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I

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.

Bollywood Icon, the late Parveen Babi.
Bollywood Icon, the late Parveen Babi.

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.

Shahrukh Khan and Kajol as best friends in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
Shahrukh Khan and Kajol as best friends in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

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.

Aishwarya Rai in Bride & Prejudice
Aishwarya Rai in Bride & Prejudice

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.

Madhuri Dixit's trademark bob.
Madhuri Dixit’s trademark bob.

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.n

Roxanna Kassam now loves her curly tresses, despite what Bollywood thinks.
Published on June 6, 2005.
Comments are closed.
  1. February 28, 2007, 4:16 pm sonia

    son lo mejor Shahrukh Khan and Kajol sus peliculas son muy cheveres

  2. March 29, 2007, 4:35 am Jeevika

    Jeevika: South Asia Documentary Festival, which began in 2003, aims at capturing the livelihood challenges faced by the rural and urban poor and bringing it to the attention of current and future policy makers. Over the years, Jeevika has been successful in advocating for the cause of numerous entry-level entrepreneurs – rickshaw pullers, street vendors, prostitutes, child labour, farmers and forest-dwellers.

    The premier event of the festival to be held at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi will be the awards ceremony from 20-23rd July 2007, which will culminate four days of screening for the top films. The last date for the submitting the entries is May 31, 2007

    In addition as part of the festival tour, the award-winning films will travel and be screened in premier schools and colleges in over 20 states in India and other organisations working on livelihood issues as well as in our South Asian neighbours.

    Over the years, Jeevika has become an increasingly popular and news-worthy event as well as an important catalyst for positive social change. The Film-makers whose films have been showcased in the past include Rakesh Sharma (of the Final Solution fame), Sanjay Barnela (Turf Wars) and Shohini Ghosh (Tales of the Night Fairies).

    For further details, please log on : http://www.ccs.in/jeevika

  3. April 5, 2007, 5:42 pm cecile

    hola
    sharut khan
    yo estoy en peru por q no vienes aqui
    o q algien lo lea po ti por fabo qiero cono serte es mi unico sueño para mi cumplemelo

  4. April 21, 2007, 2:22 am guna

    i looking hot&sey photos aishwary rai

  5. May 25, 2007, 12:22 am muhammad abid

    helo aap kaun ho kia naam hai aap ka

  6. June 14, 2007, 9:58 am imesh eshan

    good

  7. June 18, 2007, 11:53 am fabiola

    hola Shahrukh Khan yo soy del pais mexico del estado de cancun y hasta he visto tus peliculas y tu musica me encantas eres un como un sueño encanta tu voz tus hojos, tu sonrisa esa cara de niño mi mayor sueño es poder conocerte en persona besos cuidate y recuerda q aqui en mexico ya tienes a tu admiradora beos bye

  8. June 25, 2007, 4:44 am rahul

    verry verrygoooood

  9. September 28, 2007, 2:05 pm aniisa

    helloo ,sharukhan is ameizing actor but kajul is fabilios actorsiss..god

  10. September 29, 2007, 8:52 pm DORA

    FOR ME SHAHRUKH KHAN IS THE BEST ACTOR….THE BEST!!!! I LOVE HIM….TE AMOOO I WOULD LIKE KNOW YOU…. ME ENCANTARIA QUE VENGA A PERU CON LOS DEMAS ACTORES… i really i love you!!!

  11. October 2, 2007, 4:04 am Rajeev

    MY BEST FRIEND IN NAGPUR

  12. November 3, 2007, 8:23 pm nosheen

    kajol is ma amma and shar rukh is ma pyo.. and im his bachi..so u know wat.. all u kutay ke bachay can DAFA ho ke mar jao..and make sure u eat daal chawal first cos u wont get any in the grave.. because me and mum and dad will eat it all
    hahahahahahaha ami abu,,,, dese all ppl are saying kajol ami is sexy

  13. November 6, 2007, 7:22 pm kamaree

    Hello King Khan

    I love you….

  14. December 18, 2007, 8:05 pm SARA

    HI ME ILIKE ALL BOOLYWOOD ACTORS,BUT SHARUKHAN IS AMAZING

  15. February 11, 2008, 5:28 pm sara

    hola , mi adicción es ver películas de la india
    quisiera poder llegar a conocer la india , y poder compartir su cultura y otras mas experiencias

  16. February 13, 2008, 3:11 pm saida

    i love you you have the best songs.

  17. March 3, 2008, 1:22 pm fida

    have you heard of “yuko” hair straigtening! no more mess…no more fuss…just straight hair!
    google it!

  18. March 12, 2008, 1:33 am IMRAN

    HI U ARE THE BEST

  19. March 19, 2008, 2:12 pm AQSA

    hi
    i am aqsa
    my faverat acter is sharuk khan

  20. May 1, 2008, 12:48 pm saku

    SHARUKHAN is da best & KAJOL
    love them

  21. May 6, 2008, 1:08 pm farhad

    hi ashwariy jee how r u u so butiful i m from afghanistan

  22. May 18, 2008, 12:41 pm israr ahmad

    Hi Aish
    u r a fairy queen
    i love u

  23. June 16, 2008, 11:22 am Rosinda Borges

    Olá Morta tu és muito bonita sabias que eu tenho mais que mil Filmes teos porque saõ bonitos.

  24. June 18, 2008, 9:08 am yasmin

    hola a todos
    a mi mencanta lo que es la dansa de india mencanta la ropa mencanta todo lo que kiere decer pelis de india
    yo soy de marruecos tengo 15 años
    ok adewwwwwwwwwwwwww
    us kiero mucho

  25. July 3, 2008, 12:01 am Deborah

    Love the Indian culture :), especially the food and dance! I happen to have very long, dark hair- curly, like yours- that has been allowed to grow for the past 3 years.

    I’ve stuck out like a sore thumb in my Western (American) world where girls are always mimicking the likes of Jennifer Aniston. So I guess that the pressure has been on both of us.

    What women fail to realize is that not every cut, or every intricate highlighting job, flatters them. And they lose out on expressing their own unique physical characteristics as they slowly, surely become immediately-outdated clones.

    Once I play Amr Diab tunes, wrap a jingling bellydance skirt ’round my hips… and dance, I forget about how little I fit in with my world. And I remember just how sexy and beautiful I feel at my most natural- thanks to the genes passed down by my mother and grandmother.

    And so, I say to you: enjoy your curls (they are probably stunning and you have NO idea about how many women wish for curls). All of those products and treatments wll only damage, then destroy, them, anyway.

    Living up to another’s expectations of beauty will dry you up from the inside-out. You will never feel satisfied with what/who you are. Therefore, freely experience the benefits of self-love in appreciating your unique qualities in order to reap ultimate peace-of-mind and true, radiant beauty.

    Good luck.

  26. July 27, 2008, 4:10 pm Cassey

    Hey im cassey frm south africa i love u nd al ur movies u a true rolemodel 2 every girl around thank and keep up the good work

  27. August 6, 2008, 8:26 am raj

    this is 4 u

  28. August 28, 2008, 4:37 am mehmud

    hi dear
    how r u hope u will b fine

  29. September 5, 2008, 11:14 pm Bollywood Gossips

    Zeenat is always beauty.

  30. September 9, 2008, 9:39 am kajol

    hey i love yu scharukhan 4- ever ich hab dich mega gern hey mach wieder soo gute witze!!!!!!!!!!!! du bist mega gut finde ich hey ich will ein autogramm von dir haben und ich will das du mir ein video schickst merci und alli händ di mega gern merci ciao machs guet!!!!!!

  31. September 11, 2008, 4:56 pm Tinah

    Ohh my gosh!!!!!!!!
    Is that mah girl aishwanya rai well i love your acting its just so beautiful even thou im not indain but my island loves your movies and the songs????????
    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK????????

  32. September 19, 2008, 1:32 am PRASHEN

    HELLO

  33. October 18, 2008, 2:04 am laura

    hey SRK du bist the BEST bollywood acctres. AND kajlo o mannn sooo cool (L)(K)