The travesty of Bollywood objectifying women in its films have long been accepted as a troubling social reality. However, the actual extent of the deep-rooted sexism in India’s leading film industry would have gone unnoticed if it was not for a ruling in favour of Charu Khurana by the Supreme Court. The highest court of law in India trashed a 60-year old unspoken ban on women to work as make-up artists in the film industry making Charu the first legally recognized female make-up artist in the nation.
Charu Khurana, a Delhi-born make-up artist, spent a year in Los Angeles’ Cinema of Make-up School to hone her skills. What the premier school didn’t brace her for was the rampant harassment she would have to face for 10 long years at the hands of Cine Costume Make-Up Artist & Hair Dressers’ Association (CCMA) in Mumbai. Six decades back it was decided by a bunch of well-heeled males running the Association that the professions of make-up and hairdressing should be split up among men and women respectively. They maintained that this measure would create equal job opportunities for both the sexes. It is hard to say whether their intentions were impartial at the time, but it couldn’t be clearer that this obsolete rule had impeded the velocity of women in the field.
Khurana, who has miraculously managed to stay afloat in this lop-sided profession for a decade despite open hostilities, has to her name a glittering resume. She has worked for several Tamil and Telugu movies, besides working in major Hindi productions like Ravaan. Her personal clientele include Virat Kohli, and make-up stints for two Heads of State: the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in last October and US President Barack Obama this January. It is a little confusing to know that even thorough professional aptitude like Khurana’s does not get her official credit in any of the films she does. She had to be content with the arrangement of being relegated to a faceless behind-the-scenes hand while an official male member of the CCMA took her place on the sets.
On being denied a membership card even as a hairdresser on flimsy grounds like lack of identification documents in any Maharashtrian domicile, Khurana decided to work anyway. Much though it might come as a shock to the folks at CCMA but technically Khurana was doing nothing illegal, as under India’s Constitution any individual can pursue a profession of their choice irrespective of parameters like religion, caste, or gender for that matter. However, she couldn’t escape perennial persecution that went on along the lines of being thrown out of the production of a Tamil film or being repeatedly fined on some pretext or other.
She chose to move the Bombay High Court and the National Commission for Women (NCW) to no avail. Both the bodies kept her case pending. It was only when she filed a petition with eight other women make-up artists who had faced similar discrimination at the Supreme Court did she get a speedy hearing. The bench including Justices Dipak Misra and PC Pant firmly held that this was a violation of gender rights. Advocate Jyoti Kalra through whom the petition was filed maintained that women were making progress in every other aspect so why should they be barred from the field of make-up.
The female make-up artists allege that they are kept off the department in spite of several heroines making it known that they feel more comfortable with female artists during full-body make-ups that are a necessity for song sequences. Meanwhile, men easily shirk around the no-entry sign to become hairdressers. Khurana, argues that 90 per cent of a film crew is male and provisions should be made to initiate more women into the industry instead of shooing them off with discriminatory protocols. In the end, she believes it is a mere matter of economics, where the make-up job pays substantially more than hairdressing. That explains the CCMA members ferociously guarding their lion’s share.
Khurana’s battle does not end with becoming a registered make-up artist with CCMA. She has to serve for three more years before she can be officially eligible to render her services individually to high-profile clients. But she believes in her right and plans to move the Supreme Court with a separate application to remove this last roadblock between her and gender equality in a nation that believes it is free.