From Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s Shakaal in Shaan to Sanjay Dutt’s Kancha Cheena in Agneepath, Bollywood has always mocked or demonised baldness.
A joke about balding landed a comedian a punch at the Oscars. Chris Rock was an iconic vessel for his generation’s shtick but he did, in that moment of awkward discomforting clarity on the Academy’s stage, look dated.
People have already connected similar jokes Rock made about Jada Pinkett Smith six years ago to retribution that had practically become due. It is of course easier now in the aftermath of that shocking series of events to look at it through the lens of morality and righteousness. It was even more soothing to survey social media later, knowing we were on the right side of history calling both crass humour and reactive violence out. But as soon as you are done patting yourself on the back, you would do well to look back and maybe around yourself at how Indians have culturally viewed and responded to baldness. It is as ugly a sight as we have made baldness seem for decades.
From close friends to acquaintances, baldness is considered a personality handicap in a country more obsessed with genetic qualities rather than moral even-handedness. We have all been there where we have made a cocky joke about male pattern baldness, that in some families, is passed over generations. Balding men are considered unmarriageable, as if the absence of hair on the skull recuses them from a live well-lived. The richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is bald but here in India, aspiration is so conspicuously tied with the idea of the visual that from wanting fair kids to tall brides, external beauty has transitioned from being functional to being central to how we think about people, their personalities, and everything else about them. Women have it even worse for they live under the constant fear of losing their hair cover, and by consequence, something they have been told is an extension of their personality.
Pop culture and cinema, when it comes to sensitivity, have only contributed to strengthen this discriminatory idea. In Shaan (1980), Kulbhushan Kharbanda plays the villain Shakaal, a bald man who rubs his skull every time he pronounces a brutal plan or a philosophical oversight. His baldness is part of his character, summoned to make him look a certain type in the comparative presence of heroes who sport wavy locks and a thick mane.
For decades, Bollywood assigned cruel, brutalising characterisations to the bald, reducing them to caricatures often referred to as ‘taklu‘ etc. Bob Christo played the villain countless times as a functional output of his masculine exterior that maybe complemented the colour of his skin in the worst way possible way – the white guy. Most recently, in AgneepathSanjay Dutt, who had carried a rather eclectic bunch of hairstyles throughout his career, bared his skull as gritty excuse to recreate the mystical evil of Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now.
Bollywood has obviously tried to address this social massacring of an uncontrollable phenomenon by making films like Gone Kesh, Bala, and Ujda Chaman but the invocation of sensitivity alone is unlikely to undo what generations in this country have done – treat baldness as a form of social deprivation, or worse, a disease. The rise of international stars like Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, and Jason Statham has somewhat realigned the view of baldness, even motivating men to go bald by choice.
But in the case of women, as the Oscars provided due evidence, it is still considered a source of ridicule. Jada Pinkett Smith had been vocal about her struggle with Alopecia, but it could not quite elevate her above the low bar of body-shaming comedy.
To think that a person of her reputation and pedigree can be belittled on a global stage, one can only shudder at thought of reticent introverts with receding hairlines experiencing the rougher edges of the street, in what can feel like a life-altering burden. Even though it does not have to be so.
Bollywood and cinema cannot specifically be accused of creating this cultural abomination. Be it our mythology or our folk tales, baldness has rarely made an appearance. You could be sure there was baldness in the middle ages, but it is something of a clue to see it makes so little of the modern incarnations of age old stories. Naturally, the first bald man we ever saw in our lives came across as an oddity, whose unnatural existence had already been coached by cinema and pop culture to be interpreted a certain way. The Bond villain, for example, has to still carry scars as proof of his vice and villainy.
Baldness may not be considered the affliction it was decades ago, but in real life, it is still the kind of barrier you would rather not face or have to grow up with. Thanks to Chris Rock, we know it is even harder, or maybe impossible, for women.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.
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