A wig maker’s tale

Veteran wig maker B Natesan takes us through the process of making one, and why he feels his is a thankless profession

“Your hair determines your beauty. Without it, you’re nothing but a naked soul,” says wig maker B Natesan (60). He is sitting crossed legged at his tiny shop, adjacent to Kodambakkam bridge, and reflecting on the popular opinion that baldness or the lack hair might lower a person’s self-esteem.

Hairdresser, celebrity stylist, makeup artists are some of the commonly used terms in the industry. But Natesan wishes to identity himself as a wig maker.

Natesan has been in the business of making wigs for four decades. His journey — from a small village in Pannaipuram in Theni district to Kodambakkam (read: Kollywood) — mirrors the journeys of most of the other secret superstars featured in this column.

Natesan arrived in Madras for survival and assisted his uncle Rajan (also a wig maker), till he got his first break with the Sivaji Ganesan-starrer Vetrikku Oruvan (1979). “Remember the song ‘Thoranam Aadidum’? The character played by Sripriya needed curly hair. Since it was my first movie, I found it quite challenging,” he says. But when Vetrikku Oruvan released, R Rangaswamy, a popular makeup artist and a close confidant of Sivaji Ganesan, was so impressed with Natesan’s work that he took him into his camp. “He [Rangaswamy] offered me ₹15, as opposed to my normal salary which was ₹10. The offer was tempting, so I joined him. Since then, there has been no looking back,” he smiles, adding that most wig makers live a hand to mouth existence.

Kamal Haasan (left) and Sridevi in ‘Thayillamal Naanillai’

Kamal Haasan (left) and Sridevi in ‘Thayillamal Naanillai’

Natesan makes a startling claim. He says none of the Tamil cinema icons — whether it is MGR-Sivaji or Muthuraman-Nagesh — have shot a movie without wearing wigs. “They are not the heroes you idolise, once they take off their wigs,” he says, adding that actresses, especially Sujatha, Manorama and Sridevi had great tresses.

Wigs are a convenient way in showing the difference in characters, says Natesan, explaining Kamal Haasan’s two makeovers for Sakalakala Vallavan. “He [Kamal] sported a French beard and a curly wig for Thaai Illamal Naan Illai, which was a rage when it released. As was Rajinikanth’s look for Murattu Kalai,” he adds.

Did you like Rajinikanth’s meditative performance in Sri Raghavendra, even though it was one of his forgettable films? Then you might have noticed his fake beard and wig. Natesan was one of the wig makers who worked on the project, which, coincidentally, was Rajinikanth’s 100th movie.

He states that there has not been a single instance where he has been given credits for his work. “Makeup artists are treated with respect in the industry, while people treated us like bonded-labourers,” he rues.

Phantom thread

The first step in wig-making involves importing cotton net fabric from abroad. The material, whose purpose is to avoid itching, acts as a bed on which strands of hair are stitched. Tirupati temple, known for its hair tonsuring ritual, is the natural source of human hair for wig makers.

Rajinikanth in a still from Sri Raghavendra

Rajinikanth in a still from Sri Raghavendra
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

All through the 1980s, Natesan says they followed a particular pattern while weaving threads to make wigs. Production houses specified hairstyles or looks for actors, based on which wig makers would prepare a paper mesh — a substitute for plaster of Paris then — by powdering bits of paper, along with white flour. The resultant paste or mixture was carefully moulded to appear like a replica of a human head, on which the wig is mounted.

The entire process took about three days. The work was designed as a package, including a wig, a beard and a moustache. “In those days, we charged about ₹500 per wig. Now, wigmakers earn anywhere between ₹7,000-10,000,” Natesan says.

The average circumference of the head, irrespective of gender, is 22 inches, says Natesan. “Nambiar saamy had the biggest head in Tamil cinema, while Telugu actor Sudhakar has the smallest.” He smiles shyly, adding, “MGR and Sivaji kept the wigs after their respective movie releases. Since other actors were relatively unknown at the time, they were expected to return the wigs after shoot.”

The production houses, according to Natesan, made alterations to the wigs and recycled them for other movies. However, wigs have an expiration date, he says, “Ideally, you can use a wig for a year. The texture becomes rough after that. It needs to be sprayed with a medicinal solution once a while. Otherwise, you get a pungent smell.”

It’s a game

In the late 1980s, Natesan branched out to establish his own shop in Kodambakkam.

Prabhaas in a still from ‘Baahubali’

Prabhaas in a still from ‘Baahubali’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

His biggest film has been the Baahubali series, for which he supplied eight wigs. The movie had an elaborate war sequence featuring thousands of junior artists. The makers were looking for wig makers both in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, to produce wigs in such large quantity. Natesan says that the production team of Baahubali came up with a specific brief for all wigs and beards, since it was a period drama.

“It took a longer time than usual because of the measurements that they gave,” he says, “In fact, two or three of my wigs were rejected at first.”

The production of wigs have gone down in the years, he admits, saying that yet there is always work because of television soap operas. There are also requests to make wigs for people with cancer.

Ask if he has ever regretted coming into the business of cinema, the answer is a resounding no. “Not just me, if you ask anyone associated with cinema, he would say the same thing,”he says. “That joy of having worked with the likes of Sivaji Ganesan and MGR is what keeps us going.”

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