not Brahmo (for the contrasting dress of women from the zamindar families and Brahmo women, see for e.g. the characters played by Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rehman in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Though of course the film is set in an earlier time). But Pakhi has been to Santiniketan, an institute founded by Tagore, a Brahmo, and is no doubt influenced by it. The setting is a small town/village in Bengal. Such specificity in itself makes it a bit hard for the costuming department. In fact I myself take liberty in comparing it with the decade and not the year.
While the male protagonist is possibly from UP/Bihar (Varun Shrivastav, played by Ranveer Singh), the film is also an ode to 1950s Hindi cinema, specifically some of Dev Anand‘s film noir. Styling for the key male characters therefore derives from the “petty gangster cool” characteristic of Dev Anand’s 1950s films. So there is a little bit of dissonance in this because the costuming for the female characters is not always film inspired.
With that background, first up the plain sari. Which features in Lootera. This was very much around in the 1950s, albeit not always with a “matching” blouse. Rather, as someone on tumblr earlier noted, they tend to be brocade/art silk and brilliant for contrast (pic 4 comes closest). There is also a single occurrence of the brooch, a staple of Indian period films. It was sort of dying out by the 1950s. Then again it is Manikpur:)
In the above set, a number of saris have gold/zari borders. While very much a trend in the 1920s and 1930s, they are of course seen in every decade after. And in a number of non-film photographs of the 1950s, many of the handlooms with which we are now familiar appear. It is a quibble particular to me, but the woven Mangalgiri with zari kind of sari that seems to be used in Lootera always seems contemporary Indian urban to me. The 1950s saris tend to be more like this.
I post quite often about the necklines of the 1940s/1950s. The square neck/sweetheart neckline here echoes those trends. The yellow sari and blouse is probably the closest to images I routinely see of films of the decade. A definite plus in my book.
Simpler printed blouses were also common in the 50s. In fact in pic 1 below on Devyani (Shirin Guha) paired with a Bengal cotton sari it echoes Suchitra Sen. The film also uses Bengal cotton saris now and then (on Devyani in pic 3, on Sakhi in pic 4). The printed silk (I am assuming then too a Santiniketan staple) appears. As does a black sari which kind of looks like Kalakshetra saris (pic 6). I am not sure if it was intentional but it certainly adds an “artist girl of the 50s” touch :)
Of course there is the Occasion = Banarasi brocade! These saris seem to be under a cloud these days what with net saris and the world’s gemstones on it.
On the whole therefore the costumes for the women do in one way or the other evoke the 1950s in India. If I had to tinker with it, I would change the way blouses and saris are paired. And though Bengal tended to stick to handlooms, I think a few synthetic saris or printed cottons wouldn’t have gone amiss. What looks to us like the 200 ₹ sari now was actually quite coveted in its time (worn here by Madhubala for e.g.). To be fair, the film does use plain synthetic saris. Also in a minor vein, the open neck and 3/4 sleeve blouse (see below) while around in the 1950s isn’t something I would necessarily use to evoke the decade.
The bindi was actually not common in the 50s for unmarried girls, especially in Bengal and North India. This may seem surprising to us but the tradition of wearing a bindi from girlhood is seen more in South India. I found the use of the bindi for Pakhi in all the Manikpur scenes a bit jarring but in all fairness I must point out that it was not uncommon amongst Santiniketan students. That tucked in sari pallu should also have been present though:)
Similarly as far as I know the nose ring is not common in Bengal. If this is incorrect, please let me know!
There is also the hair. Which of course is hard to get right in period dramas. Hair in the 50 was styled but in that very “Jabakusum tel” way (Jabakusum tel=Hair oil with hibiscus extracts). The bun common in this decade is a simplified version of the old Indian coiffeurs. The single thick braid was common, though not in Bengal. For young women, ribbons were common. Often, especially in Bengal, hair was left loose. In fact it wasn’t particularly styled, partly because a cloud of hair is often described in our poetry as attractive. I think the movie does try to get this right but sometimes you are left thinking coned or not coned. There is also the makeup which tends towards the modern. I suspect the use of powder kind of got popular with this decade. The make up below for e.g. is fairly typical of the 50s:
Also saris tend to be draped far more casually in the 50s. Even though this is the case with Lootera i.e. it is not the modern draped to an inch style, it still looks more formal and less lived in.
As a rough comparison (and very rough indeed given the film is set in a boarding house in Calcutta and the main character is middle class), here is Suchitra Sen in the 1953 Sharey Chuattar (below). A number of elements will be familiar if you have followed the 50s posts. And now I wonder why Pakhi didn’t wear the Bengal sari drape even once! The wedding sari (last pic) as you can see is also quite different.
On to the men! In the 50s suits were common. The trouser was kind of baggy and high waisted; white shirts were common. Shoes tended to be classic or sandals were worn. This photograph, from Linus Pauling‘s 1955 visit, is an e.g. As also of Dev Anand on the sets of Baazi.
However, the film is in fact part homage to Dev Anand’s films of the 1950s which featured conmen who fall in love and reform plots. Plus the actor himself had a constructed urban and debonair persona. The costumes for the conmen is intended to evoke this. If you look at the costuming for the characters of Varun and Devdas in this context, it is fairly accurate. And of course there is the 1950s pomade. Props for the shirt pockets but I am not sure those shoes and the straw boater and the uber layering were quite the go in 1953!
For comparison, Dev Anand in movies like Jaal, CID and Baazi and with his wife, Kalpana Kartik.
KN Singh was very KN Singh. Being KN Singh is fairly easy:)
The movie also had a few nice touches by way of props etc. E.g. the niche with the mirror, a copy of Illustrated Weekly (second pic). And of course vintage car!
To sum up, Lootera is true to the decade (1950s) and time but also departs from it in significant ways for a contemporary audience. In fact the least 1950s part of it is the soundtrack, a given for all Indian movies which seem unable or do not want to to recreate the sound of the decade. But this is not to criticise the movie at all which is well made and has a good amount of attention to detail. The costumes, even when inaccurate, are beautiful to look at. The purpose of the post as I said is to help contrast the actual clothing of the decade with the way it is reimagined in 2013. Long as it is, I hope the post shows this clearly!
On tumblr as always you can follow sari history and the decade which kind of defined Indian style for most if us today, the 1950s. Added bonus, the loveliest and most talented of heroines worked in this decade!
Photo credit: AVM.
Almost every decade has a signature sari. In the 1920s it was the chiffon with a zari border (pics 1 and 2 are from 1924 and 1931). The borders were generally small and stitched onto French chiffons. In the case of lighter Indian handlooms like Chanderis the zari was woven into the sari. Towards the middle of the 30s and later and carrying on to the next decade, the borders are often heavier and of brocade while the sari remains a light chiffon (or any other light material).
E.g.s: Pic 3: Maharani Kanchan Prabha Devi [X], Pic 4: Maharani Gulab Kunverba Sahiba, 1935, Pic 5: Menakaraje of Cooch Behar in the mid 30s, Pic 6: Rajmata Krishna Kumari in the mid 30s. While the women here have their pallu draped over the head (partly because this was common amongst Indian royals by this decade), this was less common by the end of the 1930s.
Sometimes a second band of brocade (or zari) was added to the pallu as in Pic 4.
For a circa 1940 example, see a previous post.
My tumblr avatar is usually that of the actress Kanan Devi, a star of the 1930s and 1940s.
Though the silents had a number of famous actresses, it is with the talkies and the 1930s that you find stars and fans, albeit nowhere near as pervasive as Hollywood (as to why and a discussion on the making of an “Indian” stardom see Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! Female Stardom and Cinema in India, 1930s-1950s, Neepa Majumdar).
While the silents had a number of Anglo Indian and Jewish actresses, in the 1930s there was a bit of a shift. One because of language since the talkies took over. To a lesser extent there was the nationalist movement and an increasing emphasis on “Indianised” cinema. Still, Sulochana aka Ruby Myers remained one of the biggest stars of the 1930s. On the other hand, “respectable” women joined the films. The most well known of these were Devika Rani and Durga Khote. Lastly, the films were a natural choice for women who were in the business of entertainment aka nautch girls and performers. With changes in the way their profession was perceived and the loss of patronage, an actress like Nargis for e.g. was groomed for the films by her mother (Jaddanbai). Regardless of background, collectively the women were probably the first fashion icons in India. Devika Rani’s sleeveless blouses and plucked eyebrows, Miss Gohar’s sunglasses in Miss 1933 and Kanan’s braided updo in Mukti, all suggest the birth of “filmy” fashions in this decade. Though the silents of the 1920s had already set the trend, this is also very much a decade of movies that suggest a cosmopolitan, fashion conscious woman with titles like “Madam Fashion” and “Fashionable Wife”.
Given all this it is possible to write a lot about the 1930s and I will touch on the fashions of the decade in subsequent posts. But for the moment, at the risk of a long post, I wanted to write about Kanan.
Kanan Devi’s background was a far cry from that of a top star like Devika Rani. By all accounts her early years were filled with dire poverty and she started singing at an early age. The transition from Kananbala to Kanan Devi (the Devi being a title of respect) must have been a difficult one. That change probably started with one of her early hits, Manmoyee Girls School (some one needs to do a piece on this as it is the basis for so many plots of pretend marriage in Indian cinema). Kanan was perhaps one of the first superstars of Bengali cinema, an actress equally at home playing upper class women or historical characters. Like many stars of the decade, Kanan Devi was also a singer. Singing both in Hindi and Bengali, many of her songs were all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s. Like with many women who came into films either due to poverty or on the basis of traditional occupations (like the Devadasis), a marriage brought Kanan Devi respectability though it did not last long. Once she stopped acting, she turned to film production. She died in 1992.
The reason for this long post is because while we are familiar with Hollywood icons of the 1930s, few of us are aware of Indian stars of the decade. Partly this is because stardom was in a nascent phase in India in the 1930s, there was no powerful star making system as in Hollywood. Partly this is because the archiving of materials is poor in India. Partly this is because the culture is slightly amnesiac about its past. Still as the links show, there is enough for us to get a sense of the female stars of this decade. And there are the devoted fans, Kanan has an entire site devoted to her professional and personal life which includes rare photographs.