They customised wigs for MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, readied actors for their on-screen journeys… but why is life not the same anymore for the wig-makers and make-up artists of Kodambakkam?

“See, you’re out in the sun looking for your story while I’m sitting in my shop watching an MGR movie,” says wig-maker Natesan. “I have bought land, married a beautiful woman, made my son an engineer…for a buffalo herdsman who came to Chennai as a teenager, I’ve done quite well. What more can I ask for?” Natesan has been selling handmade wigs in a tiny shop under the Kodambakkam Bridge for over 35 years. There was a time when business thrived; when Natesan hardly had time to rest.

He criss-crossed shooting spots as an assistant to Rangasamy, actor Sivaji Ganesan’s make-up artist; stitched wigs for actors including MGR, Jayalalithaa, K.R. Vijaya and Sathyaraj…Life has changed now and he is making wigs for TV actors and cancer patients instead. But Natesan is not complaining. He has made his riches. But not all of his Kodambakkam colleagues have been as fortunate.

Imported wigs

“Foreign wigs are replacing locally made ones,” says Nagarajan of D.V. Nehru wigs, Vadapalani. The shop supplied wigs for Sivaji in Padayappa. “In the past, we did good business since most actors sported a wig. We were always busy — a lot of historical movies were produced for which there was a large-scale demand for wigs.”

Actors these days prefer minimal make-up and rarely go in for wigs — a change that has snuffed out business for people such as make-up men Thiyagarajan and K.V.S. Mani. Thiyagarajan recalls how in the past, actors touched a make-up artist’s feet before they sat for a make-up session. “Kalai (art) was considered to be Saraswathi,” he says. Thiyagarajan now helps at wig-making and does odd jobs related to his field to sustain himself.

There were about ten wig-shops in and around Gangai Amman Kovil Street in Vadapalani, according to Nagarajan. As orders dropped and business dulled, they closed down one-by-one and at present, there are only three in the area. “We now work for daily wages. Those days, there was a regular income since we were on contract with film companies,” he adds.

These men once created heroes out of ordinary men. They have witnessed stars rise and fall; seen the earthly face of screen gods and goddesses. At 67, make-up artist Mani is among the oldest of the tribe. He has worked in several Tamil and Telugu films, including Bairavi, Rajinikanth’s first film as hero. “Rajini was not a star then,” says Mani as he finishes a wig for a junior artist.

Tik Tik Tik, Thambikku Entha Ooru, Moondru Mugam…” S.N. Saleem of Yaseen Wig Centre, Vadapalani, reels off a list of movies he worked for during his prime. A hair-dresser trained in wig making, Saleem was never awed by the actors he dressed up. To him, every movie was “just a job”. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even ask the name of the movie he worked for.

Busy days

“There were days when we worked for up to five companies at a time. We flew from one location to another from 6 a.m. dressing up so many artists,” he says. Saleem misses those dream sequences when actors flew to far-off places. “Such songs provided scope for us,” he says.

Wig-makers invest a lot in real hair that arrives from places of worship such as Tirupati. “One kilo of 20-inch hair costs Rs.20,000,” says Saleem. Ask any wig-maker or make-up artist and he will tell you ‘Actors-ku make-up pota dhan azhagu, (Make-up makes actors look good)’. “Only then will we have work,” smiles Thiyagarajan.