Indian male models are clueless and are exploited

Always waiting for that elusive big break, male models quickly find that in this world the glass ceiling is theirs to break

Sitting in the food court of a busy mall, Nick Rampal speaks between mouthfuls. He is devouring a club sandwich. Rampal’s stubble is unkempt and his military camouflage T-shirt has faded. Kolkata’s premier male model isn’t making any heads turn today. When telling his story, the 30-year-old starts by saying he grew up in Simlapal, a census town in West Bengal’s Bankura district. “For the longest time, we didn’t have any electricity. My story, you’ll see, is a little different.” There’s something unaffected about the way Rampal talks. His accent isn’t manufactured. It’s somewhat easy to like him.

In 2007, when Rampal enrolled in a Kolkata evening college, he didn’t have money, but his friends were all certain of a single fact — he had the looks. He recounts, “I paid ₹1,000 as rent. I ate roadside food. I sold used phones and clothes. I was even a property broker for a while. Yes, I was struggling, but I had my priorities clear. I’d only work for mileage or money.” Things didn’t take long to look up. Rampal travelled to Vizag for a fashion show in 2008 and then made it to the Top 20 of Gladrags Mr India. “I was soon walking the ramp with Lisa Hayden at the Kolkata Fashion Week. You only get paid for modelling work if you’re famous, and I was slowly getting there. My commitment was paying off.”

Too small a pie

For most Indian male models, a stable income remains elusive. Also, there just isn’t enough glory to go around. The pie, aspirants quickly learn, is small. They invariably drop like flies. Rampal then has cause to feel triumphant. In the past 10 years, he has walked the ramp for Sabyasachi Mukherjee. From 2011-2014, he was a fixture at the Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. T-Series has also recently hired him as a model for an upcoming music video.

“I now live in a house that cost me ₹50 lakh to buy. I have two cars, and to get this, I’m proud I never compromised.” Wiping crumbs off his face, Rampal explains the word “compromise” without hesitation: “There are some male designers who prefer men, and many of them told me, ‘If you sleep with me, we’ll give you work.’ I always refused.”

Even though a fair share of Rampal’s Instagram posts are now throwbacks, pictures from yesteryear shoots, he is optimistic about the future. “If I play my cards right, I could still be a model at 50, like Milind Soman,” he says. Perhaps aware that his T-shirt doesn’t entirely camouflage the beginnings of a belly, Rampal has also started doubling up as a fashion director. “I’m much like a movie director. I tell models and photographers what to do at fashion shoots,” he soon adds. “Male models, especially those in Kolkata, have no future. They have to do something else to sustain themselves. I was once offered a film, but my heart wasn’t in it. I had to start thinking about a business I could do on the side.”

Rampal, one finally realises, has always had good business sense. “On the very first day I moved from Bankura, I changed my name. My nephew, I remember, was crazy about Salaam Namaste. Saif Ali Khan’s character was called Nick, so that stuck. But Nick Rampal is a brand. My name is Falguni Patra.”

Out of fashion

Relevance in India’s fashion industry is hard to find. Its benchmarks shift continuously. Male models, in particular, are the first to be shortchanged. With the world of fashion dominated by women, the glass ceiling is theirs to break.

This ceiling, however, almost always proves out of reach. Menswear, for instance, is mostly an afterthought. Since women make better consumers, they are easier to drape.

Based in Mumbai, fashion designer Aanchal Bubber Mehta is a rarity of sorts. Eight of the 10 garments she stitches are for men. Though Mehta is aware that the market she caters to is all too niche, she adds, “A decade ago, men wouldn’t experiment with colours and shades. That conservatism has now slowly given way to a demand for freshness.” A brief visit to the Bubber Couture website makes clear that the “freshness” Mehta speaks of is both an aesthetic and an ethic. Male models are never used more than the once. “Every collection has a different mood and requires a different muse.”

Mehta is, of course, justified in saying she wouldn’t like her pictures to look the same year after year, but for male models, the designer’s demand for someone new is yet another reminder of their career’s mortality. They seldom have repeat customers. Mehta, moreover, is also disillusioned with their calibre. “When I look around, I see more strugglers than models. Only a few good male models exist.”

Until a few years ago, male models found that it paid to get bulked up, but with designers and brands now preferring leaner physiques, they are again desperately trying to fit that right body type. Indian female models, for their part, are discovering a new renown. They are now being signed up by international modelling agencies. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, are left behind, perfecting a Western silhouette that prizes boyishness over muscle. Foreign models too fly into India every year. In the weeks they spend here, they hit the Indian male model’s ego and also his thin wallet.

Not so fair

While there doesn’t seem to be a clear pattern that dictates the hiring of foreign models, Aiman Ali, an ad film director, says he has detected an obvious, if inverted logic. “Three years ago, when Indian companies like Karbonn and Micromax were coming in, they demanded foreign male models for their products. There was a definite white skin fascination. But slowly, with foreign companies like Amazon entering our market, I see some demand for Indian faces.” The balance, sadly, is altogether unwieldy.

Arjun Dutta owes his pale complexion to his British grandmother. Aspiring to be a tennis professional, he was 18 when he was first spotted in 2013. “I was literally plucked from a tennis court in Bengaluru and forced into a photoshoot. I won’t lie. Having a relatively international look helped me get opportunities sooner than others.” It also didn’t take long for Dutta to feel bored, though. “After a while, modelling gets monotonous. I got picky. Once you’ve done good work, you don’t want to downgrade yourself and work for anyone and everyone.” Speaking to me from Delhi, the 23-year-old sounds naturally reticent. He says putting himself out there left him disconcerted. Aware that both he and his profession had limitations, Dutta quickly switched to Plan B.

Now owner of a company called The Shoe Factory, Dutta says, “My shoe business is my main profession, modelling is something I do on the side. I’m still a part of the industry, and I still meet people every day. It’s easier to sell them shoes. I didn’t like advertising myself all the time.”

Use and throw

Threats to the Indian male model don’t always come from the outside. There are clear and present dangers closer home. Models in Kolkata are a case in point. Derided for not being groomed enough, they are often left scavenging for the dregs their Delhi and Mumbai colleagues leave behind. Before he returned to Kolkata in 2012, fashion photographer Ipsito Das worked in Delhi for two years. “If asked to name competent male models in Kolkata, I can still only point to Nick Rampal. There’s a vacuum of talent here, and every time there’s a show or a fashion week in the city, that vacuum comes to be filled by models from Delhi and Mumbai.” So where do Kolkata’s models go? “There’s always Odisha.”

Das says he makes it a point to forward the portfolios he shoots to recruiters and other corporate clients. “It’s a tough crowd,” he admits. Sumukh Parasramka’s WhatsApp is flooded with such pictures and portfolios. Owner of Czarr Innovations, an advertising solutions provider, Parasramka says that grooming in the modelling industry boils down to just one thing — your relationship with the camera. “It’s sad but Kolkata’s models are usually not very camera-friendly. As a result of that, they really never get past that middle bracket. To have a lucrative modelling career, you have to be part of the cream, and the cream can include only 50 men. Let’s face it, those 50 do come from elsewhere.”

While Parasramka does his bit to promote local talent — “I give Kolkata models 70% of my work” — he says there are times when his clients don’t leave him with any money to pay male models. “All I can offer them at that point is a brand,” he confides. “Models who come from smaller cities like Rourkela, Raipur and Guwahati have an even tougher time. There’s a reason why male modelling has this high an attrition rate.” For those who are not able to find another profession, Parasramka warns of fashion’s “dark side.” He says, “Everyone from the makeup artist to the industrialist demands sexual favours. Even a few of my clients have asked for ‘benefits’, but I don’t put my models in harm’s way.”

If the #metoo movement in India ever wanted to include legitimate male voices, it need only turn to the country’s modelling industry. Cheap labour and absent standards have left its men wholly vulnerable to ill treatment.

Everyday pain

Gym buddy to some of Kolkata’s male models, Parasramka has come to feel their everyday pain. “We often only use the word ‘compromise’ in a sexual sense, but for these men, compromises stretch further. It extends to what they eat, what they wear and the countless hours they spend working out. It isn’t an easy life.” Even Delhi and Mumbai models would surely relate to a portrait this empathetic. India’s male models know only too well the many variations of inequity.

Though he works as a producer and shoot coordinator in Mumbai, Parul Menezes says he detests the process of casting: “People are either accepted or rejected like commodities, but that happens the world over. It’s a part of the job. When it comes to male models, however, it becomes easier for people to dispose or comment or be slightly harsher. This industry certainly isn’t a very kind place.” Menezes is also sometimes irked by clients who want their male models to come cheap. “Models,” he says, “are generally treated like hangers across the board.” The recent intervention of agencies such as Inega and Anima Creative Management has given Menezes hope. “Models do better when there’s someone hand-holding them, telling them what to do. It makes them more professional.”

In the past decade, Inega has steadily built a reputation for itself. Its roster of 120 models are by now go-to faces for coordinators and advertisers alike. Mansi Mahta, Inega’s talent head, says, “Models get exploited left, right and centre. Male models, especially, never get their due. Being with an agency gives them an immediate uplift, a pedestal of sorts. The respect we have earned over the years passes on to our models.”

Tightrope walking

Men wanting to break into the modelling industry desperately hunt for mentors, someone to show them how the fashion tightrope is walked. Agencies like Inega ensure that this education isn’t left to chance. When faced with raw talent, Mahta puts her models in front of a camera. “This helps them understand their bodies better. We guide the models through the entire initial process,” she says. Contrary to public assumption, grooming a model hardly ever extends to bettering his spoken English. “There are these boys who come to us from Haryana, Himachal and Kashmir. They don’t need to speak well. If they look fantastic, we will hire them. Modelling is not about talking. It’s all about the camera.”

Peka Fanai is from Mizoram. Shortly after moving to Mumbai in November 2017, the 24-year-old found himself working as a waiter in Raasta, a suburban bar in the city. After a stylist and photographer spotted his obvious talent, they sent pictures from his test shoot to Anima Creative Management. Fanai was soon signed on. He thanks Anima not just for easing his passage into the byzantine world of modelling, but for also “changing my life.”

Stars in their sighs

Shooting an ad for Bajaj, Kahsyap Shangari felt he’d come full circle. A media professional in his 20s, Shangari was once employed with advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. “Bajaj was then one of my clients.” Though it hasn’t even been two years since the 32-year-old switched careers, he has already done some modelling work for companies such as Airbnb, Shoppers Stop and BMW. Shangari, it’s clear, takes his early success lightly. Casting directors have told him there are over 500 men who come to Mumbai every day to become models and actors. There is no room for complacency. “To be a model, though, I only need to be fit. I’d like to think I look decent enough. But my skill set is a lot bigger. I’m here to be an actor, and films are the obvious goal.”

Back in the 1990s, male models such as Milind Soman, Arjun Rampal, Marc Robinson and Dino Morea were all household names. While much of the Bollywood work they did has been forgettable, it’s their modelling catalogue that still makes them covetous. As the fashion director and licensee of MAX Elite Model Look India, Marc Robinson interacts with a number of young men who queue up for Elite’s talent hunt. “Everybody has their eyes on Bollywood. People enter the fashion industry as a stepping stone to Hindi films.” Star of the 1998 film Bada Din, Robinson says, “We too had film offers, but we never felt this great a need to take them up. We were already icons in our industry. Today, modelling work is limited. You need films to sustain yourself.”

Before Vishal Malhotra moved to Mumbai in 2012, he worked in Bengaluru as a software engineer. His boss there would introduce him to clients as “our hero from Bollywood.” Malhotra’s sister had won a national level beauty pageant 15 years ago. There was cause for him to feel he had what it takes. In the first year of his struggle, he appeared in a commercial with Shah Rukh Khan, and then, three years later, he saw his face appear everywhere, on hoardings, on television and in the country’s leading newspapers. Star Sports publicised the 2015 World Cup with its ‘Mauka Mauka’ campaign, and Malhotra had been chosen to play the protagonist — a confused and beleaguered Pakistani. “I have a fair complexion that fits into that Middle East, Gulf-type look,” he says. “‘Mauka Mauka’ was special.”

In the past six years, Malhotra has sometimes had to survive on a single cheque for months. “It’s this money from commercials that has helped pacify my parents in Delhi. They say they’re supportive, but I know how anxious they are.” Though advertising has given him a livelihood, Malhotra speaks more fondly of his bit roles in films such as Ragini MM2 and Sanam Re. Oddly, however, he doesn’t look at modelling as the bridge that brought him to Bollywood. “There are five industries that run parallel to each other in Mumbai — films, TV and web shows, commercials, print ads, ramp work. Work in one industry doesn’t ensure work in another.” Driving home from the sets of a television serial he has been cast in, Malhotra does add, “But when you go for auditions, you see the same faces everywhere. The five industries are different, but it’s the same pool of people who are all hungry for that one big break.”

The known unknowns

In his days as a full-time model, Adhiraj Chakrabarti had walked the ramp for everyone from Sabyasachi Mukherjee to Manish Arora. He finds it hard to count the brands he had appeared in print advertisements for. By becoming a photographer, he tried filling a lack. “For the longest time, I had wanted to do something creative. It’s a nice change to be behind the camera.” He says the male models who pass through his doors, looking for their portfolios to be shot, are predominantly clueless. “They usually don’t know what to do with the images I shoot. Worse still, they don’t know that modelling agencies sometimes only need a Polaroid, not a full folio.” Represented by Anima himself, Chakrabarti sends some of these models for haircuts they desperately need. He helps them walk better. “It’s really the least I can do.”

Born in Kolkata, Chakrabarti had moved to Mumbai 13 years ago to pursue a graduate course in Mass Media. When his college professor told him that he had the face and physique to become a model, he had to confess that his knowledge of fashion didn’t stretch beyond Kimbadanti (an apparel store in South Kolkata). His mother was keen he become a model, so he decided to participate in Grasim Mr India. “At that point, I felt modelling was all about fashion weeks. Strangely, I think that’s exactly what people think modelling is today. Nobody knows what our world entails.” Chakrabarti remembers that his friends from Kolkata would react effusively when they saw his face on a billboard. “They said I was lucky, but it’s they who were fortunate. To get a job, they had to give the one interview. For me to get work, I had to appear for an interview every day. People think they know us. I can only wish they did.”

The author of How to Travel Light relies on books and pop culture for nourishment.

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