You can worry about your receding hairline like Ayushmann Khurrana in the recently-released ‘Bala’. Or you can show the courage he finally did, to own your clean pate
And as the spot extends to a patch – till he becomes more bald than not – so grows the obsession with it. A small comb is fished out before entering a room and the remaining wisps of hair combed into place, in a vain attempt at a cover up. If that isn’t reassuring enough, a cap becomes an essential part of his wardrobe. Till finally he either resigns himself to his baldness, or buys a wig, or goes for a hair transplant.
Like actor Ayushmann Khurrana, who plays a man suffering from premature balding in the film, ‘Bala’. “I was a hero in school,” he complains to one of his friends. “Will Amitabh Bachchan be able to live if he is cast in Avtar Gill’s (a bald character actor) role?”
His childhood sweetheart dumps him, his boss pulls him out of a marketing role, and he fumbles when he accidentally knocks off his cap during a standup act. It’s only towards the end of the film – after his wife leaves him – and egged on by his former classmate that he finds the confidence to look beyond appearances and accept himself as he is. And this is only one of two recent Bollywood releases on the plight of the bald, the other being ‘Ujda Chaman’.
It’s something 42-year-old Abhisek Mukherjee had to face early in life. “I started losing hair when I was in college,” says the UK-based banker. “It was a concern because I used to have really good hair and spent a lot of time styling it. I thought it was my best physical feature. I was worried because I didn’t know when I’d lose enough hair to qualify as bald,” he adds. To make up for that, he says, he started smiling more.
In Kerala, what started a year and a half ago as a WhatsApp group of bald family members and friends, is now a 600-strong collective called the Balders Club. “We have now decided to make it pan-India,” says founder member, Muneer Bugari . “Bald people here are often too shy to face people. The aim of this group is to motivate them.”
Medically, balding or hair fall is defined as losing more than 100 hairs a day, says dermatologist Deepali Bhardwaj. It can happen to both men and women, but is “more in men now due to food fads, and intake of protein supplements which boost the testosterone hormone levels in men and facilitate male-pattern baldness,” she explains.
Of course, the science behind it is the last thing on one’s mind when loose strands of hair start appearing on the hair brush, towel or pillow.
Age becomes more than just a number. “There is some truth to the idea that when a man in his thirties starts to see his hair recede, he thinks, ‘I’m starting to look like my father!’,” agrees Gersh Kuntzman, author of ‘Hair!: Man’s Historic Quest To End Baldness’. “So suddenly the bald man starts worrying about the normal ageing process that men with hair don’t have to confront until they physically start to break down. For the bald man, that eventuality is staring him in the face every time he looks in the mirror,” he explains.
At times, equating loss of hair with age gives bald men an edge, when taken as a sign of experience. They can be perceived as wiser and more dependable at the workplace, says psychiatrist Shobhana Mittal. But the perception of wisdom and maturity may be a heavy price to pay if the love of your life puts you in the “uncle” category, because of the shiny patch on your head. Or worse, if a stranger refers to you as your partner’s father because of it.
In 2017, according to an article published in The Independent, researchers at The University of Pennsylvania asked groups of male and female students to rate photographs of men according to attractiveness, confidence and dominance. And bald men got more votes in all three categories. But whereas in “western movies the hero is shown as bald, in India they are mostly shown as villains,” says Mittal. (Think Shetty in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s films and Sanjay Dutt as villain Kancha Cheena in the 2012 remake of ‘Agneepath’.)
“Dwayne Johnson is bald and was titled the ‘sexiest man alive’ just about three years back by People magazine,” she points out, adding, “There is often body shaming in India with bald men being referred to as ‘takla’ in a derogatory manner or making them the butt of jokes. Advertisements of hair care products project bald men as failures who become successful once they regain their hair.”
All of this adds to the diffidence of balding men, who, like Ayushmann Khurrana’s character, fear approaching women because they might laugh at him. “I haven’t just suffered hair loss, I have suffered identity loss,” he says in the film.
It is no reel exaggeration. “People suffering from hair loss get very frustrated. They worry about their future, whether they will be able to find a life partner,” agrees Bugari.
And while there seem to be fewer balding women around, for those who are struggling with hair loss issues, the embarrassment is even more acute. A few years back, a young woman shared her experience of battling alopecia with Humans Of Bombay, a project that chronicles the experiences of people in the Maharashtra capital. After years of seeking treatment and hiding behind scarves and wigs, she remembers the horror of having her wig come off in a crowded local train. But that finally gave her the courage to step out without a cover.
Stars like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson have made the full bald look into a fashion statement, and inspired many balding men to likewise lose it all. If carried with confidence, it does look way better than a combover. Stylist Rishi Raj has favoured the look for years. “When I first shaved off my hair I was 18 and I had a full head of hair. But I also realised how much of my vanity was linked to my hair. It was liberating to lose it,” he recalls. “Now of course with time I have a receding hairline, but I also like my all-bald look. People come up to me to compliment me.” But it’s a bold step to take and not always acceptable because in many Indian communities, shaving off hair is linked to the death of a family member.
Ekta Vohra of Wedding Alliances, a marriage bureau with operations in Delhi-NCR, admits that clients don’t like a prospective match if he is bald. “People are so cautious that if we send photos of a prospective match wearing a cap, or where the hair is not completely visible, they check out social media photos,” she says. “Business families are more particular. Working professionals give more importance to character and accomplishments, rather than looks,” she adds.
“Bald men could always be considered sexy or attractive in American society, but he was certainly seen as older – and not in a good way. I think to some extent, that has changed a little,” says Gersh Kuntzman. But an online dating term, hatfishing, proves that there is a fear of rejection among bald people across the world. Used to describe a person who is wearing a hat in every photo on dating sites to hide his baldness, hatfishing can extend to physical meetings too.
“We often advise bald clients to go in for hair transplant, if possible. It improves their chances of finding a partner,” says Vohra. “But they should tell their prospective partners that they have gone in for it. Even women do so many cosmetic treatments now to improve their looks, why should a man not go for a transplant?” she reasons.
Bhardwaj says she does about three-four hair transplants a month. The demand is increasing with people beginning to lose hair at a younger age owing to “stress and pollution which results in early triggering of genetic health issues such as balding,” she explains. Bugari says their group has members who are as young as 21.
Social media adds to the pressure. “Visual exposure has increased in the form of profile pictures and videos or photos posted online every day. There is an unprecedented pressure to look good,” says Mittal.
After decades of battling baldness, Mukherjee is now toying with the idea of going in for a hair transplant because he doesn’t want to look old beside his wife in photos.
It is this self-doubt that Kuntzman says “undermines the bald man far more than the balding”.