The Stories That Hair Told

Whether it is long or big or short or absent, there is always a story in a character’s hair.
The Stories That Hair Told

When we first meet Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), the protagonist of I Care a Lot, last week's Netflix release, we don't see her face. We see her hair. Cropped in an austere bob and ramrod-straight, with not a strand out of place, it sits on her head and around her face like a helmet. She's in court and she's defending her nefarious behaviour, which has involved keeping a man from meeting his aged mother. Her almost metallic hair is an extension of her steely personality: beauty with a core of iron. Later, she visits an old lady named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest). Marla is going to con her, but the ostensible reason she is visiting is that she is Ms Peterson's court-appointed guardian, there to ferry the lady to a care facility. Her hair is now gentler, framing her face in soft waves, making her look friendly, likeable, attractive, making it easier to coax Ms Peterson to comply.

Hair is an extension of our personalities. We use it to express ourselves and it is a vital part of how we see ourselves. In the second season of Fleabag, the lead character declares at one point, 'Hair is everything. We wish it wasn't, so we could actually think about something else occasionally, but it is.' And it's always interesting to try to figure out how a film character's hairdo plays into their life and personality.

In The Undoing, the HBO miniseries that premiered late last year, Nicole Kidman plays wealthy psychiatrist Grace Fraser, who is embroiled in a high-profile court case when her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant, cleverly cast against type) is accused of brutal murder. Grace is always impeccably turned out, whatever the weather (mostly cold) and whatever her emotional state (mostly a mess). And her green, red and purple trench coats always set off her most distinctive feature: cascading orange curls. Her hair, rarely tied up, bookends her face and is like a separate character in the numerous close-ups she is framed in. Journalist Lynn Enright wrote in Grazia that Kidman's perfect curls are actually unrealistic, because 'even as she has stood in the freezing cold (so drying for curly hair) by the Hudson River (that wind would wreak havoc with curls), her hair has remained shiny and neatly coiled.'

But the point of Grace's beautiful hair is not realism but rather – as with Marla Grayson – an expression of who she is and who she can be. Enright writes, 'The standard hair for rich-white-lady characters has become a blow-dry with soft tousled waves. Grace's hair signifies that she's a little different than the other rich white ladies.' Grace is shown to have more empathy than the women around her for people who don't fit in. She hands her husband over to the police but then becomes convinced of his innocence and stands by him through the case and the media storm that ensues – despite knowing of his infidelity. She is a force to reckon with, much like her hair.

Rumi and Vicky in Manmarziyaan share a ferocious passion: he literally scales walls to come and meet her, and when they're together they can't keep their hands off each other. Rumi's hair, like Pannu's in life, is big and messy and curly.

Closer home, a film that featured a force-of-nature character with distinctive hair was Anurag Kashyap's Manmarziyaan. Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) loves Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) but marries Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan). She and Vicky share a ferocious passion: he literally scales walls to come and meet her, and when they're together they can't keep their hands off each other. Rumi's hair, like Pannu's in life, is big and messy and curly. And it's dyed a fiery red. So when she's angry – which she often is – her red hair billows around her head like an expression of her rage. The blazing hair keeps company with the blazing personality.

Women's hair, because it generally tends to be longer, lends itself to creativity more easily in this fashion. But there are a number of things that filmmakers and hairstylists have done with men's hair too. In Manmarziyaan, Vicky's career as a DJ is complemented by his hip hair, which features shaved patterns and is also dyed a greeny-blue. Later in the film, jilted by Rumi, he decides to give up his DJ-ing and move to Australia to join a family business. So he gives up his eccentric hair in favour of a more sober crop. This, however, is a pretty traditional move: the childish character 'grows up' and adopts more 'adult' hair. It happens in Hum Tum too, where Karan Kapoor (Saif Ali Khan) gives up his messy 'Tom Cruise look' for a regular crop as he enters his thirties.

But Rock On did something interesting with this trope. The four band members in the film sport long hair in their youth, in their heyday, but once the band splits up and they move on to individual non-music careers, Aditya, Rob and KD cut their hair short. It is only Joe (Arjun Rampal) who keeps his long hair; indeed, in the years since the band's break-up, Joe's hair has grown to the middle of his back. He's also the only member of the band who's tried to make a career in music, which was all their first love but which the others gave up. And he married his girlfriend from the band days, whereas Aditya (Farhan Akhtar) broke up with his, marrying another woman later. So while Aditya, Rob and KD 'grew up' and therefore adopted more job-appropriate/grown-up hair, Joe remained loyal to his music and his passion, depending on his wife's income to keep the family running. And so he kept his flowing hair as well.

So hair is as good a storytelling device as any. Whether it is long or big or short or absent, there is always a story in a character's hair. Is it frizzy because they're angry or because they're careless? Is it straight because they're neat freaks or because they're sharp? Our hair can speak for us and so can a film character's. After all, hair is everything.

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