When Rekha, as the doomed Umrao, with her luminous kohl-rimmed eyes danced her way into our hearts in a flash of red and gold brocade, it was a poignant moment of cinematic history we will never forget.
When Aishwarya Rai blazed through the screen glowing infinitely brighter than the burning lamp ensconced in her delicate hands in Devdas, our hearts heaved a collective sigh....
When a radiant Vidya Balan, her face, fresh as the morning dew, stared impishly at a visibly smitten Saif in Parineeta, she took our breaths away just as she did his....
And then there was Priyanka Chopra as the regal Kashibai, the wife of the great Peshwa Bajirao, resplendent in her dazzling Paithani and nathni, the very epitome of the word GODDESS in her infinite grace....
Four incredibly beautiful women, four unforgettable celluloid moments that left their indelible impression upon our nation's collective psyche....and yet, as disparate as those characters and films are, they are all connected by a common thread, literally and figuratively.
The Benarasi sari, has to be among the most popular choices to drape the female protagonist in Indian cinema and over time, it has evolved from being not just a fashion accessory but a symbol and even a reflection of a myriad complex emotions.
For instance, when Rakhi clutches a bright red Benarasi sari to her chest in the poster of the National Award winning Tapasya (1976), the red Benarasi silk sari is a symbol of supreme sacrifice; of unfulfilled dreams; of aching love. In Bajirao Mastani (2016), Priyanka Chopra's stunning trousseau of the finest Benarasi silk saris, is indicative not only of her elevated social status as the wife of the Peshwa but is also indicative of her marital status, her dignity, and her inner grace.
In Gurindar Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham (2002), when the tomboyish, football playing Parminder Nagra dons a Rani pink Benarasi silk sari for her sister's wedding, it is evident to everyone watching the film that it is, in a sense, also indicative of the metamorphosis that is occurring within her.
Umrao Jaan's (1981) iconic red and gold brocade costume which was immortalized in the film's posters and the mesmerizing style of which is copied to this day, was a subtle indicator of the Lucknowi courtesan's great desire to get away from the kotha and lead a happy married life- it was the one thing she desperately sought her whole life but continued to elude her.
The Benarasi sari, with its rich and vibrant colors, opulent embroidery and intricate motifs have thus enjoyed something of an iconic status in Indian cinema through the ages, going as far back as the silent film era right up to the movies that grace our screens today.
The legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray even dressed the child actresses in his films in Benarasi saris. They are thus tightly woven into the fabric of the popular culture of India. Benarasi saris have been messengers of love, betrayal, hope and even disappointment in our films. They continue to be widely used in our movies today to depict tradition, matrimony, celebrations and are something of a cultural mainstay.
With the wide popularity that they enjoy among designers and the masses alike, they are sure to outlast our times and carry on into the cinema of our future!