How costume designer Leena Daru never got paid for Umrao Jaan (1981)

Noted historian Subhash Chheda recalls his memorable conversations with the costume designer

By Subhash Chheda

Leena Daru (1939-2020)

Indian cinema lost one of its unsung heroes when veteran costume designer Leena Daru passed away on 31 July, 2020. She was 81.  Fondly called as Leenaben, the octogenarian was a much sought-after seamstress in the retro era.   Along with Bhanu Athaiya and Mani Rabadi, Daru was one of the leading costume designers of her time. She had passed out from JJ School of Arts (Mumbai) in Fine Arts. 

Noted historian Subhash Chheda had met the veteran several times in the last few years. His last meeting came in February this year.  Age may have slowed her down, but Daru was enthusiastic as she recalled some of her memorable experiences.

There was one experience which left many stunned. Daru was the designer behind’s Rekha’s opulent costumes in director Muzaffar Ali’s art drama Umrao Jaan [1981], based on author Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada [1899]

Rekha in and as Umrao Jaan [1981)

Strangely, for her splendid designs, Daru struggled to get credit and got no payment for her artistic work in the film.  Recalling his conversation with Daru, Chheda says, “In the film, she designed costume of Rakha and Prema Narayan. She was not credited initially, but later her name was added under Rekha’s costume. But the credit of the costume design had gone to Ali’s wife Suhasini. Remarkably, Daru claims that till date, she remained unpaid for her extravagant work in the film”.

According to Chheda, Daru had told Ali that she wouldn’t work, if he didn’t pay her. However, it was Daru’s husband who had convinced his wife to take up the film.  “While she was fine at not getting any fees, but she laid a condition that Ali would bear all material costs.  Later, Leenaben realised that Ali lived a lavish life yet he didn’t have money to pay her,” said Chheda.

While she went unpaid, but there was no dearth of effort from Daru. As part of her research, she had travelled to Lucknow, visited havelis (mansions), museums to get the detail and feel of the particular period.  Daru had shared this design of the costume with the film historian. 

Sketch of costume of Umrao Jaan by Leena Daru

Those were days, when unsung artistes always had a challenge to get recognition.  Says Chheda, “For her initial films, credit of costume designer went to Asha Parekh’s mother. According to Leenaben, Teesri Manzil (1966) was her first film, but credit went to Sudha Parekh”.  

Uncredited films, unpaid dues were common then. In fact, Daru had a bag full of some 30-40 bounced cheques.

Leenaben began her career with stage design and costume of Asha Parekh’s dance performance. She was noticed by many producers during her stage programmes. So, she began with costume of Asha Parekh and after her marriage, she designed costumes for Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, Smita Patil, Neetu Singh, and even all the way up to Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit.

In a career that spanned more than four decades, Leena Daru was applauded time and again for her eclectic sense of style and precision seam stressing. Among several awards, she won the National Award for her period costumes in the Sridevi-starrer Lamhe [1991] – an honour she shared with Neeta Lulla and the local brand Kachins.

She always respected and admired work of Bhanu Athaiya, her senior and leading costume designer of that era. Both were from JJ School of Arts. What worked in Daru’s favour was that she was the most economical costume designer for producers.  

Hema Malini with Leena Daru

Hema Malini always told Leena to not make her dresses shorter. It was Hema’s mother who always wanted her daughter to be wearing proper and long dresses.

She introduced many styles like Palazzo, made famous by Zeenat Aman.  Daru was more famous for her western outfits. Her stylisation of Neetu Singh and Rishi Kapoor in Khel Khel Mein (1975) was a hit with collegians.

Rekha’s autograph to Leenaben

She didn’t repeat her work as evident from Rekha’s look in Utsav (1984), Sridevi in Chandni (1989) and Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (1988). She worked with leading directors of her time. Yash Chopra in Silsila (1981), Chandni (1989), Lamhe (1991).  Daru worked with the maverick Manmohan Desai in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).  Raj Khosla in Do Badan (1966),  Ravi Tandon  in Khel Khel Mein (1975) and Khud-Daar (1982), Hrishikesh Mukherjee in Khubsoorat (1980) and N. Chandra in Tezaab (1988).

Daru also had a personal contribution in the life of Yash Chopra. She had designed the wedding dress for Yash Chopra’s sister Hiroo, who was married to famous producer Yash Johar.  Son Karan Johar is said to have acknowledged this in his memoir An Unsuitable Boy [2016].

Leena was married to noted art director Paresh Daru, one half of the famous art director duo of Chhel-Paresh [of Gujarati cinema].  The couple had no child but treated their domestic-cum assistant Shakharam as their son.  In fact, Paresh Daru let Shakharam do the final rites for Leenaben.

Like any craft, costume designing changes with every era, but the fabulous designs of Leena Daru will remain embossed in the history of Indian cinema.

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