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Catwalk queens and wannabe stars

“You need chutzpah and an I-don’t-give-a-damn-attitude, babe,” Nagma had been told on the first day of the modelling course she had enrolled for. The admission had cost her Rs 40,000 and her father, a senior officer in the Indian Railways, now posted in Bhopal, had parted with the money without argument but with reluctance, his eyes moist and anxious as if she was going far away, and nobody knew if she would ever return. Her mother was dead against modelling and had lamented Nagma’s decision to move into a PG dig in Delhi.

In the capital, Nagma was listed with one of the smaller modelling agencies that offered girls of various skin colours, body types and rates. Fair skinned East European and Russian girls were available for as little as Rs 3,000-5,000 a day, even less, for commercial shoots. For hand and feet modelling (jewellery or nail polish), you could find a pair of “gora haath-paer” as they called it for Rs 2,000. No contracts were signed here to determine working hours, advance payments, the number of times a photograph can be used, etc. You booked the girls and they just came along.

“Can I meet one of your Indian models?” I had asked.

Nagma was called. It was a first floor office in south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, and she was freely smoking indoors. She stubbed her cigarette before putting out her hand for me.

Our first conversation was awkward.

“Hi, am doing some research, am curious to find out why so many young girls want to become models,” I said.

“I am tall, slim and want to become famous,” she said unhesitatingly. She was a fidgety girl and kept running her hands through her hair. Nagma was not pretty; I wouldn’t even call her good-looking but she did have a model-like body. Boyish chest, long slender legs, a small waist, mid-length hair, and a triangular face. She was in a short, polka-dotted, green dress gathered at the waist by a slim belt, and badly constructed tall heels. She wore false eyelashes even though it was only 1pm in the afternoon and looked sullen and bored. Her nails were chipped and when she raised her arms again to tie her hair into a bun, I noticed messy armpits.

“Famous? Models don’t become famous; actresses do,” I said.

Nagma had her script ready.

“I want to first become India’s next Mehr Jessia, then an actress. My dream is to act opposite Shah Rukh Khan like Anushka Sharma,” said Nagma. Anushka was a model before she got a break in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, she reminded me. “I will do anything for a good role and I mean anything,” she added looking me straight in the eye, as if daring me to ask what “anything” meant...

This “anything” route isn’t such a simple shortcut to Bollywood as the modelling myth suggests. There are three categories of models in India and not all of them want to become film heroines.

The first is a bunch of senior, assured, successful girls, who have been in the business for long and want to stay right there. Sapna Kumar, Bhavna Sharma, Carol Gracias, Noyonika Chatterjee, Indrani Dasgupta, Joey Matthews, Jesse Randhawa, Lakshmi Rana and some others belong to this category. A couple of them are in their thirties, they work independently like freelancers, choose their shows and only align with agencies for specific events not for all their contracts. They dictate their terms, handle their own finances and are their own agents. Whether they could not make it to Bollywood or did not want to go that way may not be a very well-kept secret but it’s clear that they have stayed on the ramp long enough to be taken seriously. They are the ramp’s A-listers. They make between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000 per show.

Then there are two other categories. One, as a fashion week source told me, comes all the way from abroad to “make a name in India as the only route to Hindi films is modelling”. I asked Sunil Sethi, the president of FDCI [Fashion Design Council of India] if this was true. He more than agreed. He told me about a girl of Indian origin, who worked in the nuclear engineering department of Nasa in the US, who wanted to model for the WIFW [Will Lifestyle India Fashion Week]. “Her mother pleaded with us to give her a chance,” he added, remembering another who would come every year from the UK for five days just to walk the ramp. “Her name is India,” Sethi told me. This category of models is not the “I will do anything” type but they brought sifarish from powerful and rich Indians. Many do get to walk on the ramp but then disappear.

The third type is besotted with Bollywood. They suffer from what’s called an acute and compulsive “I-want-to-be-in-Bollywood” disorder. Some of them realise from day one that the only way is to work hard on their walk, grooming, discipline, dancing, attitude, and networking. They do not touch drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol because they want to be here for a long haul. Some among these are the “I will do anything” types, who strategise their sexual charms and assume that they would sleep their way to Bollywood. Others don’t want to do so but are so desperate with ambition that they are often misguided and land up doing “anything” because they don’t know better. “Once you enter this profession, a number of doors open for you and you have to stop and think about your choices and where you would go from here,” Lakshmi Rana, one of India’s A-list ramp models told me. “Some are so desperate that they get their portfolios shot wearing very little. That then sends out the message that the girl will do whatever it takes to get a break. They don’t realise how these messages are read by the industry,’ she added.

***

Attitude is the single biggest attribute that a model must have, say designers. Noyonika Chatterjee, a product of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, is now 40 years old. She has been walking the ramp for almost two decades, yet instead of getting bored of her, designers love her; she is friends with many and her attitude, I hear, is super. Attitude is what models wear well for parties too. No model arrives in a six-yard sari, a salwar-kameez or a Fabindia kurta. They play their roles like actresses, both in the way they dress — smart Western clothes, often short dresses, messy hair, nice make-up. Unlike professional socialites, they don’t carry branded bags. They descend upon parties thrown by their designer friends like a loyal army happy to be seen and consumed by others like products; and air kiss like it was going out of fashion.

“What does a model want from the world? Has your career made you a narcissist? Are you addicted to glamour?” I asked Lakshmi.

“I would be lying if I said the glamour didn’t attract me. After hundreds of fittings, rehearsals, make-up, the act of walking on the ramp with the full production in swing, the music, lights, hundreds of cameras taking our pictures is a big high. But I consciously remind myself not to get carried away, I know that will lead to insecurity about the physical self and that it will end soon. It is a career, and there is no room for neuroticism if I have to stay at the top,” she said, admitting that the reason older girls like her were still in demand in India is because the newcomers weren’t exciting or tall enough.