Ambika Pillai returns to her roots with her first beauty salon in Kerala. She says that the perceptions of beauty are changing

“It has to be my curly hair!” laughs Ambika Pillai, ruffling her curly mop of hair. She laughs easily, that full-throated laugh seems to pours out of her. If joie de vivre were to assume human form then it would be Ambika. She cannot comprehend the reaction to her. “Hey! I am not the star, Mohanlal is the star. I am just the makeup artist.” Its lunch time, others at Ramada Resort nudge each other and point towards her. Ambika, oblivious to the reaction, concentrates on her conversation and karimeen pollichathu.

Her curly mop comes up because she is trying to analyse why the television viewing population has taken to her. She admits to “loving every minute of it.” A fallout of her appearance on ‘Midukki’, a reality show on Mazhavil Manorama. People had heard of her but it was with the show that people understood her work. Suddenly everybody knows her in Kerala, whether it is a fruit vendor in Kollam, an elderly couple at the airport “who told me Kerala wasn’t ready for me” or a five-year-old who does a perfect imitation of her. She shakes her head in disbelief.

Ambika left Kerala almost 25 years back, made a name for herself in the fashion industry as the prima donna of beauty with seven salons in New Delhi. She landed up in Delhi, post-divorce as a 21 year-old, with a toddler and nothing else to her name. The plan was to do a ‘beauty course’ and then head back home. “I got married at 17. I didn’t want to study so I got married!” The heading back home had to wait but what did happen was she went on to become one of the biggest, sought after names in the industry.

She started out after learning the ropes of the trade from Blossom Kochar and Shahnaz Husain. Through sheer dint of hard work and talent, she set up her own beauty salon called ‘Visions by Ambika’, which had three branches and was extremely well-known in Delhi.

A partnership going awry left her with one of the ‘Visions’ salons, her talent and a strong resolve to come back even stronger. The salon chain Ambika Pillai was born 10 years ago. Today she is a much sought-after name in the fashion industry – there is no fashion week or bridal week without Ambika waving her magic brush. The wedding season in Delhi finds her on her toes.

Beauties transformed

And it is not just models that she has ‘beautified’. There is a long list of Bollywood beauties who have transformed at her hands …Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif. Her clients include the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Several awards have come her way including those for the best hair and best make up artiste.

When she left Kollam, she says, “I told Amma that I would return. And she said on the show that ‘she said she’ll return but she hasn’t.’ It is, probably, time to return. My roots are pulling me back.”

She is all set to come back ‘home’. On September 2 Kerala will get its first Ambika Pillai salon. But she is careful not to get carried away by the euphoria, “I still remember what the elderly couple told me.” Now, she feels, the time is ripe to come home to Kerala because “attitudes are changing. I am not saying everything has changed but change is around the corner and I want to be here when that happens.” By attitudes she means perceptions about what beauty – skin or hair – should be.

She says she had misgivings about appearing on the show, initially. Her reasons ranged from her Malayalam or rather her not speaking ‘proper’ Malayalam to how audiences would respond. But it all worked out fine and here she is. She says she will divide her time between Kochi and Delhi. “During the wedding season, for instance, I have to be in Delhi.” During the interview her assistant gets a call from a city mall offering space to open a salon which she politely declines.

Work on the studio is on at a hectic pace. Opening salons in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Kottayam is a dream but, she says, “the work behind opening one is taking the Mickey out of me.” That she is excited about the launch is there for all to see. It is the return of the prodigal daughter. She is developing a skin care line, which she says will be ready by the time her salon opens. “I told my team that the line has to be ready by the launch because I am going back to Kerala, going back home.” Ambika already has an eponymous line of cosmetics – mascara, lip glosses, lipsticks, nail enamels, eye makeup and handbags too.

Sushmita Sen opened her first salon in Delhi and “Sush will open the store.” There will be a fashion show by Rohit Bal and the original supermodels of India such as Noyonika Chatterjee will walk the ramp.

More to beauty

As judge on ‘Midukki’, she infused a sense of confidence in dark-complexioned girls. Not just the participants, in viewers too. “A mother wrote to me saying how her daughter changed, became more confident and comfortable in her skin after hearing me define dark complexion, on television, as melted chocolate brown not karuppi that we have grown up hearing.”

She remembers the phrase kali kalooti being thrown at her as she would zip around on a bike in Delhi. “I thought, all thanks to my limited knowledge of Hindi, that it meant something exotic or beautiful. I realised much later that it meant the opposite,” she laughs at the memory. For a State where there is a beauty parlour at every nook and corner, the concept of skin care or hair care is woefully wanting, she says.

“Skin and hair are neglected. It is good to see fewer girls with oily hair. There is more to hair than that or just snipping away.”

As she gets ready for the launch, she says, her daughter Kavitha gets jittery with diversification and every salon she opens. “She keeps asking me, ‘isn’t this enough?’ I tell her that I am making it all for her and she can take care of it!”