By Vishal MANVE
MUMBAI (AFP) -- After exfoliating his face and buffing his nails, Lakshay Narula crossed another grooming frontier -- applying hair removal cream to his chest and with it, upending India's rigid gender norms.
Inspired by Bollywood actors and cricket superstars, Indian men are splashing out on grooming products and subverting macho stereotypes that have long defined ideas of masculinity in the patriarchal country.
"I spend 15 minutes on my hair alone and a day prior to shoots, I exfoliate my face and use traditional herbal face packs," Mumbai-based television anchor Narula told AFP.
Hair removal cream did not seem like a radical step, the 29-year-old said.
"It felt fantastic," he told AFP, adding that it was time to drop the idea of men "grooming (themselves) only to impress women."
"I am a man and am doing it for myself to feel confident."
From charcoal face scrubs to beard oils to tinted moisturisers, Indian start-ups are hoping to capture the attention of appearance-conscious professionals like Narula.
With one in four Indians owning a smartphone -- the majority of them male -- social media is a key battleground for pushing products challenging symbols of masculinity from an earlier era, like the 1990s Bollywood 'action hero' covered in sweat and grime.
Today, the movies are more likely to feature stars who never have a hair out of place, even as they deploy flying kicks to beat up bad guys. Advertising styling gel, as Bollywood star Ranveer Singh has done, is a natural next step.
Veet, a Canadian brand owned by British giant Reckitt Benckiser, turned to heart-throb Kartik Aaryan to flog its hair removal cream to more adventurous customers.
Popular actor Ayushmann Khurrana even bought a stake in beauty start-up The Man Company (TMC), whose competitors have recruited social media influencers for endorsements.
But creating a market for previously unheard-of products often requires extra effort.
"When we launched a charcoal peel-off mask, we made explainer videos" for men unfamiliar with the product, TMC founder Hitesh Dhingra told AFP.
The firm also uses Instagram to encourage customers to share selfies with their products, he added.
The model seems to be working -- Narula says the same friends who earlier mocked his skincare regimen are now asking him for product recommendations.
Even the coronavirus pandemic hasn't deterred Narula, who says he is taking advantage of hair salons being closed during the lockdown to try new hairdos for video conferences and work calls.
As well as giving him confidence when he goes live on Instagram, "the whole process is very therapeutic amid the rising stress levels," he said.
According to research firm EuroMonitor International, India's male grooming industry grew 10 percent between 2017 and 2018, with sales topping 100 billion rupees ($1.4 billion).
Traditional consumer giants are also hopping on the bandwagon by investing in grooming start-ups.
India's Emami Group conglomerate purchased a 30 percent stake in TMC, while Colgate-Palmolive and Mumbai-based Marico Limited both own stakes in rival start-ups Bombay Shaving Company and Beardo.
N. Chandramouli, chief of brand insights agency TRA Research, told AFP large firms were supporting start-ups instead of trying to market their own products "because they feel that these smaller players have a sense of intimacy with the consumer".
"A lot of brands are now speaking directly to men," Che Kurrien, editor of GQ India, told AFP.
"So, exposure levels are very high, and it's very hard not to get influenced." With prices starting at 150 rupees ($2) for face wash, the products are relatively affordable and even self-described "low maintenance" men -- those who followed a soap-and-shave routine -- have switched gears.
"Grooming helps men land better jobs, have better romantic prospects or get access to nightclubs," Mumbai-based communications executive Suraj Balakrishnan, 30, whose regimen includes oils for his beard, body and hair, told AFP.
"When you look good, you tend to feel good... looking well-groomed and well-dressed gives you an edge."
Savvy entrepreneurs have also latched on to the trend by launching beauty salons targeting men and offering services from facials to manicures to waxing.
Unlike their corporate counterparts, niche grooming brands are not shy about tackling controversial issues.
A TMC social media campaign for Valentine's Day featured a gay couple, a man applying lipstick, and a father struggling with body image issues.
It garnered 16,000 likes on Instagram -- with users applauding the company for shooting down toxic masculinity norms.
Like South Korea and Japan, which boast thriving markets for male beauty products, India's grooming industry exists against the backdrop of a notoriously sexist culture.
Many wonder whether the changes it posits are merely skin-deep.
"We are still in the throes of change," said Balakrishnan.
"Grooming physically does not mean you're shifting lifelong attitudes completely. Transition takes time."