In Mani Ratnam’s recently released Ponnyin Selvan: I, the warrior Vandiyathevan gains entry into the heavily guarded abode of the princess Nandini by flashing a signet ring she had given him during a previous encounter. The passing of the ring from Nandini’s soft hand to Vandiyathevan’s battle-scarred palm is depicted in a close-up – a fleeting moment of sensuality that won’t be missed by the alert viewer.
Jewellery has its pride of place in Ratnam’s film, adapted from Tamil writer Kalki Krishnamurthy’s popular novel and set in the Chola kingdom in the 10th century. The principal female characters – Nandini, the Chola princess Kundavai, Kundavai’s friend Vanathi – are bedecked in dazzling ornaments that were created for the film by Hyderabad jeweller Kishandas and Co.
In another sequence, the scheming Nandini, who is manipulating the affections of her much older husband, asserts her hold over him when she asks him to unclasp her choker. Although the scene’s erotic possibilities are glossed over in Ratnam’s family-friendly film, we know exactly what is being implied here.
The presence of jewellery – or its absence, as the case may be – has inspired plot points in many movies through the decades. Film song writers are fond of comparing the beauty of women (and men) to diamonds, pearls and other geegaws.
We’ve lost count of the number of films in which a woman hands over her ornaments to her husband and says, sell these and build your empire. The marker of a hero’s turn of fortunes is the chunky pair of bangles or diamond-laden necklace that he gifts his mother or lover.
Items of jewellery are often used to validate identity, as established in the Ramayana (an abducted Sita leaves a bread crumb tail in the form of her ornaments). A prosaic variation of this idea can be found in the films in which rings or pendants help parents recognise long-lost children. In this aspect of dramaturgy, filmmakers are only following in the footsteps of writers and myth-makers, as Wendy Doniger wrote in The Ring of Truth.
Doniger’s scholarly account focuses on the starring role of the ring in myths, folklore and fiction around the world. From Kalidasa to William Shakespeare and Hinduism to Judaism, “the circular form of rings and bracelets, miming the circle of eternity, persists in the face of human ephemera: lovers come and go, marriages end, Russian princes are no more, but rings remain”, Doniger writes.
Doniger devotes several chapters to the sexual resonances of jewellery. In Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984), the courtesan Vasantasena enchants the impecunious Charudutt. The sequence in which Charudutt helps Vasantasena take off her ornaments is one of the most erotic passages in Indian cinema.
Later, Vasantsena lovingly adorns Charudutt’s wife Aditi with her trinkets, sealing their friendship and effectively shoving Charudutt out of the picture.
There’s clearly no conversation starter like jewellery. In Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (1991), a pair of gold bangles bridges the gap between the bharatanatyam dancer Subbalakshmi and the gangster Surya. Subbalakshmi sells her bangles on Surya’s orders to help a man seek medical treatment. In a fantasy song that has echoes of Utsav, the divestment of jewellery serves as a prelude to lovemaking.
If bangles do the trick in Thalapathi, it’s ear-rings in Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s dialogue-free film Pushpaka Vimana (1987). An unemployed man who has assumed the identity of a wealthy businessman sees a magician’s daughter trying on ear-rings at a store. She looks around for approval and meets our hero’s eyes. He signals his appreciation, startling the woman. When he meets her later, she’s wearing the ear-rings.
Jewellery might boost the allure of women – and men – in the movies, but they have also driven them to distraction.
In Omkara (2006), Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello, the misplaced handkerchief that causes Othello to suspect his wife Desdemona of infidelity is replaced by a silver cummerbund. The blood-red strawberries on Desdemona’s handkerchief are now the crimson gems that stud the cummerbund Omkara gives his lover Dolly. Its disappearance is the ultimate proof that Omkara needs to kill his blameless partner.
Satyajit Ray’s triptych Teen Kanya (1961), based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories, includes Monihara (The Lost Jewel), about a housewife whose obsession for jewellery robs her of her sanity and then her life.
Where gold or gems are present, crime nearly always follows. A long list of Hindi films made between the 1960s and 1980s revolved around the purloining of diamond necklaces or the smuggling of gold bars. These films especially made sense in an age of stringent governmental controls on the possession and circulation of precious metals.
The timeless pursuit of a stash of diamonds led to a hilarious parody in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s cult classic Andaz Apna Apna (1994). The easy availability of jewellery in recent years didn’t put a stop to their illegal possession. In Sanjay Gadhvi’s Dhoom: 2 (2006), the super-successful thief known only as “A” steals Queen Elizabeth II’s crown. Was the Kohinoor a part of the gem-encrusted headpiece?
The theft of gold was more imaginatively explored in Dileesh Pothan’s morality tale Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017). A gold necklace is stolen by a wily thief played by Fahadh Faasil and swallowed by him. One section of the film is devoted to the police’s efforts to extracting the necklace from the robber’s innards.
Faasil also played the central role in Lal Jose’s Diamond Necklace (2012), in which the titular ornament warps his character’s soul and nearly destroys his marriage.
The old yarn about diamonds being a woman’s best friend is taken to heart by Rakesh Roshan’s vengeance drama Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). Aarti has been flung into a crocodile-infested swamp by her odious husband. Rescued by a fisherman and nursed back to health, Aarti travels to America by selling her diamond earrings, which not only pay for her passport and plane ticket but also plastic surgery that transforms her into a fashion model.
Beware the woman with the deceptively innocent-looking accessory. Vidya Balan’s vigilante in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012) injures her armed adversary with a well-aimed prick of her hair-pin.
Personal accessories can be indicative of character too, as revealed by Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973). Vijay is plagued by nightmares of a masked man on a horse. Vijay later realises that the vision refers to a horse-shaped charm attached to the bracelet of the man who murdered his parents. The bracelet is the “zanjeer”, or the chain, of the title, which has trapped Vijay in torment his entire life.
A bead necklace proves culpability in a more minor register in Satyajit Ray’s debut feature Pather Panchali (1955). The mischievous Durga denies having stolen a bead necklace from her neighbour. By the end of the film, Durga has died and her family home has been wrecked by a storm.
Durga’s brother Apu finds the necklace hidden in the ruins of the house. He chucks the necklace into a pond, ensuring that Durga’s secret dies with her.
In an iconic sequence in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), one necklace signifies the loss of honour while another restores it.
Radha and her children have been abandoned by her husband. Steeped in debt to the lecherous moneylender Sukhilala and starving after a flood destroys their meagre crop, Radha decides to prostitute herself to Sukhilala.
The moneylender strings a gold necklace around the mud-covered Radha. He then makes the mistake of invoking Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, provoking a blazing soliloquy on the meaning of motherhood from Radha.
I will show you how far a woman can stoop to feed her children, Radha tells the Lakshmi idol that is mutely watching her debasement. Radha eventually chooses the other chain around her neck – her mangal sutra – and flees Sukhilala.
Filmmakers fond of drowning their heroines in baubles sometimes acknowledge the dark side of adornment. The nose ring, worn nearly always by women and sometimes by fashion-forward men, has an unsavoury implication in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022).
The film is set in Mumbai’s red-light district. The deflowering of girls and women who have been trafficked into prostitution is symbolised by the nose-rings they are forced to wear. The film opens with Gangubai visiting one such young girl, whose bloodied nose reveals the brutal aspects of sex work.
Gangubai’s jewellery-enhanced power moves are a riposte to the misogynistic saying that men should “wear bangles” if they cannot prove their manhood. Gangubai wears one accessory with the most pride: the house keys that she mistakenly brought along with her when she eloped to Mumbai with her feckless lover, who then sold her into prostitution.
One of the most memorable associations between ornaments and honour is in the Tamil epic poem Silappatikaram. Kannagi’s husband Kovalan is falsely accused of stealing the queen’s anklet. After Kovalan is put to death by the king, a furious Kannagi curses Madurai to burn to the ground.
Silappatikaram inspired a bunch of adaptations, including the Tamil film Kannagi (1942). The poem explores events that take place in an earlier version of the Chola kingdom that features in Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponnyin Selvan. In distilling Krishnamurthy’s five-volume novel into a two-part film, Mani Ratnam has dropped several sub-plots and characters. Unsurprisingly, the jewellery stays in the picture.