The Changing Face of Beauty


The Changing Face of Beauty

Today’s film stars and models are anything but classic, conventional beauties. The concept of beauty in India is undergoing a dramatic change

Most debates on beauty in India are like fairy tales. They meander through anecdotes from cinema, advertising, fashion and pop culture, yet end predictably. The girl with the fairest complexion walks away with the CEO, the farmhouse, the luxury car, the best job, the promotion, the love affairs and the envy of others.

Even as modern India obsesses over the fair-and-lovely ideal, it has made a noticeable shift in its larger acceptance of beauty. In this new story, attitude, intelligence, carriage and confidence, and even dark skin compete with the classic, fair-skinned, buxom damsel with doe eyes and long hair. Look at Bollywood. Despite its fixation with classically beautiful girls like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and the imported-and-fair Katrina Kaif, it has made space for diversity — Sonakshi Sinha, Chitrangada Singh, Lara Dutta, Kalki Koechlin, Mahie Gill and Konkona Sen Sharma to name a few. This is a long way from the beauty mould that enthralled us through the years, and included actors like Madhubala, Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini and Madhuri Dixit, right up to Rai Bachchan. Even Rekha, Bollywood’s ultimate seductress, wasn’t accepted till she got a makeover to become a perfect diva. But today, girls of her complexion find work in the mainstream.

Chitrangada Singh is among those Bollywood actresses who have said no to fairness cream ads claiming that they send incorrect signals to the public. Rai Bachchan and Bipasha Basu have turned down similar offers.

Advertisements may be ruled by stereotypes of ordinary girls waiting for a bleach to get them a job, but, at the same time, the tall and dusky Monikangana Dutta sells us Blender’s Pride whiskey; Giselle Monterio, a Brazilian model sells us traditional wedding jewellery, and Vishakha Agarwal, an olive-skinned girl, models for Tanishq. Each defies the conventional notion of prettiness.

What’s happening in India is reflecting a universal theme. “Beauty Culture”, an ongoing exhibition in Los Angeles, focuses on female beauty and its evolution through the 20th and 21st centuries, seen through the works of globally acclaimed photographers. It delves through age, race, skin, eating disorders, surgeries, the influence of Photoshop, even toddler beauty pageants.

Among the photographs and digital images, classified under labels like “The Hollywood Glamour Machine,” “the Marilyn Syndrome”, “Barbie Doll” or the modelling industry, is a photograph of the tall, dark and distinctly androgynous Indian model Lakshmi Menon. She is there among girls from different ethnicities like German Claudia Schiffer, American Cindy Crawford, British Naomi Campbell, Canadian Linda Evangelista, Brazilian Gisele Bundchen, British Kate Moss, American Megan Fox and Sudanese-British Alek Wek.

“There is an undeniable change,” says Maureen Wadia of Gladrags. Wadia launched the Gladrags Mega Model Hunt in 1991 and has discovered some of India’s topmost models. “Attitude and IQ are more important than looks now. We look for beauty queens who are intelligent, who have a good figure but who can project themselves well, and have a sense of social appropriateness,” she says.

Designer Ritu Kumar, who has been creating outfits for Miss India pageants for decades and has judged beauty contests many times, agrees. “The association (of beauty) with fair skin is very deep-rooted but having said that, there is no doubt that there is a change. Fashion and commercial campaigns use duskier models. Even in beauty contests, girls come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, they are not just north Indians,” she says citing the example of Parvathy Omanakuttan, a Malayalee girl who went on to become a runner-up at Miss World 2008.

Senior journalist and author Sathya Saran, the former editor of Femina, believes that a beautiful woman holds everyone’s attention but it is no longer important to dissect her appearance, feature by feature, if she presents a well put-together body and face, draped in good clothes. “Both men and women have broader perspectives and know that two very different women — ebony or fair and freckled — with different attributes can both be considered beautiful,” she says.

Fashion has clearly led to the way we now consume beauty. Dubai-based Vimmi Joshi, senior beauty artist, MAC, who works backstage with fashion designers globally, agrees. “The Indian fashion industry has advanced in terms of beauty over the last several years,” she says. “Indian designers are more in tune with global trends, they push creative boundaries and are getting more experimental which is why the idea of beauty is evolving rapidly. Models like Lakshmi Menon are modernising beauty which is based on individuality,” she says.

When you move away from the stereotype, Menon encompasses many new definitions of beauty. She has a confident look, and as everyone who has worked with her remarks, a relaxed disdain for the vanities of the glamour industry. She reportedly refused a global campaign for Maybelline because the brand wanted her to endorse a fairness product.

But while we admire new faces on the catwalk; the change, feels adman and author Swapan Seth, is not reflected enough in Indian advertising. “Advertising is still caught up in stereotypes. Where are the single mothers, our gay friends, divorced siblings or dysfunctional families in advertisements? We are still selling tea made by a superwoman who manages a good skin and a good job,” he says, arguing that beauty in India is caught in duplicity of attitudes. “Privately we love one thing but publicly we don’t want to own it.” Photographer Rohit Chawla, a veteran in fashion photography, who has shot several beautiful girls over the decades, from the fair and (once upon a time) bald Nafisa Ali, to the dusky Noyonika Chatterjee, and dark-skinned Preeti Dhata, agrees that commercials still prefer the classic beauty.

These paradoxes aren’t peculiar to India. Sociologists from all over the world continue to debate the complexities of beauty caught between homogenisation and diversity. In 2003, Newsweek put Indian-born Saira Mohan on its cover and titled it “The Perfect Face”. Back home, New India may be living up to its old stereotypes but it is experimenting with and is tolerant of a wider swathe of beauty. Just look at Indian TV: short, dark, plump girls play lead roles in soaps and the most unconventional ones are anchors or veejays. The fashion ramp is dominated by those who bust the classic myth — Carol Gracias, Lakshmi Rana, Tinu Verghese, Diandra Soares —with their androgynous bodies and dark skin. The beauty ideal has shifted to include multi-ethnicity and it may be time to stop going purple over fairness creams.

Fashion magazines in India have put Michelle Obama, Frieda Pinto, Padma Lakshmi, Monikangana Dutta, Lakshmi Menon, Kalki Koechlin as well as Sonakshi Sinha on their covers, even as they repeatedly feature Sonam and Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Rai Bachchan.

This trend only mirrors what a new branch of neuroaesthetics has demonstrated recently. That the appreciation of beauty is fired by impulses hardwired in our minds as well as cultural changes. So while skin luminousity products are a rage, so are bronzers and face sculptors. Even Bollywood, earlier notorious for its “safe” approach, experiments with looks now. Priyanka Chopra’s short crop and dark, smudgy make-up on fashion magazine covers around the release of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion proved it.

Celebrity make-up artist Mickey Contractor says many stars are willing to look unconventional and most love the bronzed, gold-flecked, three-dimensional look. This trend will eventually go a long way in influencing the masses, he says. Whenever he does make-up for brides, they give him a template from Bollywood: “I want to look like Rani Mukerji in Chalte Chalte or Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham”.

A confident attitude feeds the new beauty ideal, says Ritu Kumar. “Women have chosen beauty consciousness for themselves; 30 years ago, when I used to work in plain khadi kurtas like a barefoot doctor in the villages to revive textiles, looking beautiful all the time was not on the radar. Those who invested too much time or money in beauty were seen as flippant. It is the other way round now,” she says.

Beauty consciousness isn’t romantic anymore. It’s real, we all want a slice of it. Never have women painted, pierced, padded, stiffened, plucked and buffed their bodies to look good as much as they are doing now. This pressure to look beautiful opens the floodgates to the booming beauty industry in India. Last year, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery conducted its first-ever independent survey on cosmetic surgery trends in 25 countries. While the US and Brazil were the top markets, the report showed a rise in cosmetic operations among citizens of India and China.

“It all boils down to modern-day pressure,” says Priya Kapoor, editor-director of Roli Books, who agrees that personal attitude will become the distinguishing factor of beauty in the future. “Earlier we were not even open to talking about it but now almost everyone subscribes to the beauty culture in some way. It is all about slimming centres, public-speaking classes and chemical peels. It is inescapable. A woman is scrutinised for her attractiveness quotient. I feel Hina Rabbani of Pakistan was rightly scrutinised because she made a conscious choice of turning up with a Birkin bag and south sea pearls,” she says.

Wadia shoots a line of advice. “We will look good if we wear our individuality instead of wearing our wealth,” she says. She brings us back to one of beauty’s biggest myths. That it is not all about looks.

Indian Beauty Timeline

1870: Raja Ravi Varma creates the Indian woman as a sari-clad, voluptuous, long-haired beauty. The popular calendar imagery of Hindu goddesses is said to evolve from his depictions

1947: Neel Kamal, Madhubala’s first film releases. She would go on to become a symbol of Indian beauty

1952: Lakmé, India’s first beauty brand, is born

1954: Actor Leela Naidu is crowned Miss India. She is also featured with Maharani Gayatri Devi on Vogue’s Ten Most Beautiful Women list

1964: Miss India Meher Castelino becomes the first beauty queen to participate in the Miss Universe competition in Miami

1965: Persis Khambatta becomes Miss India. Short-haired and too slick for an “Indian beauty”, she leaves the country for Hollywood’s Star Trek

1966: Bombay born Reita Faria (right), who had won the Miss Bombay crown, becomes the first Indian to win the Miss World contest

1968: Hema Malini debuts in Bollywood with Sapnon Ka Saudagar. She would go on to be known as India’s Dream Girl

1970: Zeenat Aman, the first runner-up in the Miss India contest, wins the Miss Asia contest. After her first film Hulchul in 1971, sexy becomes beautiful

1976: Fairness cream Fair & Lovely is introduced in the Indian market. It spawns clones and competition and is till date the most-sold beauty product in India

1979: Jaya Prada and Sridevi, stunning South Indian beauties, change the way India looks at South Indian heroines

1988: Madhuri Dixit second film Tezaab releases. She becomes India’s dhak-dhak girl, for her beauty and radiant smile

1994: Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai win Miss Universe and Miss World titles respectively. Sen is one of the first Indian actresses to get breast enhancement done

2003: India-born Saira Mohan is on Newsweek’s cover; the headline is “The Perfect Face”

Late 2000s: Carol Gracias, Noyonika Chatterjee, Monikangana Dutta are among the most sought-after models for Indian fashion shows. They are dark and do not fit the classic mould of Indian beauty

2009: Menon is featured by US Vogue in a 12-page solo fashion shoot and is on the cover of Dazed and Confused magazine. Sarah Doukas, head of UK model agency Storm, who discovered Kate Moss, calls Lakshmi “a combination of beauty, charisma and presence”

2011: Lakshmi Menon is the only Indian whose photograph is a part of “Beauty Culture”, an ongoing exhibition at the Annenberg Institute in Los Angeles, which explores how the ideal of beauty has changed over the decades