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Annie Chen's brush with Bollywood

As iconic South Mumbai hairstylist Annie Chen opens her second salon, she rewinds to when she was a full-time hairdresser to Bollywood divas, Parveen Bhabi, Sarika and Reena Roy

When we walk into the brand new Chen’s Salon in Colaba, we are greeted by 53-year-old Annie Chen who doesn’t look a day older than 40. We egg her to divulge her age-defying secret, “I work nine to nine, seven days a week, but I love it and I don’t feel it’s work. That’s the secret probably,” she smiles.

Annie Chen (left) with Sarika (centre). Pics courtesy/Annie Chen
Annie Chen (left) with Sarika (centre). Pics courtesy/Annie Chen

Chen, who started working when she was 17, was born and raised in Mumbai and belongs to a family of hairdressers.

“My mother was in this field. We had a salon in Walkeshwar in the 1970s. After school, I would drop by to help her; it’s how I started off. My aunt used to be Neetu Singh’s hairdresser,” reveals Chen who gets distracted for a moment by our hair. “It’s quite dry; you must do something about it. But not too many people have long hair these days,” she admits, while escorting us to a chair inside the spacious salon in Colaba.

(From left) Reena Roy and Shatrughan Sinha with Annie Chen
(From left) Reena Roy and Shatrughan Sinha with Annie Chen

“People think film stars are difficult to handle but that’s not true. I have had a good experience. I learnt a lot from Moushumi Chatterjee because she was particular. Zeenat Aman was great to work with. I accompanied many celebrities for single shoots or films when their hairdressers didn’t show up. However, I was the full-time hair dresser for Reena Roy, Parveen Babi and Sarika, and would accompany them on all their shoots,” she reveals, still trying to analyse our hair.

(Above) Annie Chen (left) with Reena Roy (right) at a film shoot
(Above) Annie Chen (left) with Reena Roy (right) at a film shoot

Bollywood’s mane secrets
She recalls her first assignment, “I had to go to Kashmir to accompany Parveen Babi. Bharat Godambe used to do her make-up. It was my first flight, and I didn’t know how to put on a seatbelt, so they had to teach me.” We nudge her to reveal more about yesteryear divas. “Parveen was one of the easiest to do hair for. We had to do waves; she had lovely hair. She didn’t experiment much though. Reena Roy loved trying out hairstyles. There were a lot of wigs and switches that we tried with her. Sarika also tried many looks, depending on her character. She was modern looking,” Chen reveals. What about the male actors, we ask. “Jeetendra was sweet. In those days, I didn’t know anything about Continental food as I was quite unaware. He would order such food on sets and insist that I try it. I used to share more about books with Kamal Haasan. Kader Khan would also enquire about my reading choices, and if he could make a film on it,” she chuckles.

Chen with the reporter at her new salon. Pics/Suresh KKChen with the reporter at her new salon. Pics/Suresh KK

Chen reveals that when actresses signed a film, their clothes, hair and make-up were decided, and accordingly, all the material was shipped to the location. However, from dealing with the actress’s sometimes-dominating mother to maintaining continuity for a shoot, the hairdresser’s role had more than one challenge. “Continuity was our biggest challenge. The song would be filmed across six months. Actresses would look different, put on weight, while some movies took seven-eight years to make. In comparison, South Indian films would work faster; and sometimes, would wrap up in a month. They would take bulk dates and shoot continuously and paid promptly too,” she recalls, adding how Mumbai financers would run out of money; many times, the shoot would stop and resume after a few months. “Kuku Kohli, Armaan Kohli’s dad made four movies with Reena Roy, he was one of the few rich producers then,” she says.

An attendant tends to a client inside the spa room at Chen’s SalonAn attendant tends to a client inside the spa room at Chen’s Salon

Then and now
“In the ’80s, the hairdresser was also the chaperone to the actresses. Often, we ended up being the only other woman on the set. There were junior artistes and background dancers too, but they didn’t interact with the actress. All the other crew were men. The actresses preferred women hairdressers; it’s like a support because you would get all kinds of men on set. Zeenat Aman would have a separate room and have the hairdresser in another room but most of my actresses shared the room with me. Many film journalists hounded me for information on these stars, especially Reena Roy, but I have never divulged anything. They trusted me, so, I kept that trust,” she adds proudly, getting set to blow dry our hair.

Chen is amazed at the entourage that follow actors. “Those days, male actors would brush their hair before a scene; no hairstylists were involved. They would visit the Taj for haircuts. Now, they have a hairdresser who travels with them,” she exclaims. When prodded if she would return to doing films, she isn’t keen. “I can’t do the running around anymore. I don’t know if I can gel with the younger generation. However, I prefer photo shoots. I’d like to do Deepika and Sonam’s hair,” she shares.

On the rebond
After nearly four years in the film industry, Chen went to Dubai to work for Shahnaz Husain. Later, she headed to London to study hairdressing and beauty, and worked there as well. Post her marriage, she joined the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai and opened her first salon at Marine Lines, 18 years ago. From giving Mandira Bedi a makeover where she transformed Bedi’s curly hair into a cropped look to introducing the city to rebonding, Chen has a lot to her credit.

“I saw a girl on a flight to Hong Kong, and her hair looked shiny and straight. I asked her about it, and she mentioned a new treatment in Hong Kong. So, I checked with my sister, as she lived in Hong Kong at the time. It was a secret,” she says. Not ready to give up, she enquired with the supplier of products and sourced it but the instructions were in Japanese. Chen’s friend, who worked in the chemical business, helped figure the contents. “I flew to Japan to meet the manufacturers; they got a translator and explained the process in English, and we were ready. In those days, queues would line the steps leading to my salon, all the way around the building. My products came only from Japan,” she laughs, adding that many popular hairdressers including Vandana Luthra of VLCC visited her salon to figure out this new product.

“Things change so fast in this field that you never have a chance to say, ‘I know everything’; I love it. I enjoy YouTube everyday. In our time, we had to go abroad to learn. I always tell newbies to get the basics right and get trained. Today, unlike before, there’s a lot of awareness about hairstyle options and global trends. In our time, film stars dressed in a typically filmy way. Now, the looks are more international,” she adds, turning the hair dryer off. She brings us a mirror to gauge our new look. We’re delighted; after all, being styled by Annie Chen nearly took us to the sets of our own Bollywood flick.

At: Chen’s Salon 6, Puran Nivas, first floor, opposite Radio Club, Colaba.
Time: 9 am to 9 pm (on all days)
Call: 22037609

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