It might be true that almost every actor in Bollywood has got cosmetic surgery done but Koena Mitra knows that she is the poster child for it. All she had wanted was a slightly better nose. The cartilage made one side of it look bigger than the other. Having it fixed was not her own idea. “Many directors and technicians told me to get this done,” she says, “I have a sharp body and sharp features, and I was being pressured a bit. If you don’t look perfect, you are criticised. If you look perfect, you are plastic.”
The procedure didn’t go according to plan. There was an adverse reaction in the bones and her face swelled up. “It used to collect water,” she says, “I had to go get an injection every 15 days to drain the liquid. And since there was very little fat on my face, it wasn’t healing as quickly as it could.” Mitra decided to wait it out and stayed cooped up at home. But after a phase of depression, she decided the only way to deal with her fear was to face it—she started making public appearances despite her disfigured face. She also went to America to do a course and let the gossip back home die down. All in all, it took six months for her to look her normal self again. It was a harrowing time.
When actress Anushka Sharma appeared on an episode of Koffee With Karan recently, her lips appeared noticeably unusual, setting off speculation about her having gone under the knife—with disastrous results. Among the many derisory tweets aimed at her, one said, ‘Anushka Sharma is already eligible to write a book—10 ways to screw a good face.’ Others compared her lips to that of The Joker’s from The Dark Knight and V from V for Vendetta. Anushka found herself forced to release a statement that she had not had cosmetic surgery: ‘For a short while now I have been using a temporary lip enhancing tool and that along with make-up techniques (I have learnt over the years) is the reason why there might be a change in the appearance of my lips.’
Many people still don’t believe her because most people in Bollywood—or the rest of India for that matter—hush up any surgery undertaken to look better. Mentions of anyone having resorted to it tend to have an accusatory tone. Sharma is not alone under such suspicion. Kangana Ranaut and Katrina Kaif are also reported to have had lip jobs done, Minissha Lamba and Priyanka Chopra are said to have got their noses corrected; Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan, some allege, get regular botox shots. With no confirmation of any of that, such news stays in the realm of gossip.
What whips up tsk-tsks, however, is the odd surgery gone wrong. “Most top actresses have done these surgeries but they didn’t get botched up,” says film journalist Rauf Ahmed, “Anushka was accepted the way she was. She shouldn’t have done this.” No matter how fierce the competition in cinema, he says, re-doing one’s face or body is not necessary for success. In fact, sometimes ‘imperfections’ can work to one’s advantage, and he cites the case of Mumtaz, who had a pug nose but became a top actress. “It made her different. She actually beat a beauty like Waheeda Rahman for some roles at the time,” says Ahmed, “Or take a case like Sadhana, who had a big forehead. She got her hair cut in a fringe, popularly called the Sadhana cut, and that became a rage.”
The ideal form is an imagined aesthetic and it is debatable if it even exists. On the other hand, human beings seem conditioned by society to see themselves as flawed. How else does one explain the irony of cosmetic surgery being so heavily patronised by those in modelling and cinema where men and women are already so good looking?
To cater to this demand for a perfection that no one can pinpoint, there is an entire range of services that doctors now offer. Dr Mohan Thomas of the Mumbai- based Cosmetic Surgery Institute says that the most common procedures these days include body contouring, breast augmentation (or reduction, often opted for by men) and rhinoplasty, a fancy name for a nose job. Less sought after but also available are procedures like dimple creation and genital rejuvenation— which refers to vaginal tightening, penis enlargement and so on.
Celebrities under pressure to look young are said to be increasingly reliant on straightforward anti-ageing OPD procedures that involve the use of botox and dermal fillers. “These treatments can give instant results and are temporary,” says Dr Sunil Choudhary, director at the Institute of Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery, Max Hospital, in Delhi. Botox stretches out wrinkles by temporarily blocking signals from nerves to muscles, thereby reducing muscle movement, while dermal fillers plump the flesh and stimulate collagen growth.
According to Dr Choudhary, cosmetic treatment is on the rise even among housewives and young girls looking at marriage, apart from professionals like air-hostesses. “It’s all connected with self confidence and feeling good about oneself,” says Dr Navin Taneja, director at The National Skin Centre in Delhi’s South Extension. Many girls come to him with a picture of Angelina Jolie; others want dimples like Preity Zinta’s.
While all sorts of people are opting for cosmetic treatment, it is glamour industries that doctors appear to have within their sights as their primary clientele. Mitra says she has seen first-hand how plastic surgeons entice one to go in for these treatments: “It’s like going to a store where a salesperson encourages you to buy something. My own doctor showed me the kind of clients he got. Along with actors, there were businessmen and even college students. Everyone is seeking perfection. Even 60-year-old actors today have no wrinkles.”
Gossip of celebrities winning battles against age, under-sexy lips or an awkward nose serves cosmetic doctors well. Far less advertised are the perils of going in for such medical intervention. Yet, when cases do get botched up, they usually show up in a way that few can miss—disfigured lips, unsightly scars, blackened skin and droopy eyelids (caused by botox over-use). “Many a time, people go in for treatment without realising the consequences,” says Dr Geetika Mittal-Gupta, who runs a cosmetic treatment centre near Mehrauli in Delhi. “In the case of [Anushka Sharma], she clearly has small eyes. With unnaturally fuller lips, her face looks odd as this is not its natural composition.” The doctor often gets patients who do not mind the cost of a treatment but fail to look at its aesthetic impact. “I had to turn away a woman who had already done a series of cheek upliftment surgeries, making her look like a duck,” she recounts, “Such patients often need counselling, and only a qualified doctor can recognise that.” Thomas also agrees that if Anushka Sharma did go in for surgery, then she may not have thought it through (or was not advised well). “Most people don’t realise that the lip is sitting on a platter—your face—and has to fit that,” he says, “Not everything that looks good on a mannequin looks good on a person, right?” Most film stars go abroad to get work done, and he thinks that’s their biggest mistake. “A doctor there has only worked with Caucasians and doesn’t know anything about Indian features,” he says, “An Angelina Jolie can pull off those lips, but an Indian face cannot. Indian girls may want a turned- up nose—called the ski slope—but it only suits Caucasian faces, not Indian.” Thomas also says that surgeons must understand what really bothers their clients about their appearance before they treat them. “I have a psychiatrist on board. If people answer ‘yes’ to questions like ‘Does your nose give you bad dreams?’ then a red flag should go up.”
Professionals in industries where success depends at least partly on one’s appearance seem quite willing to live with the risk of a surgery gone wrong. Actors and models come instantly to mind, but it is not limited to them. Television news readers in Delhi, for example, make up most of Dr Choudhary’s clientele.
Casting director for movies like Love Sex Aur Dhokha Atul Mongia says that for directors and producers, looks are an important criterion to select actors. ‘Low- on-content’ films, especially, require pretty faces. He adds, “Though celebrities are made scapegoats, it’s part of a bigger trend, where one’s worth is dictated by one’s weight and skin colour. Objectification of [the body] is… where society and media are headed.”
The silver lining is that, given enough time, even botched-up surgeries can be fixed. A botox treatment gone wrong will need eight to ten months for its ill effects to vanish. “If the expected results are not achieved,” says Dr Choudhary, “dermal fillers can be dissolved using hyaluronidase, an enzyme. Rhinoplaty and breast augmentation surgeries are treated like any other medical surgery, and—of course—are administered with caution.”
Cosmetic surgery disasters, according to this doctor, are likely to be far fewer if these procedures are relieved of their stigma and put to open discussion. “If these procedures are treated like make-up that is used to alter one’s look,” he says, “I am sure people will be more open about getting them done—and incompetent practitioners will be identified easily.”