The Legendary Leena Daru: Dressing up Indian Cinema's Divas

Leena Daru is behind some of Bollywood's most memorable looks, including the costumes in 'Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai'.

5 min read
The Legendary Leena Daru: Dressing up Indian Cinema's Divas

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31 July was the first death anniversary of the unassuming costume designer of memorable outfits, like the shimmering one-shoulder blouse of the chart-bursting song Ek Do Teen, the costume of the raunchy Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, Rekha’s trend-setting sarees in Silsila and many more.

Madhuri Dixit in 'Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai', a song from Khalnayak.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Leena Daru, who was introduced to the glamorous world of costume designing, for Hindi films, by Asha Parekh, passed away last year, quietly, due to health issues she had been suffering from for several years. A kind, warm-hearted soul, she was part of the reigning troika of costume designers for actors of her time, the other two being the formidable Bhanu Athaiya and Mani Rabadi whose community disowned her when she joined the film industry.

Costume designer Leena Daru.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)


A graduate of the J. J. School of Art, Bombay, Leena was all set to make a career of paints and canvases, when Asha Parekh discovered her other artistic skills. The 21-year-old Leena and a classmate had designed the clothes for a dance ballet, for the actress. Finding them very comfortable to do her intricate steps in, the actor requested Leena to design a saree for a song sequence in her black and white film Do Badan.

“I gave her a stitched saree with a zip that was hidden in the pleats,” recounted the senior designer to me over a cup of frothy coffee, in her Juhu home, when I sought time from her for a book that I was writing.

“Asha was very happy with the saree because it gave her the freedom to dance without fear of it coming off. So, she insisted I do the clothes of her other films as well, under the guidance of her mother, Sudhaji.” Thus, a budding Van Gogh became one of the leading couturiers of Hindi films.

Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh in Teesri Manzil.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Sudha Parekh taught her the nuances of designing for black and white films, and a few years later for the burst of colour that hit the silver screens. It was hard work but the young Leena gave it her all and made Asha look adorable opposite macho heroes like Shammi Kapoor and Dharmendra. However she got stumped when she was asked to dress up the sizzling Helen in Teesri Manzil! “What is this?” exploded producer Nasir Husain. “Leena has covered Helen up, fully!”

“I had no idea what a cabaret was,” she laughed, recalling those early years. “I had only seen Bimal Roy films till then.” She could never have foreseen then, that one day she would contribute to making another twinkle-toed actor into a star overnight, by clothing her in a shoulder-revealing blouse that would change her image forever. From a demure Rajshree Films heroine Madhuri Dixit became the darling of the masses seducing them in a Leena Daru costume, dancing to Saroj Khan’s choreography.

But the modest designer made the story behind the eye-catching costume seem quite simple. “N. Chandra, who directed Tezaab, rang me up one night, and told me to coordinate with Saroj Khan for a song he was to shoot the next day. I had some pretty pink material with me so I asked my darzi to quickly stitch the blouse I designed.” And what a phenomenon that overnight creation became!

For another headline-grabbing song, Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, director Subhash Ghai just said, “Leena give me one of your famous backless cholis.”

Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Silsila's 'Rang Barse'. 

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The versatile costumier related another interesting anecdote: “We were shooting in Delhi for Silsila. Suddenly, director Yash Chopra decided to shoot the Holi scene because he was getting the grounds of the hotel for the shoot. I had to quickly arrange for a sewing machine and have several sets of white churidar-kurtas stitched, through the night, for Rekha. Several, because if there were re-takes she couldn’t wear the colour-smeared outfit again.

“Rekha was very particular about her costumes and would accompany me to saree shops to help in the selection. I used to request the shop-owners to open their shops early to let us in before other customers arrived. For Umrao Jaan, she wore her personal emerald necklace in one scene, as we had no budget left to make even an imitation one,” related the gentle designer who was often denied the credit for her efforts.

“Copies of film costumes come out very quickly on the streets,” she continued. “So I used my sketching skills to make cheap copies difficult. For Sridevi’s wardrobe in Chandni, I drew the patterns for her kurtas and had them embroidered by my karigars. The look was completed with shaded, chiffon dupattas that I got dyed at the factory of Beauty Art, a leading laundry those days.”

Sridevi in Chandni

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Nonetheless, when the film stormed the box-office Chandni outfits flooded the khoka market at Santa Cruz in Bombay. “Its owners would call out loudly, urging me to buy their wares,” she chuckled.

The award-winning designer created Neetu Singh’s trendy looks, as well. Mini-skirts, bell-bottoms, knotted blouses…Neetu was a role model for college-going youngsters who happily copied her outfits without knowing the enormous effort that went into making those clothes.

Neetu Singh in 'Ek Main Aur Ek Tu', a song from Khel Khel Mein.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

“I had to source material from shops that stocked imported material from all over the city, travelling by local train to far-flung outlets. Even her shoes would be made to order by Chinese shoe-makers in Colaba. Neetu was a lovely person to work with and, except for one film, I designed for all her films. Her fiancé Rishi Kapoor used to call me his souten because I was perpetually in her room!”
Leena Daru, Costume Designer

Hema Malini was another actress with whom the couturier had a very good rapport. She sent for her on the day Leena was getting engaged to her professor from J.J. “Pareshji, whom I married, was always very encouraging and he urged me to meet her,” she related. “Many years later, when Pareshji wanted to re-locate to Coorg, Hema dissuaded him from doing so.”

Sitting in her artistically-designed home, Leena wore her accomplishments lightly. “You have to be an all-rounder,” was her pithy summing up of an eventful career.

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Topics:  Madhuri Dixit   Rekha   Helen 

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