The Dresswala’s Tale
One star dimmed, another dazzled in true Bollywood tradition
Ramdas Madvi was getting restive as Madam had not come. It was already 9.30 PM. This does not usually happen.
Though weak and frail with cancer sapping all her youthfulness, she walks to his vegetable pushcart to collect some capsicum, tomatoes, potatoes and cauliflower meant to be discarded after the day’s brisk business.
Ramdas, however, keeps fresh vegetables in his cane tokri. But he tells Madam they are all meant to be thrown away, as he keeps his pushcart in a warehouse a little way from the Bandra train station.
In fact he is willing to lay down his life just for a glimpse of her, as thousands of others in India would have done.
Did she come?
To put an end to my inquisitiveness, Hari Madvi said no, Madam did not come, and his grandfather left for his kholi in the chawl located a little way from Bandra station.
What time did she come next day?
No! She did not come! She would never come again.
What do you mean? I anxiously asked Hari.
I was restive to know about Madam, once the highest paid dancer in Bollywood who was left with nothing… nothing in the sense that she could not even buy a painkiller to mitigate the pain of cancer.
The next day, said Hari, his grandfather came to know Madam had been shifted to a general hospital. A few days later died Bollywood’s most famous dancer of the black and white era.
No one from the filmy world came to meet her in hospital, not even the other dancer Madam had introduced to filmdom. She sang many dance numbers with the topmost heroes in the 40s and 50s but she died unsung.
It was around 2008 in Mumbai that the editor of an English newspaper I served asked me, how about doing a piece on the dresswalas of Bollywood?
He meant the costume suppliers. The topic really attracted me. And I got on the job.
Our daily was competing with another daily in those days. Hence, we wanted more human interest stories and zara hatke topics, little deviations from the usual less interesting ones.
Really, what could be more interesting than a story on dresswallahs?
Now a very interesting thing happened with me. I met him for the story but Yassir, grandson of Yusuf Dresswallah (names changed) offered me another, touchier topic which was more newsworthy:
The sad end of a happy actress. She really was always happy. And why not? Did she not earn more than any other actors or actresses? But three things made her life end unhappily: ditching in love, income tax raids and cancer.
Naturally I changed my topic, jumping from dressmakers to the Madam herself. In the process I stumbled upon the tale of the vegetable seller Ramdas Madvi, told to me by his grandson Hari.
How interesting! Two grandsons connected with the Madam whose death left their last wish unfulfilled. Ramdas would always repent he could not provide vegetables to her, and Yusuf that he could not fulfil his life’s desire, to stitch a lehenga for the star actress.
In fact, Yusuf was ordered to stitch the dress for a film but she had to abandon the project due to her illness. This also made Yusuf stop his work creating a costume for her.
In human life, it really is a stubborn fact that we all are related to each other. How a break in this chain pains us!
You know how Madhubala or Bina Roy dazzled the screen with their Mughalia costumes in Mughal-e-Azam and Anarkali. And remember Nadira’s most wonderful costume in the song Mud Mur Ke Na Dekh, Mur Mud Ke… from Shree 420?
Remember Sharmila Tagore in Kashmir ki Kali, or Nargis in her most famous number, Ghar Aya Mere Pardesi from Awara? It was the dresswalas of Bollywood who made them what they are today. They chiselled their beauty or in a way, redefined their look as per the shots and scenes.
When Madam danced in the black and white screens, she mostly wore lehenga, sharara, gharara. Yusuf always dreamt of preparing one for her but could not get the chance.
Chance, chance and chance! It matters a lot in Bollywood whatever the job: of an actor, actress, comedian, musician, lyricist or even duplicate (the stunt double in risky scenes for heroes or heroines) or even the Dresswallah.
One has to wait for long. Sometimes, this agonizing wait never ends on a positive note. Your wish to occupy even your toe remains a far off dream, never fulfilled. Such was the case with Yusuf the Dresswallah.
Now returning to my story idea, I made a short list of Bollywood dresswallahs of Mumbai. Most of them were located in Andheri, Bandra, Jogeshwari, Chembur and Dadar. I went first to Yusuf Dresswallah of Andheri West and never consulted the others.
Yassir and I became friendly quite easily. He is knowledgeable in the affairs of Bollywood, being one of the most famous dress and costume suppliers. Besides, Yassir gets invitations to attend the filmy parties very often.
This has helped him to observe the filmy world too closely. At one such party, Yassir also learnt a very strange fact: sons cannot always be sons, though fathers remain fathers always. This proves that Bollywood is for short glory for all actors and actresses.
In Bollywood, there is no permanent glory, except in very few cases. Yassir suddenly knew this ruthless fact, all too well.
Hence it did not surprise him when he heard from his grandfather that no one had come to the hospital where Madam was on the razor’s edge between death and life. In fact, this third generation famous Dresswallah stumbled upon many inhuman acts in his life.
Yassir narrated one of them. About an old director who directed many successful films in the yesteryears, and even introduced his son who became a star in the Bollywood.
But the son ditched the father. But more than the ditching, what broke the father’s heart was his son’s feigning that he did not know his father at all.
Ditching, however, is an age old tradition in Bollywood. Our Madam too was ditched many times by many persons: her lover, the other dancer whose filmy career she paved, and some others who became heroes ground zeros…
It was around 1949 that Madam made her first appearance as stage dancer in a movie. That number became an instant hit.
From then, she romped on stage till about 1960. In this span of time there was hardly a singer who did not sing for her. Zohrabai Ambalewali, Geeta Dutt, Mubarak Begum, Rajkumari, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle…
For a single dance number, Madam charged more than the famous heroes or heroines of her time.
But time ruthlessly comes to an end with the top Bollywood personalities, like the old director and his son who did not even talk to him at a party. Yassir was witness to it. Like Madam, he too was forgotten by people and even by his own actor son.
Yassir for me became a real mine of story ideas. In fact, the episode of the father-son moved me very much. I even shared it with some of my journalist colleagues in Mumbai.
Once, Yassir received invitation for a mega filmy party at a 5-star hotel in the city. In these parties dress suppliers, makeup artists, choreographers, sound recordists, journalists, press photographers and stuntmen are also invited, besides the actors, actresses, dancers and producers.
There was Yassir standing in the queue for the bar to have his glass of whisky and soda. Just ahead of him was an old man, also waiting for his whiskey.
Meanwhile, the public relations person organizing the party came running and asked the barman to immediately send a waiter with a glass with whiskey, soda and fish finger fry to The Hero standing just a few feet away, surrounded by actors and actresses.
The old man in the queue looked back to see who it was. On looking at his face, Yassir suddenly burst out: “Uncle, aap…” Yassir did not complete his thought but rushed to the bar, breaking the queue to demand a whiskey, saying to the barman, “Do you know whom you are making wait for a drink, he is a famous director and also father of the hero!”
I grew impatient to know more.
That director would often come in the golden days of the silver screen to meet Yusuf Dresswallah and discuss about the “cuts” of dresses for heroines. It was he who nearly fulfilled Yusuf’s dream of creating a dress for the Madam. In fact, he was directing a movie with Madam in a gorgeous dance-song number.
But Yusuf could not create the dress as she was found to be suffering from cancer. The film director selected another dancer whom Madam had introduced into film.
In the case of this second dancer, the strange tradition of old stars dimming and new stars being born, and again after a passage of time runs most appropriate.
Yusuf’s lifetime’s tragedy was that he could not make a dress for Madam.
Yassir had known that director since childhood.
Can you flash some more light on that old director?
In fact, my patience was getting exhausted to know about the director-father and his ungrateful actor son.
But Yassir’s narration of Madam’s last days was also making me want to know more.
The era from 1939 to 1948 was quite crucial for Bollywood due to the outbreak of the Second World War and the Partition of India. As a result, a large number of refugees came to the newly created India, and some of them to Bombay.
One among them was a young girl, charming and with an extremely good figure.
Madam helped her enter the film world as a dancer. Within a very short period she started pushing her mentor out of many dance-song numbers to emerge as the directors’ favourite. And why not? Madam was already dimming. And they wanted someone dazzling.
Madam knew her time was running out. But what she did not know was about her luck. Her luck too ebbed dangerously. As she was very rich, the income tax department started raiding her house rather frequently. Her lover at the time, who was a director, ditched her.
And the final blow of ill-luck struck when she was detected to be ill with cancer, in a late stage, from which the only recovery was death: to be free of all pain.
And she died!
Just a little ahead of her death, she had no money at all. It was in those days that Ramdas Madvi, the pushcart seller of vegetables in Bandra, would give her some cauliflower, a few tomatoes and capsicum in the night when she faltered from her home to him to collect them late in the evening.
The night she did not come to collect them was the night she was taken to a government hospital.
It was Yassir who had given me details of Hari, the grandson of Ramdas Madvi, when I wanted to know more about Madam. Yassir, also a grandson of one who knew her, also lives in Bandra. He knew Hari well, and even bought vegetables from his shop. No more selling vegetables in a pushcart.
Yes, over the years, the Madvis had amassed enough money to buy a little shop to sell vegetables.
But you haven’t told me about that old film director and his actor son?
Again my anxiety to know more about them was running high. Naturally, I pestered Yassir.
Once, the old director found his wife, mother of the hero who got his whisky out of queue, was getting close to another man: little-bit famous as a choreographer. Finally, she left him.
The old man married again. And the son whom he had introduced into films, left home to be on his own.
After about 11 years or so, the second wife of the director died. The director now is alone. It was during this period that Yassir met him at the filmy party.
What happened to him then?
You are a news reporter. Don’t you read newspapers?
Yes, I do!
In that case, you must have read the director died exactly five years ago. Incidentally, no one from the filmy fraternity came at his funeral. I followed his body to the graveyard in Santa Cruz.
Truly, Yeh Hai Bambai Meri Jaan, Zara Hatke, Zara Bach ke…