Big Wigs

The unsung wig makers of Bollywood

01 July 2014
S Kabir created hairpieces for many major stars, including Amitabh Bachchan in the 1988 action film Shahenshah.
S Kabir / Siraj Sheikh

SURENDRA’S NATURAL HAIR STUDIO isn’t easy to find. But for the wigged wooden heads marking the entrance, this workshop in a grimy alley off Mumbai’s SV Road looks just like any other. Inside, however, it becomes clear that the studio belongs to one of Hindi cinema’s most sought-after wig makers, Surendra Salvi. The foyer walls are lined with photos of Salvi with actors—everyone from Salman Khan to Prem Chopra—sporting his toupees, beards and moustaches.

Salvi ushered me into a workshop where five uniformed employees created mesh bases for new wigs, and wove hairpieces and hair extensions. Almost all of Salvi’s wigs are made of natural hair, but he uses various amounts of synthetic material for those on tight budgets. “Natural hair is expensive,” he explained. Even-length, pre-sorted hair can cost up to Rs 70,000 per kilogram.

Salvi, a Mumbai native, told me he always wanted to be part of the film industry, though it took some time to break into the business. “First I did clerical work,” he said, “then I fitted car lamps for an auto company. Then I worked in a talcum powder factory. Then I had enough.” In the early 1980s, he started assisting the makeup duo of brothers Anil and Pradeep Pemgirikar by making wigs and beards for extras and body doubles. Over the following decades, he made it big on his own. His hairpieces have been used by Boman Irani in 3 Idiots, Shahrukh Khan in Ra.One, Akshay Kumar in Action Replayy, and many other superstars. When I visited two months ago, Salvi was fashioning wigs for director Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming Bombay Velvet. He also does work for regional films, television commercials, and individual clients.

Pradeep Pemgirikar, Salvi’s mentor, oversaw makeup, wigs and prosthetics for the films of director Manmohan Desai in the 1980s. He now runs Mod Wig Centre from his humble three-room house in Dadar, taking whatever work he gets from the Marathi and south Indian film industries. Pemgirikar, who said his best work was on the 1992 film Khuda Gawah, rued changing trends in the movie business. “Everyone wants a natural look now,” he said, “but in those days, every third character in a Manmohan Desai film had a wig.”

If the 1980s and 1990s had the Pemgirikars, the 1960s and 1970s—when bouffants, pompadours and beehives were all the rage—had S Kabir and Victor Pereira. Kabir came to Mumbai from Kolkata in the 1950s to assist his older brother S Amin, who was then already a makeup man and wig maker of repute. Kabir worked with almost all the leading men of the time, his son Siraj told me, and made wigs for such classics as China Town, Mirza Ghalib, Aandhi, Padosan, Sholay, Shahenshah and Kalicharan. But his most illustrious client was Pran, whose memorable get-ups from Upkar and Zanjeer to Amar Akbar Anthony and Don cemented his reputation as one of Hindi cinema’s greatest character actors.

Kabir passed away in 1994. Siraj is keen to keep his father’s legacy alive, and, with his brother Farooque, now runs the wig studio S Kabir & Sons, established by Kabir in the late 1950s, in Andheri East. “Wig making is an art, but it never gets the respect it deserves,” he said. “Even personal drivers and spot boys who serve chai to actors get mentioned in film credits. We often don’t.” An online search showed S Kabir credited for his work on only three movies, though Siraj claimed he actually worked on between seven and eight hundred films. Siraj also lamented the end of the era when prevailing fashions meant greater demand and profits, and more time to craft great wigs. He remembered being called on to make a hairpiece for Amitabh Bachchan several years ago. “They wanted it in three days,” he scoffed. “Is three days enough time to make a wig?” Sorting hair bought from wholesalers is a gruelling process, and the average wig requires at least five to seven days of work.

Victor Pereira, S Kabir’s contemporary, now lives in Mangalore, near his home town of Moodabidri. Although no longer associated with the film industry, he was happy to talk about his glory days over the phone. Having learned his trade in Mumbai from S Amin, Kabir’s brother, Pereira got his break on the 1969 film The Killers, starring Dara Singh and Helen. Although the film was a dud, he went on to craft all of Helen’s wigs from then on, putting his stamp on her looks in song videos such as ‘Piya tu ab toh aaja’ and ‘Mehbooba mehbooba,’ and films such as The Train and Don. Victor also worked, among others, with Hema Malini, Vyjayanthimala, Sharmila Tagore, Mala Sinha and Rekha. His most challenging project, he said, was director Kamal Amrohi’s 1983 release Razia Sultan. “Kamal Amrohi was such a stickler. Woh ek ek baal dekhte the (He used to check each strand of hair). He told me, ‘Hema Malini rani hai (Hema Malini is a queen). I want the best. Nothing else will do.’”

Roshni Nair is a Mumbai-based journalist who has worked with the Big Indian Picture, an online magazine on Indian cinema and subcultures.

Keywords: Mumbai cinema Bollywood make-up artiste actors