An American make-up artist is winning hearts in Mumbai

Jan 21, 2018, 12:04 IST | Shweta Shiware

An American make-up artist in Mumbai is nursing a crush on Ranbir Kapoor and spreading sunshine among leprosy patients with her chicken curry parties

Kyana Emmot
Kyana Emmot

In the last five years, Kyana Emmot has gone from knowing no Indians to living among them. The girl from California's all-white town of Lakeport had never met an Indian family "because there were none". "Although, Silicon Valley was close to my town, I had no exposure to Indian culture," she says. The make-up and hair artist now divides her time between Mumbai and Hyderabad, and sounds more local than any Bandraite. We notice that her American accent has picked up the singsong Mumbaiya tone, and she uses "aaram se" and "arre!" liberally.

Her diction is not the only thing Indian about her. Emmot, 27, is behind Love for Leprosy, a feeding programme held four times a year on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Then, friends will tell you she is an expert at making Nagpur's famed saoji chicken. And finally, there is her resume. Her professional assignments have been with South superstar Kamal Haasan, and Aditi Rao Hydari for Mani Ratnam's latest Kaatru Veliyidai. "I just lucked out," she smiles as we meet her at her 1BHK Bandra home.

Emmot has worked with Haasan on an ad film and Bigg Boss Tamil
Emmot has worked with Haasan on an ad film and Bigg Boss Tamil

But, what took getting used to was the Indian love for words like "chubby" and "cute" that we reserve for plus-sized people. "In America, it's rude, offensive even, to call somebody chubby. But I soon learned that it didn't come from negativity. India is a great place to be a fat person. In fact, I think I get booked for jobs because they look at my photo, and think, 'hmm, she looks cute and may be fun to work with'."

Emmot was 17 when she started working as a hairstylist at a local booth, but the lingering urge to volunteer brought her to Hyderabad in 2012 when she chose to work in a children's home. While commuting, an unfamiliar sight at a traffic signal changed her life. "I spotted a group of leprosy-inflicted beggars, their limbs bandaged. I had thought leprosy had been done away with. I had read about it in the Bible, but had never seen a leper," she recalls, calling herself the "typical, ill informed American."

Emmot met Khatun for the first time in 2013
Emmot met Khatun for the first time in 2013

Back home, Emmot remembered a passage from the Bible that spoke of inviting the poor over for a feast. She put up a Facebook post about the experience of meeting the lepers and requested donations. All this to plan a chicken curry feast for her new friends. "I thought once the money came in, I would figure how to organise the treat. Within three days, I had collected enough to organise four feasts back to back." At the leper colony in Nalgonda, 250 patients were treated to chicken curry, dal, sabji and rice. Love for Leprosy, a feeding programme, was born. Even today, the funds come from social media-led proposals and via FundRazr campaigns.

To continue to stay and work in India, Emmot had to find a job. In 2013, she moved to Mumbai in her "ghetto" attire of Alibaba trousers and poncho, but nowhere to live. A pounding crush on Ranbir Kapoor (she says she watched Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani 100 times without subtitles to learn Hindi) meant finding accommodation close to where he lived. "I was naïve to think that I could get an apartment right next to his for Rs 10,000 a month. Finally, I settled for Salvation Army hostel, my guitar and backpack in tow," she remembers.

Khatun, who Emmot describes as her favourite person, holds a saree gifted to her during the Love for Leprosy event held at Moula-Ali leper colony in February last year
Khatun, who Emmot describes as her favourite person, holds a saree gifted to her during the Love for Leprosy event held at Moula-Ali leper colony in February last year

She was the only woman at the hostel, with 50 rooms in one block. "I was allotted a middle room with no light. I was even sexually harassed." She moved to Bandra two months later and met her supporters — model and anchor Rochelle Rao and actor Evelyn Sharma. A talent management firm helped her land projects in advertising, fashion and finally, assignments with some of South Indian cinema's biggest names. "That's when I realised that I could work in Mumbai and still support my initiative down south," she says.

Reconciling disparate worlds
"I think it's my love for both, the beauty industry and my work with leprosy that allows me to stay sane. I don't find the leper home disturbing; it's actually my happy place. The beauty world is about vanity, but it's also a refuge for creativity and art," Emmot says, bringing her to creative maven Mani Ratnam, for whom she worked with on Kaatru Veliyidai. "Seeing him peer at the director's screen to watch Aditi [Rao Hydari] give a shot allowed me to participate in his art. I can't have one professional experience without the other."

Working with Kamal Haasan
The hair and make-up artist who had been booked to work with Kamal Haasan on an ad shoot had dropped out, and Emmot was called to fill in. "When my friends heard, I was flooded with messages about him being a legend. He was such a gentleman. He shared his experience about working with prosthetic make-up, and how he moved to Hollywood for a month to learn it. And the next thing I knew, he had booked me to work on Bigg Boss Tamil, which he hosts."

Love for leprosy
Emmot met Sarah Abraham Soujanya in Moula-Ali, near Secunderabad. Inspired by her grandmother, who was a leprosy patient, Soujanya works in 17 colonies scattered around the Southern city, along with her mother, a trained nurse. Each colony accommodates 170 patients and their families. "In February last year, I took my mother and constant champion, Melissa, to the colony. We went bigger by distributing food packets, sarees and shoes," she recalls. Emmot calls it unfortunate that Indians force lepers to live on the fringes. She speaks of Mumbai's Karuna Trust whose medical vans visit specific areas, and the work done at Trombay's Duttanagar's leper colony. She feels, "Providing land is a good deed, however, the Indian government needs to do more for leprosy."

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