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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
India's make-up men don war paint

By Soutik Biswas
BBC correspondent in Madras

Make-up application
The make-up artists' union bars women from movies and TV soaps
Banu Bashyam has been a make-up artist in India for the past 15 years, but she mostly has to work secretively.

She applies the make-up to actors in her private parlour and has to sneak quietly into photographers' studios for advertising shoots.

Working in movie studios or on film locations is out of the question.

The make-up artists' union bars women from jobs in movies and on TV soaps, though it allows them to become hairstylists.

To make matters worse, in the southern city of Madras, home to a flourishing regional movie industry, make-up men are on the warpath with women who defy the rules.

'Unfair pressure'

Some make-up men have taken it a step further, pressuring women doing legitimate make-up work on commercials.

Ms Bashyam suffered this fate working on Indian cricket stars for a soft drinks commercial at a stadium in Madras last month.

Banu Bashyam
Banu Bashyam has to call actors to her home for make-up

"Suddenly some make-up men walked in and told me to stop. When I told them their laws did not bar women from working in commercials, they said they would decide whether I could work," she says.

Ms Bashyam says she was forced to drop out of the commercial because of the "unfair pressure".

In the past, she says, make-up men have shut down studio generators and asked other members of the film crew not to cooperate with her when they found her working on films.

A host of top Indian filmmakers, including Mani Ratnam, have worked with Ms Bashyam, but she still has to ply her trade furtively.

She mostly calls actors to her home parlour and makes them up there.

"The men are scared that we will put them out of work. That is why the have this stupid law," says Ms Bashyam.

After the soft drinks commercial fiasco, she has been without work for three weeks.

Ms Bashyam has written to women's rights groups and is planning to go to the courts challenging the law.

Now India's National Women's Commission has joined battle, calling in the unions to explain what is going on.

Ms Bashyam is not the only woman make-up artist who is facing the ire of her male counterparts.


Persis, a well known artist, was working on a commercial being shot in a Madras movie studio when four men barged in and told her to stop working last month.

Make-up men... have threatened me with dire consequences - parading me nude, flinging acid in my face
Make-up artist Brinda

"They refused to let the work continue, so the commercial makers had to come to a compromise," says Persis.

Since the makers wanted to continue with Persis, they were forced to pay a day's wages - an eight-hour shift at 3,000 rupees ($70) - to two union members who "just hung around for a while and then left".

The commercial's director, Satyajith, said he could have shown the men the door "because the union has nothing to do with the advertising industry".

"But I sensed trouble. If they returned as a bigger group and stopped shooting, I would have faced heavy losses," he said.

Persis says her future has become very uncertain in face of such threats.

"Life has become very difficult for us. I do not know how we are going to survive," she says.

The fate of T. Brinda is possibly worse.

The 43-year-old daughter of a make-up man has eked out a living doing make-up for television soaps.

She managed to work on seven films during a film technicians' strike some years ago.

Women cannot do make-up. We know that. They can do hairstyling
Girison, make-up artists' union

But she says she has constantly been heckled and threatened by men.

"My career has been spoilt by the make-up men. They have threatened me with dire consequences - parading me nude, flinging acid in my face. I have to keep working," she says.

The last time was in March, she says, when some make-up men walked into a studio where she was working and "threatened to cut off my hands".

A rattled Ms Brinda has written to Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha and a host of women's organisations to intervene and plans to go to court.

The 800-member make-up artists' union says it is just following the law in keeping women out of the job.

"Women cannot do make-up. We know that. They can do hairstyling. But men do make-up best," says senior member, Girison.

He denies union members are "obstructing or resisting" make-up women.

Other members say there is not enough work in the Tamil film industry for so many make-up artists.

On the sly

In the tightly knit Indian movie industry, few star actors have come out in support of the women although many prefer them to men and work with them on the sly.

One exception is Tamil movie actress, Khushboo, who thinks women should be free to do make-up.

"I wonder why the men in the union should be so insecure? If a woman is a good performer, it is good for the industry," she says.

The men do not agree, and say it is quite impossible to change the laws.

Till then, the brave new breed of make-up women will have to keep working in a hostile environment.

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