Every era of affluence has an account of what has gone wrong amid the wealth and decadence: Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Evelyn Waugh scathing portrayal of the aristocrats of 1930s London in Vile Bodies (see Stephen Fry’s sly 2006 film version, Bright Young Things), Jacqueline Susann’s lurid 1960s potboiler of celebrity, pills, and fornication - The Valley of the Dolls, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman novels, brutally exposing the nastiness underneath the glitter of 1980s Manhattan. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, is a look into India’s emerging, formidable fashion industry, which like the world of designers and models anywhere in the world, is as exploitative and mercenary as it is seductive.
The film centers on Meghna Mathur (Priyanka Chopra), a determined, ambitious girl from Punjab, who defies her parents and scrapes and saves to get to Mumbai to become a model. Aided by her spirited, scream-queen friend, Rohit (a memorable camp performance from Ashwin Mushran) she spends hours in line at agencies, touts her glamour shots to scouts, and hustles to network among the designers, show coordinators, and sleazy businessmen of industry. As Meghna climbs the greasy pole, she watches the successful supermodels from backstage, the leading diva among them Sonali (Kangana Raut), a porcelain skinned Dresden doll with a cold haughtiness behind the eyes.
Meghna learns from seasoned, cynical agents and C-list models, that the only way to get her foot in the door is a wealthy patron. Meghna takes up with the CEO of a major modeling agency, Mr. Sarin, and becomes his mistress. A luxury high-rise apartment in Mumbai’s exclusive Bandra soon follows as does a succession of shows and advertising contracts. Predictably, the ascent to success alienates her from her friends and family (there’s a relevant scene, where Meghna’s provincial, religious aunt throws her out of the house for modeling lingerie in a magazine).
Echoes of Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter and Susann’s Valley of the Dolls are redolent in this Horatio Alger story of a young woman from the provinces and her relentless mission to succeed, only to fall into addiction and self-doubt. Meghna’s moral compromise serves as a way to explore the way vulnerable young women, desperate for fame, expensive clothes, and independence (a luxury for many women in India), stumble into all sorts of abusive relationships for advancement, only to be shafted when they pass their 20s. The emptiness of celebrity, the meaningless behind the flash and the glamour is what Bhandarkar is aiming at here: fashion as a sleek disposable commodity, easily digested then easily forgotten.
Some strong actors shine: Priyanka Chopra proves she has a talent of tapping into a character, where she evolves from a callow small-town girl who winces when she drinks wine to the world-weary bitch the public envisions supermodels to be. Samir Soni as a closeted gay designer drifting into compromise gives a sensitive, adept performance, the tragically underused actress, Kitu Gidwani (who shined in Earth 1947) dazzles the screen whenever she briefly appears as an arch, sophisticated agent, Mugdha Godse as a gravely-voiced veteran model, and Kangana Raut as the damaged beauty, brings depth to the clichéd role of a self-destructive model.
Seeing Fashion, it’s sometimes easy to forget that India as a developing country, with nearly a half of the population living below the poverty level of less than a dollar a day, and nearly 150,000 people illiterate. Many women have no access to birth control or income-earning potential, and subject to arcane customs of arranged marriages and dowries. So, to see the women in this movie, independent, financially and sexually, is an image of a different India. India’s middle and upper classes are consuming goods at an unprecedented rate. The film’s sponsors include Sunsilk shampoo and Jimmy Choo, a reminder that even a film about exploitation and abuse in the fashion industry can be used as a two-hour ad for high-end products. Fashion is an entertaining look at one of the paradoxes of India - an inability to reconcile wealth with poverty, like the lithe, designer-clad socialites who shop at the Dolce and Gabbana boutique, whose oversized sunglasses block out the crippled beggar and ragged child huddling outside the store.