EVERY YEAR, rumours of the return of the mullet haircut swirl through the media although only a few examples ever see the light of day. The British press is currently reporting its revival as barbers and hairdressers are said to be inundated with customers requesting the style. Stars, even one as cool as Timothée Chalamet, have something that is approaching a mullet, though maybe not the full-fledged version. The current mullet however has the classic defining features, being short at the front and sides, with a long tail at the back. Although the cut is gender-fluid, it is only the male version that has been popular in India.
The origins of the mullet are unclear. The first one I recall was David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust who sported a red mullet in the 1970s. Bowie was always a fashion and style icon; so, by association with him, the mullet became instantly cool. I remember the awed silence when a girl at school came to the morning assembly with a copycat mullet. The style became seriously uncool as it spread in the 1980s. Like many styles of the 1980s and 1990s, the mullet is now repackaged as cool by the wearer’s knowing irony and distancing from its origins.
It’s hard to place Gulshan Devaiah’s unapologetic mullet in the Netflix series Guns & Gulaabs. He plays a hitman, Atmaram, whose murderous knife-wielding is redolent of Tarantino at his best. Atmaram is a reckless character except when showing extreme caution in using a public phone, always cutting it off at 59 seconds to avoid further payment, as we all did in the 1990s.
The series is set in the 1990s, an era currently reclaimed as hip and edgy. The mullet appeared at this time in India simultaneously with a new style in films as Bollywood emerged as a global brand. Several actors sported mullets, the best of which may well have been Sanjay Dutt (see, for example, Saajan, 1991) or Mithun Chakraborty, and these seem the stars who inspired Atmaram’s style but there were many other contenders, including Shah Rukh Khan (notably in Koyla, 1997) and Salman Khan.
The Hindi male star has often had notable hairstyles. Shah Rukh’s hair (not the mullet) often recalls Dilip Kumar’s unruly locks. The latter were famously blown around as Rajni (Vyjayanthimala) sings, ‘Udein jab jab zulfen teri’ (Naya Daur, 1957) to Shankar (Dilip Kumar), her own hair tied neatly in a plait, reversing the usual romantic lyrics about a woman’s hair. Dev Anand wore his famous puff, whatever the role, while Amitabh Bachchan’s hair remained unruffled even after fights, again marking his cool. There have been many famous styles in specific films, one being Salman Khan’s in Tere Naam (2003), styled as ‘curtains’ draped from a centre parting.
Hair is a sign of youth and a marker of beauty. It is usual for stars to dye their hair to look younger, just as they add grey streaks to look old, even if the actor is young. Stars always wear hair, even if not their own in transplants or wigs, with Rajinikanth and Feroz Khan being among the few to show their baldness offscreen. Actors such as Anupam Kher may appear bald but in Hindi films, the gangster is among the few characters to do so; hence, Sanjay Dutt as Kancha Cheena in Agneepath (2012).
The celebrity hairdresser became a recognisable figure in the 1990s but the most famous have clipped politicians rather than stars. Three generations of the Habib family in Delhi shaped the look of Indian politicians. Nazir Ahmed cut the hair of viceroys, including Lord Linlithgow and Lord Mountbatten, while his son, Habib Ahmed, famously maintained Indira Gandhi’s internationally recognised hairstyle, half-black and half-white. (Her bouffant, short at the back and long on top with the trademark contrast, is said to have originated in Paris.) Habib Ahmed started Habib’s Hair and Beauty in the Oberoi, New Delhi, where his son, Jawed Habib, also worked, cutting President Abdul Kalam’s distinctive style of long grey hair with side curls.
It’s hard to place Gulshan Devaiah’s unapologetic mullet in the Netflix series Guns & Gulaabs. He plays a hitman, Atmaram, whose murderous knife-wielding is redolent of Tarantino at his best
Share this on
There are few films about men’s hair or barbers, but the film Billu (2009) ran into controversies over its name, eventually deciding to keep only the character’s name and not his profession for caste reasons. The story is a reworking of the Krishna and Sudama tale, only replacing them with a film star and a barber. Little is said about beliefs of haircutting such as the widely held view that hair shouldn’t be cut on certain days, usually Saturdays.
Shaving of the head may be done as purification, removing a symbol often associated with vanity. The shaving of a child’s head, the mundan, is one of the Hindu samskaras. This is done as the first cutting of a child’s hair, often in Rishikesh or Tirupati. Many diasporic Indians do this on the child’s first visit to India. The head may also be shaved as an offering to the gods. This usually occurs while on a pilgrimage, especially to Tirupati, but may be done privately as the then captain of the Indian cricket team, MS Dhoni, famously shaved his hair after winning the 2011 World Cup. The man who performs the funeral rites may also shave his head as a sign of mourning.
Male hairstyles were aesthetic as well as socially meaningful in ancient India. We know about them from the many references to hairstyles for men, in texts including the Natyashastra and poetry. They are also depicted in sculptures and paintings. The priest-king of Mohenjo-daro, for example, wears his hair parted in the middle with a band around his head, as style seen in the Barhut sculptures. Later, at Sanchi and Amaravati, men often wear their hair brushed back in simpler styles than women. Curly hair (churna kuntala) becomes popular on many statues, perhaps influenced by Greek aesthetics, but falls from favour later although Lord Krishna always has curly (kunchita) hair. A wide variety of styles emerges, including buns or topknots, notably the egg-shaped balls (shikhanda).
While later styles may be obscured by headwear, the ways of tying hair in certain groups remain today. Sadhus and ascetics have matted locks (jata), as does Lord Shiva. Orthodox Brahmins and temple priests have their heads shaved leaving a tuft or shikha, which is usually tied but may be unknotted symbolically, as Chanakya did, vowing not to tie it again until he had uprooted the Nanda dynasty and installed dharma. The most famous shikha in Hindi cinema is that of Mehmood as Master Pillai in Padosan (1968). Ascetics and monks shave their heads, as does Yogi Adityanath, while Jain monks pluck their heads.
Other religious communities in India have different traditions. Sikh men do not cut their hair but wear it tied up neatly, usually in a turban. Muslims must not wear feminine hairstyles, so usually wear it short while Christian men have no restrictions.
Subcultures have a wide variety of elaborate cuts and styles. Young men and their barbers are creative with shaving patterns, using dye, and shaping gravity-defining styles while traditional cuts remain. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), Taani (Anushka Sharma) fails to recognise her boring husband Surinder (Shah Rukh Khan) when he transforms himself with a makeover that includes a spiky hairstyle. I imagine these are done with gels and other products while the fragrance of coconut oil attests to its enduring popularity.
Among this complicated history—and I’ve not mentioned facial and bodily hair, let alone hairstyles among women and other genders—it seems that the mullet has its place of honour. Gulshan Devaiah’s mullet certainly deserves its own award as ‘Mullet of the Year’.