Robin Slater decided to be a make-up artist when she was 12 and by 16, she was doing make-up. Slater, who is now 46, has worked on big-budget Hollywood films such as Dreamgirls, Memoirs of a Geisha and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As the head make-up artist for Karan Johar’s latest film My Name Is Khan, she’s made Bollywood history by being the first woman to head a film’s make-up department. Los Angeles-based Slater talks to Lounge about creating a six-step look for Shah Rukh Khan and dealing with make-up artists in Bollywood. Edited excerpts from an interview:
How did you get involved with the film?
Prashant Shah, who was a producer living in the US, was putting together a crew for the film and he needed someone to do beards on Shah Rukh Khan, so I was called in. Ultimately we didn’t do that, but I did a look test for Karan Johar and I offered to do a Western look and an Indian look. They wanted to see what the Western look would be like, and it was different from anything done in Bollywood before. When I pulled out the airbrush, they loved the result. I pride myself on using new technology mixed with old techniques. So we used an airbrush to put on the base, but then did the shading the way make-up artists have been doing since the beginning of time.
How did you do Khan’s make-up?
I started out by testing three looks on him and we decided to go with one of them for the whole movie, except for the part when he’s in prison, where he’s made to look pale. His look is a natural sun-kissed one, very natural. He looks fresh and they all thought he looked much younger.
I did his make-up in six steps, in 6 minutes. They timed me. He didn’t want to sit in make-up for too long. I had bought a pretty Indian pillow cover so I laid out all the make-up on it, with every product in exactly the same position every day. In the first step I used concealer to get rid of the blue shadows and flaws in the skin. Next I airbrushed the foundation on. The third step was putting on the sunburn stipple around the nose, cheekbones, forehead, jaw and chin—all the spots where the sun would hit the face. Next I shaded the nose and jawline. He’s got a good nose, I think it’s cute.
After that, I used Lancôme’s Pure Focus Instant Matifying Powder Gel, which I use instead of powder. In America we have to deal with high-definition and every movie is filmed that way. I treated this movie also as if it was. As I told them, “Do you want to go to the Oscars? This movie will go out to everyone on DVD in high-definition.” Powder shows up very clearly in high-definition, while this foundation looks like he’s wearing nothing.
The last step in Shah Rukh’s make-up was going over his eyebrows and eyelashes with a make-up remover, to correct any overflow from the airbrush.
After working on movies such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in which the make-up techniques and prosthetics were so advanced, was doing a simple look for this movie kind of like dumbing down?
In the Grinch, the whole cast was wearing prosthetics. For My Name Is Khan, the challenge was doing the make-up for the entire cast. Besides Mickey Contractor doing Kajol’s make-up, I was the sole make-up artist. I had to figure out a system. My assistant would set up everything and I would move from room to room and go in and do 12 people a day or more.
What did you learn about Indian skin or make-up?
I’m always eager to learn new things. I have understood and perfected Indian skin tones for years. Basically Indians have a lot of blue in the skin and around the mouth and dark purple under the eyes. I eliminated the undertones completely. I found a concealer that works fabulously on Indian skins—Make Up For Ever’s concealer palette number 4. It has five shades in it and it’s a dead-on perfect match for Indian skins. I was buying them by the dozen.
From the Indian actresses, I learnt how they apply kajal to the inside of the eye. I had always done the inside of the eye from under the eyelashes, while they apply the kajal to the inside ledge of the eye. I learnt a lot from them.
In Bollywood, make-up artists are mostly men. How did an American woman fit in without ruffling feathers?
It’s strange because all the hairdressers are women. It’s very similar to old Hollywood, where make-up artists were men and hairdressers women. Though that’s no longer the case, we’re still fighting to get equal pay scales for make-up artists and hairdressers.
Women are banned from the make-up artists union in Bollywood and the film-makers thought I would have so much trouble because of this.
The actors all have their own “personals” or personal make-up artists who have worked with them for years, such as Ravi, who has been doing Shah Rukh’s make-up for about 25 years. The make-up artists were a bit leery of me at the start, but I didn’t come in with attitude and tried to make it a team effort. I was treated with the utmost respect on set. They didn’t know I had worked on all those big films almost till the end of the shooting.
Ravi and I struck up a good friendship on the set. It could have been difficult but it wasn’t. I was actually the first person to do Shah Rukh’s make-up other than Ravi, not just the first woman.
Were the artists willing to learn new tricks?
Manish Joshi, who was my Indian assistant, was so willing to learn new things. He used to do eyes beautifully, now he can also do skin tones well. The other guys weren’t as willing. I wanted to show them how to make a bald cap from scratch, but they didn’t want to learn. But a lot of the actresses brought in their make-up artists to watch and learn from me.
Tell us about some funny moments on the sets.
I always travel with a bruise kit. Tanay Chheda (from Slumdog Millionaire), who portrays Shah Rukh’s character as a child, was fascinated by it so I left the kit for him. He went around set with all these fake bruises. He had a new driver, and one day when he went home, the driver apologized to Tanay’s mother, saying, “I’m very sorry, I took great care of him but I don’t know how he got hurt.” He thought the bruises were real.
Were there any peculiarities about Bollywood make-up that you noticed?
Yes, Indian make-up artists try to match the skin tone of the actor to the actress. I had to make actor Arjun Mathur darker to match Sugandha Garg’s skin tone. He’s very fair and we figured a compromise, which was to darken him a bit. He fought me all the way and hated it every day, but told me at the end of the shoot that he was happy we did it that way. He, like many of the other cast, wanted to know when I was coming back to India so they could do a photo shoot with me for their portfolio.