Can you bottle Bollywood?

Delight in an impassioned, “more is more” perfumed opulence

DANCE SCENE DEVDAS (2002)
DANCE SCENE DEVDAS (2002) | Image: AF Archive/Alamy Stock

Given today’s obsession with minimalism and Japanese organising consultant Marie Kondo, it seems almost 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 — a bit of 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 (£225 for 50ml EDP) 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 Islamic dynasty that ruled India from 1526 to 1857 and left the world the Taj Mahal, the Shalimar Gardens and other splendours. 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.

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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.

Darker and moodier is Neela Vermeire Créations’ Mohur (£175 for 60ml EDP), a fragrance of rose and oud that avoids the usual tropes of the genre, heft and opacity. Neela 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. “It’s the ‘Imperial Rose’ in our collection,” says Vermeire of the extrait version of Mohur (£290 for 50ml), a potion luxuriant enough for the 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 favourite 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.

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Once you’ve cried for Anarkali and brooded over Umrao Jaan’s fate, you’re ready for Kenzo’s Jungle L’Eléphant (£38 for 100ml EDP) and Devdas (2002). (The scent, though available via discounted sites, has been discontinued in the UK, so I’d also recommend Lumière Blanche (£108 for 100ml EDP) from Olfactive Studio.) Jungle L’Eléphant takes you through a cardamom-scented spice market, past temples with their incense offerings 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 (Shahrukh 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. Jungle L’Eléphant will linger long after you’ve regained consciousness.

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