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Would you like a selfie with Barack Obama? Well, you don’t have to make the trip to Washington. You can match navy blazers with the former US president at several spots right here in India, gazing up and realizing for the first time, “Wow, he’s tall". 

At 6 feet and 1 inch, chances are that Obama’s smiling face towers over you. You stand a little straighter. Click! There you go. 

Then you stare at the photo and realize that something is just a bit off, perhaps only visible if you narrow your eyes at the picture for a few seconds. Obama’s eyeball is a bit off-centre; his hair just slightly coarser than you’re used to seeing; his smile squarer. You shrug, and post to Facebook. Let’s see how many people you can convince that you really stood next to Obama and not with his wax statue. 

In an economy that increasingly works on selfie-ops and social media likes, wax museums are gaining in popularity—and number. When Sunil Kandalloor started the Celebrity Wax Museum company in 2005 with an outlet in Kanyakumari, his was the first such museum in India. 

Now, Celebrity has operated in four locations, two of which are currently active—Lonavala and Devgad in Maharashtra—and a host of them have sprung up across the country. 

Kandalloor says business has grown manifold since he opened his first wax museum with a few hundred visitors per week. Now, an average day sees about 2,500 footfalls in Lonavala. 

It’s a good time, then, for Madame Tussauds to be setting up shop in Delhi. London’s famous wax museum aims to open doors in Delhi in the third quarter of 2017, and has already created a buzz by unveiling a brand new Amitabh Bachchan figure earlier this year; and one of singer Asha Bhosle, her first, earlier this week. 

“Since our first Bollywood figure of Bachchan was created and displayed in 2000, the popularity and demand for a Madame Tussauds experience has grown among Indians," says Anshul Jain, general manager and director, Merlin Entertainments India Pvt. Ltd, the museum’s parent company. 

Photo: Pankti Mehta Kadakia
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Photo: Pankti Mehta Kadakia

“We see a large percentage of Indian visitors at Madame Tussauds globally, be it London, Singapore, Bangkok or San Francisco. India was the right move for us." 

Interestingly, most home-grown wax museums began with the same mission—to bring the Madame Tussauds experience to those who can’t afford it. 

“We exist because of Madame Tussauds," states Kandalloor simply. “Not everyone can afford to go to London, and we wanted to make that experience affordable to Indians." 

Similarly, Sanjay Sabharwal, founder of the K Dev Bhoomi Wax Museum in Mussoorie, says his vision was to bring the experience to the hill people of north India. Mohit Ochani, founder of the Red Carpet Wax Museum in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar, had the same focus—he didn’t look at it as a source of income. 

So what happens to them when the Madame Tussauds experience itself comes to India? 

Taking stock

Ochani’s museum doesn’t use the traditional technique. It employs 3D-printing technology. First, experts have a two-hour sitting with the celebrity (if living), taking more than 150 measurements and photos from all angles. 

Next, this data is sent to artisans abroad, who make a 3D-printed mould. This mould is cast in wax. Then the eyeballs are set, the hair strung in along with eyebrows and eyelashes and clothes put on. The Red Carpet Wax Museum employs artisans from around the world—depending on the gender, style and size of the sculpture. 

“Each sculptor has his own expertise," says Ochani. “While someone in Asia may be great with women forms, someone in Australia may specialise in sportspersons." 

The museum has 42 statues, including those of Anna Hazare, Obama, M.K. Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Harry Potter, Mother Teresa and Saina Nehwal. It takes five to six months to ready each sculpture. 

At Sabharwal’s Mussoorie museum, you can find statues of Angelina Jolie, Pitbull, Benazir Bhutto, Mother Teresa, Jawaharlal Nehru and so on. Their statues are imported from China. 

Kandalloor, on the other hand, makes all of the statues in his museums himself, and each takes about a month to finish. The Lonavala museum showcases 85 models, while the Devgad outlet has 25. 

“Each model takes a month to make, from start to finish," says Kandalloor. “This includes a live study with the celebrity, a clay model that’s used as a mould and the waxing process. We use real human hair, and each hair strand is fixed into the sculpture manually. The eyeballs are the most important, because their position determines the person’s expression." 

Kandalloor’s most cherished celebrity memory is of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “This was special," he says. “I spent an hour at his house for the live study, and it was a big deal for me that he came to unveil the statue himself, along with Rajnath Singh. He was very happy—and said that he has seen such wax figures abroad, but not in India. That was a huge compliment for me." 

Kandalloor has also met with and modelled Sachin Tendulkar, Sharad Pawar, A.R. Rahman and Prabhudeva, among others. 

While Sunil’s Celebrity Wax Museums have statues of Jacqueline Fernandes and Raveena Tandon, a major element is missing from all of India’s wax museums—A-list Bollywood stars. 

“Celebrities endorse Madame Tussauds, but why not us?" asks Ochani. “We have approached many Bollywood stars, but they have the impression that Indian wax museums lack quality, so they don’t want to be associated with us. I wish they would come see our museum, because with 3D-printing, the likeliness is rather uncanny." 

Ochani’s seven-month-old museum in Ghatkopar receives about 500 visitors per week. Sabharwal’s Mussoorie museum, now two years old, gets about 1,000 tourists per week. For a museum, these numbers are pretty low. By comparison, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS) gets about 20,000 visitors a week. 

“Business is not bad, but we really need Bollywood support to escalate things," says Ochani. 

There’s a large difference in investment too: while a statue at the Red Carpet museum costs about Rs15 lakh to make (on the higher side in India, because of 3D printing technology), Madame Tussauds spends about Rs1.5 crore per piece. 

Wax figure at Red Carpet Wax Museum. Photo: Pankti Mehta Kadakia
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Wax figure at Red Carpet Wax Museum. Photo: Pankti Mehta Kadakia

Go figure 

Indian wax museum owners concede that there is a quality difference between Madame Tussauds’ work and theirs, but are not threatened by their arrival. 

“We know that we cannot begin to compare our museum with theirs," says Sabharwal. “But we cater to a different audience—the people of Mussoorie. We have low ticket prices, and we try our best." 

Red Carpet Wax Museum charges Rs300 on weekdays and Rs400 on weekends. Celebrity charges Rs150 on all days while the K Dev Bhoomi Wax Museum in Mussoorie will cost Rs100. In comparison, at Madame Tussaud’s, London, tickets start at £29 (about Rs2,320), and go up to £70 (Rs5,778). 

It’s a good thing that Tussauds itself is coming to India, Sabharwal adds. “Not only will people get to see their level of work while in India, but we will also get the opportunity to observe their figures and improve ours." 

For Kandalloor, this will give a good marketing opportunity. “I’m taking it positively—Madame Tussauds will come to India and create publicity for wax museums and the art that goes into them," he says. “We can use this to market our museums in Maharashtra, to tell people that we employ the same techniques too." 

Ochani will toe the line of the “Make in India" campaign. “We should show people that with other companies coming in, money is only going out," he says. “We have themed exhibits with props, photo ops, experiential zones too. The plus point is that Indians who think museums are boring are also enamoured by Madame Tussauds. It will help us promote ourselves in Mumbai." 

Will this also encourage other international museum brands to explore India? 

“It’s too soon to say," says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director-general of Mumbai’s CSMVS. “The purpose of a museum is study, knowledge and enjoyment, and a wax museum ticks the last box. People come to see life-size figures and take selfies with models of prominent people. The same people who will think twice before buying a museum ticket in India will queue for hours in London to enter Madame Tussauds. So it is likely to be a hit here." 

For other kinds of international museums, however, Mukherjee is less convinced of their success in India. “India is known for its heritage, and a museum cannot exist without a collection," he says. “When dealing with antiquities or art, we have access to great Indian culture that international brands will not."

Pankti Mehta Kadakia is a Mumbai-based journalist focused on culture, education and social development. She collects stories and passport stamps.

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