In 2021, the unveiling of a portrait of Subhas Chandra Bose in Rashtrapati Bhavan sparked a social media controversy. Several Twitter users claimed that the figure in the portrait was not Netaji: it was actually Bengali movie star Prosenjit Chatterjee, who played Bose in the 2019 production Gumnaami.

The authorities soon clarified that the painting was based on a photograph rather than a film still. But the commotion was an unintentional tribute to the talent of Somenath Kundu, the makeup artist who had transformed Chatterjee into Netaji.

“People thought Prosenjit didn’t fit the part, so I took that as a challenge,” said Kundu, a Bengali film industry technician with Hindi-language credits such as The Rapist and Jaane Jaan. “Films are not just about singing and dancing and blowing up cars. Actors need to change their appearance too.”

Makeup has always mattered to the illusion created by cinema. Like cinematographers, costumiers and production designers, makeup artists make indelible contributions to the final screen image. Said Gumnaami director Srijit Mukherji, “The right look contributes to a film’s final image and quality.”

That increasingly intense quest for the right look has enhanced the role played by makeup artists in cinema. Where once they were described as “make-up dadas”, they are now called makeup artists, makeup designers or character designers.

As a result, it is now boom time for India’s makeup artists.

“There is more work and a greater variety of work, with filmmakers wanting to try out different things,” said makeup designer Natasha Nischol, whose credits include Gully Boy, Yeh Ballet, Made in Heaven and The Archies. “More thought is being given to the role played by makeup in a narrative.”

Added makeup and prosthetics designer Preetisheel Singh, “It is a great time – people are fascinated with content rather than only with faces.”

Several factors are behind the newfound prominence of makeup in filmmaking. For one, big-ticket movies and shows are striving for greater realism and detailing. This has intensified the importance given to the departments that contribute to optimum world-building: cinematographers, production designers, costumers – and makeup designers.

In addition, audiences who have watched international productions on their streaming devices want higher quality, credibility and variety in domestic productions too. Advanced film projection is also playing a part, said Ravi Jadhav, director of Main Atal Hoon.

“Screen sharpness has increased, and even the smallest detail of makeup is visible,” Jadhav told Scroll. “Home theatres too have high resolution, making it imperative for filmmakers to be more attentive” to makeup.

Jadhav’s recently released biopic of Atal Bihari Vajpayee features actors worked on by Jagdish Yere to look quite similar to the real-life Bharatiya Janata Party leaders they are playing.

Pankaj Tripathi plays Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Main Atal Hoon (2024).

The rash of movies and series set in the 1970s has created a minor industry of performers made up to resemble Indira Gandhi, including Bellbottom, Rocket Boys and the upcoming Emergency, starring Kangana Ranaut.

Topline makeup artists aren’t just working on period dramas. They are also in demand for action thrillers such as Jawan, in which Shah Rukh Khan has a double role, with each character sporting different looks through the movie. Other recent films that rely heavily on altered appearances of prominent actors include Kapoor & Sons, Bajirao Mastani, Bobby Jasoos, Padmaavat, Thalaivii, 83, Chhapaak, Bhediya, Sam Bahadur and Joram.

Jaideep Ahlawat stars in Jaane Jaan (2023).

Contrary to popular perception, makeup artists don’t merely touch up actors’ faces or fit their wigs. As Shrikant Desai, whose credits include Killer Soup, Bombay Velvet, Joram and the upcoming Sambhaji biopic Chhava, noted, Our job is to create characters.”

Though makeup artists are slaves to the film script, their inputs can even influence an actor’s presentation. “I study the script and do sketches of the characters,” said Kundu, the Gumnaami artist. “But the attempt is always to do something new.” In Jaane Jaan, he said, director Sujoy Ghosh liked the clean-shaven, balding look Kundu designed for actor Jaideep Ahlawat and used that in the film.

Makeup designers fulfil a range of functions. They work on the actor’s skin tone. They enhance or hide facial features in keeping with the characters. They may introduce elements such as a scar or filled-out cheeks or a different hairdo. These aspects can greatly enhance an actor’s performance.

For Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur, for instance, Desai shrunk the differences between lead actor Vicky Kaushal and the biopic’s subject Sam Manekshaw by working on Kaushal’s features, skin tone and hair.

“Vicky’s hair is curly while Manekshaw’s was straighter, so the hair had to be smoothened,” Desai explained. “Vicky was given a fair tone and lenses. His eyebrows were trimmed and coloured.”

Desai also worked on Nandita Das’s Manto, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. “For Rajshri Deshpande, who plays the writer Ismat Chughtai, I filled out her eyebrows, enhanced her laugh lines, and gave her a pair of old-fashioned spectacles,” Desai said.

Vicky Kaushal behind the scenes of Sam Bahadur (2023).

Silicone Valley

Prosthetics, in which moulds made out of silicone or gelatin are fitted over parts of an actor’s face or sometimes the entire body, are becoming increasingly popular in India. Prosthetics can transform actors more convincingly than in the era when specially made costumes or rubber masks were used to obtain a differently shaped face or body.

“Earlier, people used to think that prosthetics meant a facial wound or a missing eye,” said Preetisheel Singh, whose credits include Nanak Shah Fakir, Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat, Pushpa: The Rule and Jawan. “The proper definition of prosthetics is when you are actually changing the anatomy of the human face or transforming someone completely. It’s a very technical job.”

For Ravi Jadhav’s Main Atal Hoon, starring Pankaj Tripathi as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Jagdish Yere gave Tripathi a prosthetic nose alongside altering his hairstyle. Yere also designed every major character.

“Pankaj has a different bone structure from Vajpayee, so Jagdish gave him the one thing that would create an instant resemblance – a prosthetic nose,” Jadhav said.

Earlier versions of the technique required actors to use prosthetic masks over their entire faces. Now, they use coverings broken up into pieces, also known as appliances, which allow facial movement and emotions to come through.

However, some actors view prosthetics with suspicion, assuming that they make them look ugly, Preetisheel Singh said. Besides, not every actor is willing to suffer the long hours it can take to add prosthetics.

“Application of prosthetic makeup can take five or six hours or even longer,” she said. “Once a piece is sculpted, it goes for moulding. Then it is cleaned and applied. Moulds can fail at the trial phase. When silicone is used, it’s a tricky material that doesn’t work around impurities.”

Rishi Kapoor gets transformed into his character from Kapoor & Sons (2016).

Not everything sticks to the script. Singh recalled a film in which an actor’s leg had to be chopped off, causing blood to gush forth. The spurt of fake blood was obtained by pumping air from an oxygen cylinder.

But on that particular day, Singh’s regular cylinder supplier was nowhere to be found. The replacement canister was too large, causing the blood to burst out towards the ceiling like a fountain.

“Even after the director said cut, the blood didn’t stop,” Singh recalled.

Ranveer Singh plays Kapil Dev with a curly wig and an overbite in 83 (2022).

From pancake to prosthetics

At its most basic, makeup and hair accentuate an actor’s attractiveness. In the days when makeup ingredients were more primitive, the effect wasn’t always flattering, Ashokamitran wrote in his memoir Fourteen Years With Boss, about his stint at Gemini Studios in Chennai in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Pancake was the brand name of the makeup material that Gemini Studios bought in truckloads,” Ashokamitran writes. “The gang of nationally integrated make-up men could turn any decent-looking person into a hideous crimson-hued monster with the help of truckloads of pancake and a number of other locally made potions and lotions.”

Despite this, even in the days when resources were limited, budgets were low and filmmakers as well as viewers were undemanding, makeup artists achieved miracles.

“I still remember watching Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath [1979], where I thought that the only weak spot was Soumitra Chatterjee’s bad wig,” Srijit Mukherji said. “Ray had a very poor opinion of the quality of wigs.”

For Shatranj Ke Khilari [1977], Ray asked for a piece from Tom Alter’s sideburns because he wanted it to merge naturally with Tom’s hair for his character. “All of us aspire to that level of detailing, but the conditions don’t always allow for that kind of finesse,” Mukherji said.

Smart filmmakers can make all the difference between tackiness and sophistication, Jagdish Yere said. “The change came when producers began understanding that it was necessary to spend well to get the desired effect,” he said. “Some producers understand that they can’t take shortcuts and need to give us the money and freedom to deliver quality.”

Though a few filmmakers bolster make-up and prosthetics with visual effects, human proficiency will always trump machines, Yere added. “VFX can never replace make-up – it doesn’t look genuine. Even when heavy VFX is being used, the human touch is required.”

While some technicians take courses in makeup, most makeup artists come up by learning on the job. Shrikant Desai apprenticed for several years with Vikram Gaikwad, one of the pre-eminent professionals in his field.

Desai decided to train with Gaikwad when he was just a student, after reading about his work on Malayalam actor Mammootty for Jabbar Patel’s biopic Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Desai was seduced by what he described as “magic”.

Jagdish Yere too is a graduate of the unofficial Vikram Gaikwad make-up school. (Scroll was unable to speak to Gaikwad, who is reportedly ailing). “Vikram Gaikwad is the best person to teach you how to study and create a character,” said Yere, who has also worked on Shakuntala Devi, Maharashtra Shaheer, Ponniyin Selvan and Adipurush.

Manoj Bajpayee as the one-eyed Umesh in Killer Soup (2024).

Jagdish Yere’s workplace moves from one set to the next: “My phone is my office.”

Preetisheel Singh, however, is among the few makeup designers who has her own office. Her studio in suburban Mumbai is stacked with computers on which software programmes are used to try out different looks, moulds for body parts, and machines to manufacture prosthetic marks.

Singh chucked a job as a software engineer to study makeup in Los Angeles. She started working in Mumbai in 2010. Among her early projects was Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014).

Makeup has become so polished, storylines sometimes hinge on it. In 2019, for instance, Srijit Mukerji made the ingeniously plotted Vinci Da, in which a makeup artist (partly inspired by Somenath Kundu) is forced to help a serial killer by giving him different getups.

Mukherji’s contribution to the anthology series Ray also revolves around a makeup kit. For his upcoming biopic Padatik, Mukerji got Kundu to transform Bangladeshi actor Chanchal Chowdhury into filmmaker Mrinal Sen.

Chanchal Chowdhury as Mrinal Sen in Padatik.

The metamorphosis created by accomplished makeup undoubtedly influences how audiences perceive cinema. “Good makeup can contribute to a film’s box office,” Somenath Kundu said.

There are at least 9,000 make-up artists in the Hindi film industry alone and close to 20,000 across the country, said BN Tiwari, president of the umbrella organisation Film Federation of Western India Cine Employees. Practitioners are urged to enrol in the Cine Costume and Make-Up Artists and Hair Dresser Association. Producers too are urged to hire only unionised workers.

The reason for the insistence is the intimacy of the process, Tiwari said. Given the nature of their work, makeup designers are privy to confidences and vulnerabilities, especially among actors. “A card is necessary for security on a film set,” he said.

But until 2014, only men were allowed to join the union. In the Hindi film industry, the men – and they were only men until some years ago – were and are still affectionately called “Makeup Dadas”. Female makeup artists were not only debarred from enrolling in the union, they were also classified as hair-dressers.

“Producers who defied this rule had to pay hefty fines and artists were denied credits on the film titles,” the BBC reported in 2014. “Women make-up artists were sometimes brought on the sets surreptitiously, hidden in mobile beauty salons known as vanity vans for fear that if the trade unions got wind of it the production would be brought to a halt.”

The gender-based discrimination was overturned only that year, after a legal battle fought by nine women led by Charu Khurana. In its verdict, the Supreme Court struck down the ban, declaring it to be “constitutionally impermissible discrimination”.

Despite the enforced equality, union membership can be a pointless necessity, some artists told Scroll. They complain that little is being done to address their biggest grouse: the lack of formal recognition by most film awards.

For instance, Filmfare, which claim to be the Indian version of the Oscars, has categories for costumes and VXF but none for makeup. The National Film Awards instituted its prize for makeup only in 2006.

Said Preetisheel Singh, who won a National Film Award for Gangubai Kathiawadi in 2021, “If an actor looks a particular way, it’s because of us. Cinema is the most complicated art form, involving teamwork. Feeling that you are not part of the team when it comes to awards isn’t right.”

The West Bengal Film Journalists Association recently gave Somenath Kundu an award for the 2023 Bengali film Shesh Pata. Said Kundu, “We are now being interviewed – that itself is revolutionary.”

Prosenjit Chatterjee in Shesh Pata (2023).