Over a decade ago, Charu Khurana stepped over Bollywood’s threshold to become what she calls a ‘make up designer’. In the initial days, the response she got was uniform: “We cannot offer you work.” What baffled her was being rebuffed without anyone even looking at her portfolio. It didn’t take her long to find out that women were barred from working as make-up artistes in the film industry. You could be skilful, qualified, experienced and even have connections, but if you were not male, then make-up was off bounds.
“It came as a shock to me,” says Charu. Professionally trained in the US, she specialises in prosthetics make-up, body painting and character make-up. With an ill-advised film industry’s doors shut, she started doing TV commercials. Remember the famed Onida TV advertisement—‘
Neighbour’s Envy, Owner’s Pride’—with the tailed-devil? The make-up was Charu’s work. She also has a string of other well known TV commercials to her credit.
How does someone so obviously talented find herself denied the right to work? The grand council responsible for making malehood a qualification for the job is the Cine Costume Make-up Artistes and Hair Dressers Association, considered the industry’s official body of these ‘professionals’. Since its inception in 1955, it has never granted a make-up card to a woman. The reason is simple and explicit: to keep out competition from half the human species. In a letter dated 1 August 2009, in response to a complaint by Charu, the Association’s general secretary Henry J Martis wrote: ‘Since the formation of the Association, no make-up artiste card has been issued to female members till date. This is done to ensure that male members are not deprived of work as make-up artistes. If female artistes are given make-up artistes’ cards, then it will become impossible for male members to get work and they will lose their sources of livelihood and will be deprived of their earnings to support themselves and their families, because no one will be interested [in engaging] the services of a male make-up artiste if a female make-up artiste is available, looking to the human tendency.’
That talent would trump ‘tendency’ is more likely. While many female make-up artistes are professionally trained, a majority of their male counterparts have not even gone to college; they latch on as assistants of senior artistes and then try to strike out on their own, using a network of contacts. To keep things the way they are, the Association is also adamant that women not be allowed to work as make-up artistes for TV serials, music albums and ad films, and if any woman continues to do such work, ‘appropriate and strict action will be initiated against her’ (even if the person is not a member of the Association). It has strongly censured the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (an affiliated body) for granting Charu permission to work as a make-up artiste for ad films and music albums. It threatened stringent action against the Federation if it did not withdraw its go-ahead.
Strangely enough, it’s not just Bollywood that wallows in such chauvinism. The regional federations of make-up artistes in the film industries of Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad also bar women from the job. If a filmmaker takes on a female make-up artiste, s/he also takes on the risk of a disruption of shooting. Charu got an intimation of it when she got a make-up assignment for Kamal Haasan in the Tamil film Ennai Pol Oruvan. “While I was doing the make-up in AVM Studios,” she recounts, “some people from the Chennai Make-up Artistes Association barged in and demanded that I be sacked. But since a towering personality like Kamal Haasan was involved, they let me go after I paid a hefty fine of Rs 26,500. This was taken as a ‘donation’.”
If a woman is determined to be a make-up artiste, however, there exists a loophole. She is eligible to be a hairdresser, and can secretly do the make-up before a shoot by slinking into the vanity vans of film stars. “But it is difficult to hide and work like that,” says Charu. An alternative for a closet artiste is to undertake the job under the cloak of a male member of the Association (who must be present on the sets and get all official credit).
Doing make-up in the guise of a hairdresser is difficult for another reason too. Just to get a hairdresser’s card, a female needs a domicile certificate of Maharashtra, while the same is not necessary for a male; he just needs to be ‘tenth pass’ with a certificate course in make-up and hairdressing, references by a couple of Association members, and enough money to pay an introduction fee of Rs 50,000.
The result of all this is an utter lack of gender diversity in make-up rooms. Charu managed to work in secret on Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, but by and large, filmmakers and actors stick to convention. All Bollywood superstars, including Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, have male make-up artistes. “I have been told by many stars that they will get their make-up done only by me, but it has to be done in secret,” says Charu, “A-grade stars do not want to be involved, as they fear talk of link-ups with any female make-up artiste they hire.”
The irony that female artistes are often more professional seems to escape them. Twenty-nine-year-old Neha Kamra, for example, learnt the art from Marvie Beck, a known name in the field. Neha’s done over 200 ad films since she started out a couple of years ago. “The Association men always come and keep a check on the sets. There are four who report on us to the Association. They once raided the sets of an ad film and asked me to pay a hefty fine,” says Neha. “No lead actor wants to mess with the way things are. It will be a long fight for us.”
Interestingly, all is not hunky-dory within the Association. Its office has been shut for a year as a result of internal politics. Effectively, there is nobody these days to grant membership even to male make-up artistes.
Meanwhile, make-up artistes Sushma Sharma and Neelam, along with Charu and Neha, have filed complaints with the National Commission for Women, seeking action against the Association for its denial of their fundamental right to work and earn a livelihood. The Commission has held three hearings so far, but has arrived at no decision. “We do not know if the NCW will take a tough stand,” sighs one of the four artistes, “Where do we go now?”