"Do you know I dressed Anowar Hossain and 'heroine' Sujata for the 'Rupban' movie?" Abul Kashem's eyes sparkled as he echoed the past. He mentioned 10 more movies where he has worked as the assistant costume designer - 'Kanchanmala', 'Rongin Rupban', 'Daku Morjina', 'Orun Borun Koronmala', 'Padmabati', 'Swodagar,' etc.
Abul Kashem, the proprietor of Bombay Dress House, has been in the show business or the costume business for the last 50 years. And for 30 years, his Bombay Dress House, a costume store, has been adorning the theatre artists and low budget film actors.
But now, like a falling empire, the business is on the brink of dissolve. Currently, it is a collection of old clothes that only serves theatre artists and 'dress as you please' competitions organised by 'rich' schools.
Adjacent to Bangladesh FDC (Film Development Corporation), there are a couple of such costume stores where one can hire or order any kind of costume pieces - from fake moustaches, tin swords to elaborate costumes fit for a king or queen. And Bombay Dress House is an old tenant of that area.
When I entered the store, it felt as if time had turned into a woven shawl, perfumed with mildew and petrichor, like an old history book. At the very entrance, a sad monotonous throne sits, its fake colourful jewels missing at some places, with red velvet covering that has worn out.
With no window, the room has a couple of cupboards filled with dresses and costumes. Sequined coats and gowns, military and police uniform, swords, fake rifles, grenades, etc. There is a particular cupboard for shoes. Another case holds mustaches, hair wigs and jewelry.
One might assume, as a film costume store, the interior walls must be drowned with celebrity photos. Instead I found two photos of the store owner with Montu Mia and Md Mamun, his 'gurus'.
How it started
Kashem never took any academic training for costume design or tailoring. He learnt from working with his gurus and watching films. "Everyone watched heroes and heroines, but when I watched movies, I followed the dress cuts. That's what stayed with me."
As an assistant costume designer, his job was to sew clothes according to the instructions of the costume designer.
Back in the 90s', when he started his own costume business, it was 'Shakil Tailors' at first. Kashem named it after his elder son. But 15 years ago, he changed the name to Bombay Dress House.
"Shakil studied in a madrasa. He says he doesn't want his name to appear here, in a film industry shop. He says it's haram," Kashem explained.
But why Bombay? "Back in the 60's and 70's, Bombay was the centre of glamour in the continent. Everyone in the industry wanted to be there. The designs, cut of the dresses and coats fascinated me. That's why I named my store Bombay Dress House," explained the store owner who deciphered the namesake.
"All you have to do is show me the picture or explain the character, and I will make you costumes just as you want. From shows to hair accessories - I can arrange everything," said Kashem, his words ringing with confidence.
He talked about the rental prices as well. A pair of moustaches can be rented for Tk 100, a pair of shoes Tk 100, a tin sword Tk 50-60, dresses and gowns Tk 200-400. But if you hire an entire costume set, the price is much less than the regular prices. And the pieces are normally rented for a day.
But what if a bulk amount of costume is needed? Kashem replied, "We take orders as well. I am a tailor myself and there was a time when I had 25 regular employees here in my Bombay dress house. But now it's a fading business. So I have contacts with some tailors and workers who can make costumes as per your order."
Not a glamorous business anymore
Although Kashem used to have projects and orders earlier, now no one except for those working in low-budget short films and theatres go to these stores for props and costumes.
"In theatre, we usually have a costume designer who designs custom pieces for every artist. We rarely go to these stores. But sometimes when we need one or two pieces at the eleventh hour of any show, we rent those pieces. And, generally, you need to bargain a bit to get the proper price," said Shakkho Shahid, a theatre artist and actor.
Back in the day, Kashem used to earn nearly Tk 1 lac monthly, but now, his income dropped to Tk20,000. And to add insult to injury, the pandemic further crippled the costume business.
Earlier there were almost 50 costume designers like him around the country, in places like Tangail, Gazipur, Chattogram, Khulna and Rajshahi. That number has been on the decline since the 90s.
Kashem added, "Currently you will find around 10 designers, and they too are also planning to leave this profession. I am planning to sell my stuff in a year or two."
'I'll leave the business, it doesn't feed me anymore'
Kashem recalls his memories with film stars, but hesitates to show the pictures or hang them on walls. "My elder son says Islam doesn't allow us to hang such photos. That's why I don't have any such photos here, not even in my home," he explained the dilemma.
Someone working in the glamour industry and paying so much heed to religious limitations sounded a bit like a contrast. In his defense, Kashem further explained, "There were times when this business gave me a lot. But I had a fear of God, that's why I made sure that my sons studied in madrasa."
For a moment, 70 year old Kashem seemed like a sandstorm to me, not sure where to settle. He didn't know whether to be proud of his profession or not.
The Dhakaiya film industry has changed a lot. Everything is more professional here now. There are fashion design schools and courses. For Kashem, his old handcrafted skills have become 'not-sellable.'
"Back then, we didn't have all these. We had to learn everything from scratch. In the western world, they conserve design patterns as historical databases. That way, we could render our challenges and knowledge to the newcomers. But that never happened," Kashem lamented.
On top of that, Covid-19 has placed the entire industry on a sinking ship. Many small stakeholders like Abul Kashem or the junior artists have no clue where to go.
"I have done nothing other than tailoring custom-designed costumes. I don't know anything else. And now it seems I have no other way but to leave the store," Kashem says as if he is convincing himself only.
For now, he plans to leave this profession and depend on his sons to feed him.