At 39, Sapna Bhavnani is a work of art. Svelte, stylish and remarkably photogenic, she has a devil-may-care attitude and a there-is-a-God type of body that revels in grime-punk couture.
Looking at photographs of her — and there are many — you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s a fashion model, rock star or Tarantino muse, although many would argue that she fits these bills already. Instead, the self-made hairstylist calls herself, with humility, “just a glorified barber.” But that’s just on Mondays.
A die-hard Bandra resident and unwitting Mumbai style icon, Bhavnani wears more hats (literally and figuratively) than there are days in the week, and her job description changes as often as her hair color.
When she’s not experimenting with daring hairstyles on celebrity tresses at either of her two kitschy salons (the immensely successful Mad O Wot in Bandra and its recent sibling in Andheri) she’s playing producer, director, writer, photographer, DJ, actor, clown or hooky.
She’s managed to backpack around Mexico, roadtrip around the United States, motorbike up to Ladakh, snag a double major in management, get married and divorced twice, run her own business, rack up a glitzy client list, publish a book called “Style-o-wot,” produce and star in a music video with a Mumbai indie band and become a keystone in the Mumbai urban scene, all the while with a half-smoked cigarette in one hand.
She must have an army of clones out there. She must.
Her most recent achievement is the music video for “Raat” by Airport and boyfriend singer-songwriter Arijit Dutta’s first new musical venture after having departed as frontman of band Agnee. Bhavnani produced and stars in the video, which has been making rapid tracks online.
Independently produced, the video is edgy and seductive, free from any need to pander to mainstream morality. It’s an arty, sexy love story, shot in luscious black and white, that delicately flirts with flesh and tastefully hints at a tangled three-way encounter.
The film also offers insights into Bhavnani herself — bending gender boundaries, dissolving stereotypes of sexuality and relationships, expressing beauty through any and every means possible.
The early years
Like her name Sapna’s life is a dream. Her success arrived through an unstoppable creative drive, an ability to run with opportunity whenever it knocked and a fearlessness and freedom with expression.
In school, Bhavnani was a wild tomboy and top student “until, of course, I discovered boys in the seventh standard.” Her attention shifted from academics, but the tomboy in her remains to this day.
A prankster and rebel at heart, Sapna tells of a childhood filled with escapades of freedom: she recounts the time she rode a motorcycle to school, an occasion when she took her father’s rifle to class, and the day she stole a bottle of chloroform from the biology lab and used it on her father so she could sneak out late with the boys.
Her father, a Sindhi restaurant owner, died prematurely when Sapna was 18. Her mother, a widow in her late 30s with three growing children and unstable finances, went through many struggles to keep the family functioning together.
Through her swaggering, trash-talking exterior, Sapna’s gentle love for her father is unquestionable. “I may look like a freak, but deep inside, I’m just daddy’s little girl,” she says.
Highlight, high life
After a couple of years in a Mumbai college, Bhavnani headed to business administration school in Chicago (“like a good Sindhi girl”), egged on by the persuasive aunt who was funding her education, although still secretly harboring her dreams of fashion school.
It was in the United States that she started cutting and coloring her own hair without any formal training, and turned out to be a natural expert. Suddenly she had paying clients, and a new life opened up for her.
She partied hard, experimented with drugs, swapped a short stint in a bank for waiting tables at an Italian restaurant.
She dabbled in fashion design, and usually sported her own creations. By a stroke of luck, pop star Janet Jackson noticed a kitschy jacket she was wearing outside a Virgin Records store in Los Angeles one day, and asked to borrow it for a music video. The next thing she knew, L.A. stylists were renting clothes from her for big rock stars, and she was hurtled into the high life.
Home is where the hair is
Bhavnani swapped her Hollywood dreams for a short-lived marriage to a boyfriend back in India. She went back to basics working for a Mumbai salon at minimum pay, and eventually, tired of rules, regulations, and standardized dress codes, went on to open the first Mad O Wot salon — which, for its time, was considered avant-garde.
Its experimental styling, free-spirited approach and funky interiors — along with Sapna’s rebellious look — quickly earned her an A-list of celebrity clients.
“Appearances are very important, especially in a glamor-related field. I attract a lot of Bollywood clients simply because of the way I look. And I know it.”
Among her regulars are cricketers Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Rohit Sharma, and Bollywood stars Katrina Kaif, Bipasha Basu, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, John Abraham, Hrithik Roshan, Gauri Khan, Dino Morea and Mandira Bedi.
And she doesn’t tolerate tantrums from anyone, no matter who they are. “If people don’t treat people like people, they don’t deserve my service. Perhaps it’s because of my appearance that clients feel I don’t really take sh*t, but they don’t give me any.”
Bhavnani’s get-up isn’t just a utilitarian shell, though. Her real coolness is a state of being, not a shade of red. Her natural anarchy is simply her way of being, not a manufactured means to some obscure end.
Underneath the apparently intimidating exterior is a goth girl with a golden heart, undaunted by imperfection and wholly committed to life. More content to stay at home than socialize “in the circuit,” the self-titled Bombay Ki Raani defies the media’s persistent attempts to peg her as a party animal, wild child, or Bombay bad girl.
Instead she has set up multiple direct access points to herself. You can become a fan of Sapna Bhavnani on Facebook, interact with the ultra-cool Mad O Wot website, read her Bombay Ki Raani blog, or keep up with her prolific chatter on Twitter.
Q&A with Bombay Ki Raani
CNNGo: How was your experience being a producer on the “Raat” music video?
Sapna Bhavnani: My first venture as producer came quite by accident, actually. I was thinking of trying my hand at it and before I knew it, I had a song in my hand and a video to make.
I guess if you don’t look at it as being a producer then it just kinda makes it easier. I was surprised to see how calm and collected I was through the entire process when things went right and when they didn’t. I was quite surprised actually at my calmness. I AM NOT A CALM PERSON. I AM ALWAYS GOING THROUGH LIFE ON SPEED!
CNNGo: You’re something of a Bandra icon, a Mumbai public figure. How does that feel?
Bhavnani: Bandra icon??? I guess it’s because I was raised in Bandra — it’s my home. I am very proud of being part of the melting pot of Bombay (yes, I still prefer to call it Bombay). I have no idea of how I feel about being a known person because it really doesn’t affect my life in any way. It doesn’t add to it nor does it take away from it.
CNNGo: What keeps you ticking everyday (besides cigarettes and coffee)?
Bhavnani: Well, I’m going on 40, so there are some days of no smoking. I guess nicotine is definitely not what keeps me ticking any more. The coffee intake has reduced too, because coffee tastes horrible without a cigarette. What keeps me ticking is my passion for life and the determination to grab it by its balls every day, every minute.
I will never be completely satisfied with my hands in just one profession. I have to try everything and I will — from writing to directing to producing to DJing to photography to playing the bass to rapping. Hair is my money and passion; the rest, pure passion.
CNNGo: Your mother seems to be an important person in your life.
Bhavnani: I did not like my mother growing up. I found her very narrow minded and very obsessive. By the time I was 30, something changed: me! I realized I was becoming my mother. All of a sudden, she didn’t seem so bad anymore (laughs). She is my role model and my life support, but, like most people, it took me three decades to realize it.
CNNGo: Do you consider yourself a rebel?
Bhavnani: I consider myself “unique” in the sense that I have the ability to go from punk rock to country in five seconds, which can be kind of confusing. I’m a houseful of emotions that can keep one entertained for at least the length of a Bollywood flick.
I like extremes, and apply that in everything I do — if I drink, I’ll finish the darn bottle; if I take up a project, I will not sleep until it’s done. I’m an urban hippie who loves the pot holes, smog, and everything else that comes in the city package. The rebellion is constant in my mind!