confess: I have always harbored a secret yearning for Bollywood hair. Throughout my preteen years, I would go to sleep every night with the fervent wish that I would wake up with a long, luxurious, thick, jet black shining sheet of hair that cascaded down my shoulders and shimmied obediently when I turned to wink coyly at the camera. I thought that if I had the hair, then everything else would fall into place—my clothes would look better, my friends would marvel at my silky locks, and the boys would flock to me in droves, just as they did for the Bollywood heroines. Alas, I woke up every morning disappointed, my mop of short, springy curls having inevitably bloomed into an Afro overnight.
Fifteen years later, I still coax my curls into a two hundred degree straightener and brave the perils of the sadistic round brush just to achieve the Bollywood ideal. But sometimes, when my straightening iron has burnt the back of my neck or I have just hit myself in the head with my brush, I stop to wonder why I and millions of other South Asian women strive for such an unattainable standard. After all, hair is hair. It’s a dead substance, and if it doesn’t look like Aishwarya’s or Rani’s from the minute you are born, then it probably never will. So what is with the South Asian obsession with long, straight hair?
I mean, we all know that Bollywood hair is gorgeous—that sheet of silkiness cascading down a Bollywood star’s back is what enhances her beauty. But why is long, straight hair revered so much? Why are other, equally beautiful types of hair (my curls immediately spring to mind) so rarely represented in Bollywood? And furthermore, why is long hair revered as “good” (read: pious, traditional and womanly), while short or curly hair is seen as modern, immature or rejecting Indian ideals for the Western ones? How did such hair bigotry arise in filmi culture?
Why is long hair revered as “good,” while short or curly hair is seen as modern, immature or rejecting of Indian ideals for Western ones?
Everywhere I turn, I see examples of hair stereotypes in Bollywood. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, a teenaged Kajol is allowed to cavort with boys and sport a cute bob, but Sharukh Khan only falls for her when she has traded in the Polo sweatshirt for a shalwar kameez and has grown her hair out to more “acceptable” lengths. Even Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywood satire Bride and Prejudice picks up on hair discrimination, portraying the daring city girl Indira Verma in a short, curly bob, while the more modest Ash wears her hair traditionally long and straight. Of course, she is the one who gets the guy in the end.
Perhaps the inherent association between long, straight hair and goodness can be traced back to India’s great religions. In Hinduism, disheveled hair is considered inauspicious and is only worn in times of great sorrow. The symbolism of disheveled hair is replete in the Hindu epic Mahabarata, in which the heroic queen Draupadi finds out her husband has wagered her in a game of dice with his mortal enemies and lost her, thereby condemning her to be their slave. She pledges to keep her hair disheveled and wash it only in the blood of the enemies who won her.
Hinduism also reveres hair as a life force representing the power of the natural world; long hair signifies vitality and life. The Hindu god Nataraja, the Lord of the Dancers (an incarnation of Shiva) has a long, sensuous mane in which his life energy resides. The luster and sheen of Nataraja’s hair also symbolizes the sensual aspects of the Sacred Feminine; thus long, beautiful hair becomes a defining aspect of femininity.
The luster and sheen of Nataraja’s hair also symbolizes the sensual aspects of the Sacred Feminine; thus long, beautiful hair becomes a defining aspect of femininity.
The view of hair as a natural life force is echoed in Sikhism, whose devotees believe that God created hair to cover and protect the brain from the natural elements. Hair, referred to as Kesh, is one of the five Ks of Sikhism—the five symbols worn by Sikhs who have been initiated into the Khalsa, the body of adult Sikhs. Hair is regarded as a symbol of holiness and strength, and cutting one’s hair is seen as violating natural law and refusing to accept God’s creation as He intended it.
These beliefs have had an inevitable impact on Bollywood, where long, straight, neatly kept hair is equated with piety, tradition and goodness, while short hair symbolizes just the opposite–unreligious, modern, “bad” girls who have forsaken South Asian traditions for Western culture. Thus Indira Verma’s short, curly do in Bride and Prejudice represented her modern, Western ideals, while Aishwarya’s long locks hearkened back to religious and cultural traditions. Not surprisingly, the movie portrayed Ash as the clear good girl of the two. Even Kuch Kuch Hota Hai depicts Sharukh Khan ignoring the short-haired, immature Kajol for the more traditional, long haired Rani Mukherjee, who is the archetypal pure, innocent woman. Kajol only gets her man when she is grown up and more mature (or has grown her hair out and wears traditional clothes).
Movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the satirical Bride and Prejudice show that the adulation of long hair and the prevalence of hair stereotypes is still very much alive.
Thankfully, this type of hair bigotry is changing. While in the 80s, Parveen Babi’s long silky hair sparked a style craze among Bollywood devotees, dhak-dhak girl Madhuri Dixit turned the long-haired ideal on its head by sporting a short, curly do and inspiring a nation of teenagers in the 90s. However, Madhuri was one of the few successful actresses who could get away with short hair. Movies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the satirical Bride and Prejudice show that the adulation of long hair and the prevalence of hair stereotypes is still very much alive.
So it seems that I am doomed to continue cursing my straightener every morning and only letting my curls out at night. But when I finally get my turn in front of a Bollywood camera, Ash better watch out—I may just be hiding a pair of scissors in my shalwar kameez.