Her father's family was Jewish refugees from Iraq; her mother's family originated in Singapore. But it was no accident that Serena Khambatta was born in India. After all, India is the land of legendary beauties, and Serena Khambatta certainly fits that description.
Even as a girl, Serena David (as she was then known) was strikingly attractive. At 5-foot, 9-inches tall (in a country where the average woman 5-foot, 1-inch tall), she was bound to be noticed. The charismatic Indian film producer Mehboob Khan offered her the lead in his epic film "Aan" ("Honor"). Serena had just given up a career as a stewardess to marry Minoo Khabatta. She had no intention of disrupting the family she intended to start by replacing flying with acting. "No one said ‘No' to Mehboob Khan. I shocked him by turning him down!" says Serena as she laughs. She had other ideas.
At a time when a working woman was considered unusual in India, and a married working woman revolutionary, Serena had made up her mind. She would work. And she knew what she wanted to do she came from an exceptionally good-looking family. But the secret wasn't entirely in genes. There were lotions, herbs and oils that her mother and grandmother used regularly. The recipes had been passed down through the generations and had traveled from Baghdad and Singapore to Bombay. Serena decided to let others in on the secret.
Neighbors, friends, even strangers all experienced Serena's assured touch as she toned up their skin with special tonics that she had created entirely out of herbs. Her fame spread steadily but Serena was looking ahead. This was post-colonial India, and Serena knew that economic imperatives would soon overturn traditional Indian society. The woman of leisure would be replaced by the working woman with very different demands on her time. What Serena needed was a modern, fully equipped beauty salon to augment her approach to scientific beauty treatment. It was a concept totally alien to Bombay 30 years ago.
London beckoned, and she enrolled in the Delia Collins Beauty School in 1961. Eagerly, Serena learned various new techniques, adding a Western form to her Indian content. Months later, as she approached graduation, her father back home in India, died. Serena remembers, "I was in England, far away from home, preparing for examinations in a language in which at the time I was not very proficient. My family withheld the news of my father's death from me, knowing how close I was to him and realizing that the news would have a shattering effect on me. It was only after I had graduated as a fully qualified aesthetician that I was informed. I returned to India, deeply saddened."
With steely resolve she put the tragedy behind her and opened her salon in 1962 at Bombay's glamorous Astoria Hotel. It was a dazzling success. The well heeled of Bombay trooped in as did a new type of clientele -- the Indian working woman. Serena's hunch had paid off. Her blend of Indian herbs and Western technology was just what they wanted. Serena says, "I introduced a whole new approach to beauty in India. Women in India tend to be very heavily clothed, with the traditional Indian sari being as long as nine yards! This leads to a concentration on facial beauty and the almost total exclusion of the body. With my concept of "Total Beauty," I revolutionized the way women in India think about themselves."
She pioneered the use of slimming machines in India and introduced traditional Indian yoga as a beauty adjunct. Serena strongly feels that yoga not only keeps one physically fit but mentally serene. "A tense face is never beautiful, a serene face always is. Serenity and beauty are almost synonymous," Serena says.
"Total Beauty" caught on in a big way. Indian women discovered that their elegant saris draped just that much more elegantly on their new, streamlined figures. And the Indian obsession with facial beauty was also catered to. A stream of innovative beauty products flowed out of Serena's salon. Herbs like neem and chironjee, the medicinal tulsi, have all been used by Serena in skin-revitalizing masks and acne-resistant creams.
Serena's daughter, Marisa, is the modern face of salon's chain. A graduate in political science, a fully qualified lawyer and an alumna of the Completions School of Makeup in London, Marisa brings her diverse talents to the expanding group. She joined her mother 10 years ago when the pressure to expand the salon beyond downtown Bombay became irresistible. In 1982, Serena's opened its doors in the glittering suburb of Bandra.
"Bandra is the Beverly Hills of India," Marisa says. "India has one of the largest film industries in the world. The most glamorous people associated with films - actors, directors, producers - have homes in Bandra. It made a lot of sense to locate our new branch there."
Serena's concept of "Total Beauty" and Marisa's innovative make-up and skin care skills add up to winning combinations. The demand for their services is constantly increasing. Serena regularly host seminars on beauty for the employees of industrial corporations. She lectures on beauty as a profession for students of various schools like the Sophia College Polytechnique and Avabai Petit School. Marisa writes a highly popular column on skin and hair care for India's widely-read Movie magazine. Her column is also due to be syndicated.