End of an era: COVID kills salon
The salon that changed the way Mumbai's cool ones wore their hair has shut shop. COVID-19 got to it. Mad O Wot's creator Sapna Bhavnani on what went by, and what's in store
When I was distributing relief packages to migrant workers at the beginning of the lockdown, I didn't realise that I would be affected by the pandemic, too," says Sapna Bhavnani, "But we are just a mom-and-pop shop like Altaf bhai two blocks down who makes cushion covers. Small businesses like ours can't survive this lockdown. I've already heard of suicides among small barbers in Pune."
Mad O Wot, the hair salon at Pali Hill, is shutting down. Covid-19 got to it. The brand will live online as a hair academy, with subsidised fees for the underprivileged. With no relief packages from the central or state governments, Bhavnani cannot afford to pay the rent in one of Mumbai's most expensive areas, nor keep her staff of 11 on the rolls. One of them, Nazia Darvesh, has been with her since 2004. For the past few weeks, she has been running the shop with three stylists. On Tuesday, the staff came together for one last haircut in the distinctively kitschy interiors with a 1970s nai ki dukaan vibe.
On the video call from her salon in Bandra, Bhavnani is unvarnished. You can't see her armour—the tattooed skin, nor her usually black outfit and heavy boots. Her hair is not the flamboyant chameleon we have come to know—not flowing in long braids, or being vivacious pink, nor blonde and short, or fiery red with an irreverent Minnie Mouse bow. It's deflated and dark brown. None of her ensemble of accoutrements are visible either—no kohl and double nose piercing.
"If there's to be a Western-style lockdown, there has to be a plan for a relief package," says the 49-year-old celebrity hairstylist known to work on a slew of Bollywood names. "USA and Canada have offered relief—waive off the rent, the utilities bill, or give a compensatory package. Here, there's nothing. It's not just salons, this is the death knell for tailoring shops, clothing stores, toy shops, stationery marts..."
Demonetisation and GST had already pulled the rug from underneath the business and now Bhavnani is left without means to provide severance for the staff, although she says, "many salon owners have been sweet enough to offer space, rent free, to service our clients."
Mad O Wot sprouted in 2004, in a forest of sterile white and beige franchisee salons that were muscling out parlours run by neighbourhood "aunties". Bhavnani had moved from LA, after tasting success in the music industry at just 31. "I had made my money, bought my house in the Hills and the motorcycle I wanted," she says. She enrolled at Juice Hair Academy to study hairdressing formally, and was made manager within six months.
The next step was "her own dukaan". "The first thing I did was trash the uniform," she says, "A brand name plastered on the chest kills creativity. I didn't want to be a placard for someone else. We also didn't push products, or try to convince people to straighten or curl their hair. We wanted people to embrace their texture. We didn't even 'set' it after the cut, championing the 'rickshaw dry' to let them experience what their hair would look like naturally."
She also changed the salary structure: The industry norm was a fixed salary for the stylist, as per seniority, and a 10 per cent commission on the haircut. Bhavnani's "American upbringing" put it as 50 per cent of the haircut. "We also let freelancer stylists 'rent a chair' in the salon to save their overheads," she says.
Soon, Mad O Wot is where the cool kids went for extensions, hair colour and punk cuts, without fear of being coerced to 'rebond' or 'relax' their opinionated mop. The salon moved three locations in Bandra and Khar, and also had an Andheri branch for a couple of years. MS Dhoni, John Abraham, Bipasha Basu popped in for a quick snip.
With the editor of a then upcoming tabloid in her chair, Bhavnani's personal brand grew parallely. She became a columnist in the newspaper and then moved on to writing for Sunday mid-day every weekend. While she expected to write about the celebrities she serviced, she grabbed the opportunity to talk about bigger things—the termination of a foetus, divorce, calling out film producers who flew out actresses abroad for a simple colour job, instead of patronising local talent. On product shoots, she pushed brands to show a spectrum of browns as the natural Indian hair colour, rather than reflective 'boot-polish' black; and refused to over-process hair for the sake of aesthetics. Paralelly grew her philanthropy—hair workshops in Kamathipura and classes for acid attack survivors.
Bhavnani will continue working on shoots and as a personal stylist. "That is still my bread and butter," she says. But the future holds a new direction in filmmaking and as an author [a book of short stories is coming]. "It brings together all my loves—styling, storytelling and music," she says. Her recent documentary, Sindhustan, about the migration of the Sindhi community during the Partition has won global accolades. Next up is My Dog Is Sick, a story about a self-destructive couple, set to sound and music with no dialogue. "Irrfan Khan once told me that dialogues keep an actor from emoting as the character," she says. "That stayed with me."
She's calling her production house Wench Films. "I asked people for the derogatory names women are called—kalmoohi, kameeni came up a lot, but I wanted something understood globally." And since every creative endeavour of hers is meta (the map and iconography of the Sindh province bloomed on her skin as she made her first film), this is the beginning of another physical metamorphosis.
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