My career started in an extraordinary way – by meeting a muse. As a young lad, I was very much interested in movies. Watching films from age 10, I became transfixed by an actress whose onscreen person was both cabaret dancer and vamp. At age 10, I may not have known the culture behind the looks, but I knew what fascination felt like. With eyes that flashed, hair that piled high above her head, feathers that rose cockade-like above her head, she was “awe-inspiring.” Her name was Helen Richardson Khan, Bollywood’s legendary “Helen”. Unlike traditional Bollywood queens, she was trendy. Of exotic mixed heritage, she found her inspiration in English glossies, and took to mimicking the trends of the ’60s and ’70s. The sexy eyeliner flicks, the loose bouffant, the sense of sex and liberation. I was completely drawn in.
Something about the hairdo and the feather must have stuck, for upon leaving school I went to work in a hairdressing salon. Amid the perms and updos of Bombay’s stylish, there was one customer in particular who I was thrilled to work on, Helen. One day, shampooing her hair, she asked me what I wanted to do with my life and suggested that I learn makeup. Giving me some insider advice, she told me to go and assist a Bollywood makeup artist.
I was hardly going to ignore my muse. With no formal schools in makeup art in Bombay, apprenticing was the way to go. Unlike Western culture, makeup artistry in India was at that time a family profession and techniques were passed down father to son like family secrets. Because of this laissez-faire, no trends were created. I, on the other hand, had no family connections and was an outsider. I finally found a makeup artist who was willing to take me on, and he taught me the basics of foundation. I assisted him for eight months, then I began to create my own tricks; after all, I had no family secrets to be the keeper of, I was free to ad lib – and I did. My techniques became savvy and I started to develop a reputation. Stepping out, I initially worked with the provincial film studios, working on C-list movies – learning but financially barely scraping by. My kit was a mishmash of local brands of makeup and a few brushes I had bought from an art store.
I was also inadvertently networking. The faces I made up in the provinces were also cast in Bollywood. Eventually, I was asked to be the makeup artist for a trio of actresses. This was getting closer to my mission, but I was learning something about Bollywood, too – makeup artists weren’t esteemed. The combination of low pay and shabby treatment made me react. A rebel with a cause, I quit and went to work in commercial advertising. There I earned more and was allowed a different kind of creativity, one that was more receptive to trends. Finally, I had the freedom to create and develop my look. Dipping into six-month-old fashion magazines, I would look, see and reinterpret in my own style.
As my reputation grew, Bollywood’s interest in me returned. Wooed by director Rahul Rawail, I dug my heels in and made unheard of contractual demands. Despite myself, I got the job. But there was no shrinking back to the status quo. When the director screamed, I screamed back. I began to get a reputation. But if my screaming was loud, my work spoke louder. Juggling Bollywood and commercial work, I attained an unheard of celebrity status in Bollywood and around Bombay: I became a makeup superstar.