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The curly-haired girl’s guide to surviving India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-09-2017 Priya Ramani

Actor Kangana Ranaut’s feminist wisdom probably originates in the life experiences of curly-haired girls. Curly-haired girls learn that big Indian lesson long before puberty: it’s not okay to stand out.

Our spiral curls are bullied into the fixed framework of Eastern beauty very early in life. They are brushed (everyone knows 100 strokes every day guarantees you’ll grow up a good girl) until our hair is all frizz and zero curls. Next, oil is poured liberally to dampen the frizz. Finally, the unruly hair is constrained in two tight braids.

Yet curly-haired women learn to fight back effectively against the narrowly defined roles society expects them to play. They understand, sooner than most, that it’s perfectly okay to be different. They almost develop a secret strategy to survive on their own terms.

In the recently released film Simran, Ranaut’s character, 30-year-old divorcee Praful Patel, tells a joke. A young girl asks her mother, “Mom, what is a boyfriend?” “If you’re a good girl, you’ll get one when you grow up,” her mother replies. “And if I’m a bad girl?” “Then, you will get many boyfriends,” her mother says.

My US-based twin nieces, 16, and I are the only curly-haired members of our extended family. Last December, when we met, the teenagers had only one request: “Could you tell mum not to get irritated when we don’t brush our hair? She doesn’t get that it ruins our curls.”

I don’t know if you can understand what it’s like to have rebellious, curly hair in a land of straight-haired beauties. We grow up hating our “different” appearance. Our teenage years are spent trying to get the kinky devil out of our hair. It’s impossible to find hairdressers who know how to cut curls. Their only advice to us is the classic, “Have you tried straightening your hair?” Any curly-hair expert knows you can’t just take a pair of scissors through curls—you need to tackle each curl individually. Plus, the length changes from wet to dry. It’s no wonder that legions of curly-haired women who get bad haircuts eventually succumb and opt for overpriced Brazilian Keratin straightening treatments.

I straightened my hair with a regular iron (hair irons don’t work on my curls) on my wedding day. The husband, who was supposed to pick me up from in front of the salon, drove right past because he didn’t recognize the new me. Neither did my editor who attended our wedding. As for me, I get to replay my regret every time I look at the photographs.

Indian outfits look awful with curly hair. It’s almost impossible to play the part of the demure, docile dream girl when your hair won’t comply. In college and in Karan Johar films, we are the women everyone wants to date; straight-haired women get to meet the parents. Golliwog, from that favourite racist rag doll creation of the 1980s, is still a common descriptor for our hair in this country.

God forbid we learn to leave our curls alone and go to a small Indian town (anywhere except Mumbai) people will a. stare b. giggle c. ask us if we are Indian because we certainly don’t look it. Our patriotism was questioned long before it became a subject worthy of debate on prime time television.

We routinely swat away nosy folk who invade our space, touch our curls and inquire of the odd specimen they roll disbelievingly between their fingers: Did you do this to your hair or has it always been like this?

But sooner or later, our curls become a metaphor for the battles we must fight to survive in this country. We understand earlier than most that life is more fun when you don’t fit the mould. Most of us get comfortable with, and enjoy, being different. This is why I watch Ranaut’s films—they’re always scattered with survival strategies for Indian women that she probably picked up because of her curls.

She takes care to emphasize the curly-haired credo once again in Simran, an otherwise disappointing film. The only time her curls are tamed in the film is when she meets a potential marriage partner and his parents. She entertains the proposal because she wants something from her father, not because she believes in the power of marriage—all the curly-haired women I know understand that it’s okay to stay single.

Don’t marry anyone, she tells her cousin who complains (on the eve of an arranged marriage) that she’s still in love with her ex, but he doesn’t want to commit.

When Praful’s suitor tells her he’s modern enough to accept vices such as her past boyfriends, she looks puzzled and replies: seducing men is a talent. My vices are that I rob and gamble.

Praful is sexually active, eats noodles with her hands, passes judgement on men who wear tailored trousers and shirts (boring and old fashioned), has a “tongue like a pair of scissors” and is enraged when her parents give her bank account details to her suitor without checking with her. She understands the concept of privacy even though she has a mother who tells her she absolutely dislikes closed doors and locked cupboards.

If you’re a film-maker looking for the face of a woman who looks like she makes her own rules, Ranaut’s is the only one that fits the bill. And in an industry that conjures up the same shallow image of a “modern” woman, film after film, Ranaut can play this part without showing skin.

“No protection, no sex, my friend,” Praful tells a one-night stand in the midst of their encounter. “Zip me up,” she says, and walks out. Which other Indian actress can say this line convincingly? In fact, this entire sequence in the screenplay was added by Ranaut, according to news reports. She intended this line as a PSA to you, Indian women.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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