With everyone enraptured by minimalism, Cleanfluencers, and Marie Kondo, it seems in bad taste to suggest the need for opulence, especially since what I have in mind is Bollywood’s “more is more” variety. There are two reasons for my insistence—excitement is a good thing, and I love Indian cinema.
Many people outside the Bollywood sphere of influence find the genre puzzling. Everything is over the top—the acting, the plots, the songs, the outfits. But for me, it’s “cinema that exists slightly outside the everyday world,” in the words of writer Rana Dasgupta. This fantasy space is shared by perfumes, intangible messages in a bottle. So, those wishing to take a break from KonMaring their sock drawers and making their apartment look like an IKEA showroom are welcome to follow along with me.
For opulence, cinematic and olfactory, few combinations can rival the pairing of Guerlain Nahéma and Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Mughal-e-Azam tells the doomed love story of Prince Salim and dancing girl Anarkali against the backdrop of the Mughal court. Few do grand as well as the Mughals, the dynasty that ruled India from 1526 to 1857 and left the world the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, and Shalimar Gardens. Anarkali is played by the unforgettable Madhubala, and Prince Salim by Dilip Kumar, and their real life relationship overlaps with the story and adds an extra dose of drama to the key scenes.
When I smell Nahéma, its rose saturated by ylang ylang and those incandescent ingredients in the perfumer’s palette, damascones, I can almost see Anarkali twirling dervish like in her final dance sequence as she defies the Emperor’s wishes and stays loyal to her prince. Nahéma unfolds in sumptuous layers; Anarkali’s skirts glitter and reflect in the thousands of mirrors. In both cases you are transported to a world far beyond routine and pastels. (Since Nahéma can be difficult to find, Ormonde Jayne Ta’if offers an opulent vision of dark roses and shimmering amber.)
Darker and moodier is Neela Vermeire’s Mohur, a fragrance of rose and oud that avoids the usual tropes of the genre, heft and opacity. Vermeire, who now lives in Paris, is originally from India, and she worked with Bertrand Duchaufour to capture the elements of traditional perfumery in the subcontinent. The extrait version of Mohur would luxuriant enough for Empress Noor Jahan.
At the same time, Mohur is a nuanced interpretation, and it fits the mood of Umrao Jaan, the story of the famous Lucknow courtesan and poet. My favorite film version dates to 1981 and features the gorgeous Rekha in the title role. It’s a tale of love and heartbreak. Melancholy is not part of Mohur’s character, but if you need a perfume for a moonlight picnic in a rose garden, you won’t find a better choice.
Once you’ve cried for Anarkali and brooded over Umrao Jaan’s fate, you’re ready for Serge Lutens Arabie and Devdas (2002). Arabie takes you through a cinnamon-scented spice market, past temple altars bedecked in flower garlands and then deposits you in a sandalwood grove. Devdas includes a brothel too. A romantic drama about star-crossed lovers, it features a trio of India’s best actors, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit, a dazzling soundtrack, and sets of such extravagance that you won’t notice that you’ve spent 185 minutes in front of the television. Arabie will linger even longer.
Extra reading: 10 Bollywood Films and Perfume Pairings
What are your favorite fragrances (or other means) to escape routine?
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