Manish Malhotra© HelloIndia

HELLO! 100 Most Influential: Manish Malhotra

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Sangeeta Waddhwani

Why he matters: Threading his dreams through the canvas of cinema, he grew his globally admired couture brand one honest stitch at a time. From a Sridevi to a society bride, Manish’s design vision transforms all. Sangeeta Waddhwani walks us through the highlights of his epic three-decade-long journey.

He may have the sheikhs of Dubai on speed dial (with them chasing him, not the other way around). He’s a perpetual go-to collaborator for Dharma Productions honcho Karan Johar - who jokingly describes their screen style statement as ‘KJo × MM.’ All the leading ladies have been his showstoppers — from Priyanka Chopra Jonas to Katrina Kaif. And he has repeatedly confessed, “I have never paid a star to be my showstopper.”

Unlike the rich fashion grads of the day, operating in a ripened industry who do ‘buy their showstoppers, Manish Malhotra’s generation was faced with the style vacuum of the mid-90s, a time when Bollywood was emerging from the garish disco era, horrific glitter jumpsuits, contrived make-up and permed hairdos... Essentially, a time when films were “filmi” (read, gaudy as hell.).

Well? Enter Manish Malhotra, and a new twist in the tale!

Destiny Calling

Manish’s family sold air-conditioners and would never have dreamed of the apple falling so far from the tree. Sons were told to pursue law, commerce and engineering. And here was Manish, sketching away in his spare time, watching movies compulsively, working in a fashion boutique, modelling and, most significantly, spending time at the Stardust office, networking with the editor, Omar Qureshi, and the trickle of starlets seeking the odd mention in the magazine.

“Back then, cinema was unadulterated territory, and I had this very strong feeling I could introduce a new level of style and fashion there. At that time, I had people telling me, ”They’ll never understand fashion...‘ Because the way stars dressed in movies was considered almost anti-fashion by the elite!“ he laughs.

True that. South Mumbai women would die a thousand deaths if they were made to dress like actresses of the ‘80s — the Reena Roys, the Padmini Kholapures and even the flamboyant ‘Hawa Hawai’ Sridevi. But Manish had to fight the big fight. At every level imaginable. At home and at work.

“My dad would see cheques bouncing from the producers, and right up until the second film I worked on, they wondered why I wanted to read the script. They were suspicious of me!” he recalls. “The people in the producer’s office used to give me condescending looks. Who are you? What business have you got in this office?‘”

The Phenomenon Begins

Manish made his costume designing debut with Swarg (1990), starring Rajesh Khanna, Govinda and Juhi Chawla. The same year, a far more impressive portal opened for his styling abilities, when photographer Rakesh Sreshtha introduced him to the late Sridevi to style her for a photoshoot. As fate would have it, the numero uno leading lady took him under her wing, and there was no looking back.

Soon, he was styling younger heroines like Urmila Matondkar, Kajol and Raveena Tandon. When I was a young correspondent for the India Show on StarPlus, Manish took me on the sets to check out what these actresses most loved about being styled by MM. Kajol had shared how Manish intuitively concurred with her that what looked most natural looked best on her. However, even within that framework, he got her to straighten her hair and get a French manicure for the character of Simran in the iconic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Raveena had confessed to me that Manish knew what to play down and what to highlight for her very Panjabi figure.

Sadly, we couldn’t meet Urmila back then, but with La Matondkar, Manish now had a gym addict, an actress with supreme physical confidence. Her feisty, sensuous looks in songs like ‘Tanha Tanha‘ and ‘Hai Rama’ in Rangeela displayed a pizzazz and chutzpah not seen before — on a fit body. The bodycon midis were copied by all the roadside shops at Mumbai’s Linking Road, and just for fun, we followed Manish into these shops, where he’d ask the store managers, “Woh Rangeela ka dress dikhao!‘ Clueless that this was the Manish Malhotra, they would dutifully show us the knockoffs. It was hilarious and ironic, but also a massive forerunner for the powerful trailblazer Manish was set to become.

By the time the 2000s rolled in, actresses were extremely fit and setting global style trends. Think Poo in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Manish’s characters — be it in Dharma films or others — were chic and global, sporting the latest makeup trends and accessories. They were kosher. Today, brand Manish Malhotra has swelled into a Rs160-crore megalith, with brides-to-be, celebrities, socialites and the Indian diaspora following his new launches closely on social media. At last call, Jennifer Aniston wore a stunning white Manish Malhotra lehenga for a scene in the Netflix comedy-thriller, Murder Mystery 2.

For the Love of the Craft - And More...

Manish Malhotra with Janhvi Kapoor©HelloIndia

As for Manish, he still feels his biggest reward is the smile on a happy client’s face. The memories and personal friendships his creativity has spawned are endless. Till date, Sridevi’s daughter, Janhvi Kapoor, shares, “Mom was supposed to work on a movie before English Vinglish; that was meant to be her comeback film. I remember trying to impress him when he had come over to decide on the look. I had asked mom to get him to design an outfit for me, a look with blue sequins and pants that I spotted in a movie. I’m not sure whether she lied to me, or whether Manish really designed it, but she claimed he had. So 1 wore the outfit every day for a month!”

His generosity of spirit shows even in the smiles on the street urchins‘ faces, as they gorge on chaat near his shop on Saturdays all courtesy their Manish chacha!

Also, ever so often, one will spot Shabana Azmi seeking his advice on the best Mijwan Welfare Society shawls and outfits to buy, and he dutifully helps her decide. Shabana’s father, Kaifi Azmi, established the society in 1993, to plough urban wealth back into rural India. All stars have stood shoulder to shoulder to support the foundation, for they know Manish puts his heart and soul into converting the crafts they produce into desirable contemporary, youthful silhouettes.

“When people envy my success, they need to see how much hard work goes into creating and sustaining the brand...” he had shared during one of our last interactions on a Sunday, when most of Mumbai was home, relaxing. This is Manish’s Confucian secret. When you love what you do, you haven’t worked a day in your life!

To see who else is on the list, grab the copy of HELLO! India’s August 2023 issue right here!