Written by SUMANA ROY
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Life as a Unisex Salon

I WOULD LIKE TO meet someone who has never had a haircut. It’s a silly urge, I know, but this goes back to my Sunday Doordarshan days, of near miracles shown in a programme called Aisa Bhi Hota Hai, a colloquial for yes-it’s-true-suchthings- also-happen. Sunday mornings would bring strange people into our drawing room, those who had never cut their fingernails, someone whose moustache had never been trimmed, and which ran up to a few kilometres (or so I thought). Such people were rare, but surely there must be people in the neighbourhood of our lives, real and virtual, who have never had a haircut?

A child’s first haircut must be special, and many cultures have wrapped the event with rituals like the familiar mundan. I cannot explain why infant hair, rolling into curls on a baby’s soft head that has never been tonsured or where the length of the hair has never been trimmed, becomes a metaphor of innocence for me. When my nephew was given his first haircut at a little over a year, his face, and of course his head, looked bereft. He pointed to the loss with his little fingers, failing to recognise himself later in his photographs. By the time he was given his second haircut, he had grown a vocabulary of accusation, and he called the barber who had come home ‘duttu’, dushtu, the Bangla child-speak for naughty. Prone to theorising, my husband and I watched with near trepidation and worrying annoyance as to how a two -year-old boy was being initiated into a lifelong career of beautification, one which would require him to be dependent on fellow humans.

It is this feeling of utter dependence on others for something as seemingly basic as a haircut that came back to me repeatedly as I watched two short films on haircuts. In what marks the pleasant aleatory character of our lives, I discovered the two films within hours of each other, both on my Facebook news feed. The first is Anand Tiwari and Sumeet Vyas’s short film Haircut. It is a 9:09 minute film that traces the story of one particular haircut in a man’s life. The man is characterised as a near subaltern in relation to the unisex salon (Drama Salon is its name) he decides to visit. He wants a special haircut because he is about to get married. The receptionist says it would cost him Rs 800. He is willing to pay the amount. The salon is a fantastic world for him, almost completely removed from his own. Through the glass partition he watches male-female professional relationships play out against the singular trope of the haircut. The two worlds, of the salon and the man, the new client, clash, as one can make out in this conversation:

Receptionist: Can I help you?

Man: Haircutting.

Do you have an appointment?

Not naukri. Tomorrow marriage special day

... Tea or coffee?

I tea.

Right. Iced tea.

The female hairstylist washes his hair; the expression on his face reveals that this is the first time he’s had his hair shampooed like this, sitting with his head held out on to a basin, the rest of his body dry and clothed. A snip here and there, and after much has been made of his transition, he emerges out of the salon and looks into a mirror. Utterly frustrated at what he sees, he goes to the familiar roadside barber for a ‘real’ experience – a shave. At last he is satisfied. It is an enjoyable film, one that uses the trope of the haircut to talk about the inequalities of capitalism, allying this with class aspiration and frustration. A man’s hairstyle, seemingly the simplest and basic of the genre, is conditioned by social class, true, but no matter how much capitalism works its way into a person’s upwardly mobile instincts, the heart refuses to move. And so too hair, the thing closest to the head.

The other film is Emmanuel Parke Arthur’s Haircut: A Ritual Film, ‘shot on location with American friends volunteering as teachers during summer school at Heritage Academy in Ghana’. We watch a young girl being given a haircut by a woman at Jimycom Guest House. She is surrounded by girls and women with different kinds of hair—dark hair, light hair, some straight, other curly, some coloured. Unlike the man in the Hindi film, the girl looks happy with her new hair. There is also another significant difference: the man is given a haircut by professionals; the girl in the film has her hair done by a friend.

It is easy to spot how hair is gendered in the films. When the female stylist Becky asks him the name of the shampoo brand he uses, the man replies, ‘Lifebuoy’. While the background song in Parker’s film carries the word ‘wonderful’, ‘beautiful’, ‘meaningful’ to our ears, in Tiwari and Vyas’s film, the male singer sings these words:

Jeb pe apni par gaya daka ...

Kauwa chala hans ki chal ...

Laut ke Pappu ghar ko aaye ...

(He’s been robbed; The crow wanted to be a swan; Pappu returns home ...)

But what brought the two films close to my lived experience was when my mother read out an incident from a local Bangla newspaper: a thirteen-year-old schoolboy had been suspended from his school for refusing to get a haircut. My mother, a retired schoolteacher, said that she was shocked that his parents had supported him. ‘Is the boy a Samson that his hair can’t be cut?’ she said. I reminded her of the many tiffs she and I had had about my experiments with short hair, all of which she disliked and criticised. ‘Long hair suited only Rabindranath Tagore,’ she clarified. In response I told her that capitalism worked in strange ways: men might get higher salaries than women but a woman’s haircut is more expensive than a man’s. She, not to give up so easily, replied, ‘That is what the village adage really means –that the ghost lives in the woman’s long hair but not in the man’s’.

Two days after I’d watched the films, I saw an aged woman being given what is called a ‘widow’s cut’ under a tree, this on National Highway 31 D. I watched the woman’s long strands of hair fall and then collect on her white sari. That long hair and her long years of companionship with them and her partnership with her husband—both brought to an end. Scissors. Hair is indeed gendered. I know I would not have cried had the woman’s husband got a haircut after her death.

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