One Woman’s Fight Against Gender Bias In Bollywood

By Arundhati Ramanathan Mint, New Delhi.

MUMBAI

Make-up artiste Charu Khurana, 32, knows a thing or two about blemishes. To cover up red pimples, for instance, dab a bit of green and finish off with a regular concealer. But when the US-trained Khurana returned to India in 2008, she came up against blemishes that she felt compelled to expose: it was the ugly practice of the Cine Costume Make-up Artists and Hair Dressers Association (CCMAA) that mandated that women could only be hair dressers and not make-up artists.

The rule, made to keep women from competing with men for jobs, has held sway for close to six decades with little resistance from women. But when Khurana was denied membership by the association -- only members are allowed on film sets -- on grounds of being a woman, she pursued the matter till it reached the Supreme Court.

The hearings are scheduled to resume on November 10 when a two-judge bench will hear from CCMAA. On November 3, the judges called the bias "illegal".

"How can this discrimination continue? We will not permit this. It cannot be allowed under our Constitution. Why should only a male artist be allowed to put make-up? How can it be said that only men can be make-up artists and women can be hairdressers? We don't see a reason to prohibit a woman from becoming a make-up artist if she is qualified," said justices Dipak Misra and U.U. Lalit.

There was more: "You better delete this clause on your own," the judges told CCMAA. "Remove this immediately. We are in 2014, not in 1935. Such things cannot continue even for a day."

Many male make-up artists have already started feeling the jitters following the Supreme Court's stance.

"We will accept whatever the Supreme Court decides. But we may lose out on our jobs if women are allowed to enter the field," said Stanley D'Souza, a senior freelance make-up artist and general secretary of the union, which has 2,000 members -- all men, of course.

CCMAA's contentious bylaw states: "Membership of the association shall comprise of make-up men..."

Supreme Court lawyer K.H. Holambe Patil who is representing the association says: "By men, it means people. So the laws don't spell out any gender bias." Ergo, there is no discriminatory clause to delete.

But a letter, reviewed by Mint, written by the association to the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, a film industry workers' union in Mumbai to promote and safeguard the economic and cultural interests of its members, categorically states that Khurana was denied membership because of her gender. "It is the rule of the association to disallow female members to work as make up-artists... Charu Khurana is not an exception to it. The rule was introduced for the betterment of the association and not to discriminate on the basis of gender."

For years, women who wanted to work as make-up artists have used their hairdresser membership cards to do make-up discreetly in actors' trailers. "We have to be very cautious when we work on sets. I usually hire a male assistant as a cover," said Divya Chablani, a make-up artiste.

Whenever women make-up artists such as Khurana, Chablani and others have tried to work in films, they have been faced with hefty fines. Sometimes, their hairdresser membership cards have been confiscated by the association for flouting the rule. "We have even been threatened with physical harm," said Khurana.

"We have a vigilance squad to make sure only members work," said D'Souza of CCMAA.

Since women are not given make-up membership, they are stopped from doing their jobs for not having the right card.

No make-up artiste wants to be held responsible for holding up a shoot because she is not a member of the union. "It is extremely embarrassing for us to get caught as this results in delayed shoots and a waste of precious money," said Mallika Bhat, a make-up artiste who says she has worked with such leading Bollywood actors as Kareena Kapoor and Deepika Padukone. "I am often afraid of taking up work for fear of being caught," she added.

"Truth be told, they (association members) are a bunch of hooligans who would harass these girls. It can be quite scary," said director Farah Khan. Khan said she routinely uses women make-up artists. "Isn't it ironical that a woman director cannot be allowed to use a woman make-up artist?" she asked. "The union has never dared to disturb my shooting."

The film fraternity has shown its silent support, but could never openly fight the system in the past, said Bhat. But now, a new crop of educated and trained women make-up artistes are determined to shake things up. This makes the association feel threatened, she said.

Khurana took out a loan to pay for the Rs.32 lakh for her special effects make-up course in Los Angeles. She said she has simply not been able to pay it off and must remain dependent on her family for repayment. The legal battle she has been waging has also meant lost assignments, she said.

The paucity of women make-up artistes is evident not just in the Hindi film industry in Mumbai. The Chennai association has just three women make-up artistes out of 700 members, while Hyderabad has just one out of 300.

"We don't disallow women. Our rule is that you must first work as an apprentice for six months and then work as an assistant for three years, before you can get a card," said Thota Ramesh, treasurer of the Andhra Pradesh Cine Make Up and Hair Stylist Association. "Many women come with diplomas and don't want to work as assistants. That we cannot allow," he said.

"I'm a highly qualified artist with years of experience, why should I assist?" retorts Khurana.

The trade practice of male-only make-up artists seems prevalent not just in films, but also in television serials and even within news channels.

At national broadcaster Doordarshan, the vast majority of make-up artists are men. But women too are employed. "Doing make-up requires close proximity with the subject," said a woman make-up artist. "You have to touch their face as you dab on make-up and sometimes this physical closeness can cause discomfort to both, the make-up artiste and the subject."

Moreover, she said, a make-up artist is required to be on the set at all times, even during late-night shoots, which can cause inconvenience to women.

"When I first got the case, it was surprising that a fundamental right was being denied. But even more surprising was that the entire system had failed and no one had set it right for so many years," said Jyotika Kalra, the Supreme Court lawyer representing Khurana.

Ironically, it's not just women who feel the backlash of this sort of water-tight gender discrimination. Mickey Contractor, a well-known make-up artist in Mumbai, said he originally wanted to be a hairdresser. "When I started out, I wanted to do hair, but I was told that men can't be hair-dressers, only make-up artists," he said.

With the Supreme Court set to lift the ban on women make-up artists, how will things change on the ground? Khurana believes it will be a "challenge" for her to work alongside union members.

"The way I have been treated all this time, a sudden change in attitude from union members is going to be tough," she said.

"Whatever challenges emerge, I will fight those too. I'm not going to change my profession for anyone."

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