The poster of the big Bollywood wrestling movie that is not Sultan has Aamir Khan looking every bit the Haryanvi patriarch. In the first look of Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal, which will be released on December 23, Khan is surrounded by four girls all wearing what are popularly called boy-cuts. The text on the poster is in Haryanvi and is in the form of a rhetorical question that loosely translates into “Are my girls less worthy than boys?”

The poster’s simple message is that the length of a woman’s tresses has nothing to do with her femininity or her ability. The reverse is also true. A woman does not need to strip herself of commonly accepted feminine markers (long hair, dresses, painted nails) and embrace androgyny in order to storm male bastions. But since Dangal is about female wrestlers, many of whom prefer short hair for the sake of convenience, and its characters closely resemble their real-life counterparts, their hairdos fit into the movie’s universe.

Dangal is a biopic about Mahavir Singh Phogat, the coach whose daughters Geeta and Babita Kumari and niece Veena are among the country’s leading wrestlers. Dangal celebrates the Phogat females’ fascinating achievement in a male-dominated sport and is a far cry from Anurag Singh’s Dil Bole Hadippa (2009), in which Rani Mukerji’s cricket-mad character dresses up as a Sikh man in order to be selected for the local team.

The buzz surrounding the production has largely centred on Khan’s weight loss and weight gain to authentically portray Phogat, but with the release of the poster, all eyes will now be on the four young actresses with close crops that make them look like quadruplets.

Indian women must be long-haired to be considered truly beautiful and desirable – this truism holds among poets, advertisers, filmmakers and even politicians. When Sharad Yadav made the observation that the Women’s Reservation Bill would benefit only the “parkati mahila”, or the short-haired woman, he wasn’t just being a grade one chauvinist. Yadav was taking a dig at female politicians (Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati included) who have challenged rigid gender-based expectations with complete disregard for their appearance.

Popular Hindi cinema has been unequivocal on the question of how long hair needs to be. Waist-length is the best, up to the shoulders is acceptable, short bobs that gather at the base of the ears needs smart styling. Very short hair is a warning sign that the woman is either a lesbian or a weirdo or both.

Short haircuts mark out the heroine as a tomboy who needs to be re-introduced to her gender. The before-after transformation of the heroine can be measured by the length of her locks. Sample the regressive Agreement (1980). Rekha’s character transforms from feminist into domestic goddess by swapping short hair and pants for tresses and saris.

Nearly two decades later, long hair was still being equated with attractiveness. In Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), the boyish and bratty Anjali (Kajol) is best friends with Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), but his heart beats for Tina, the woman with the straight mane (Rani Mukerji). When Rahul meets Anjali after Tina’s death, her hair reaches her shoulders, she has discovered the virtues of make-up, and is a fan of Manish Malhotra’s chiffon saris. Rahul is finally interested.

‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’.

If a woman has short hair, it usually means that she is not yet in the marriage market. Gulzar’s Hu Tu Tu (2000) opens with a morose and long-haired Tabu. A flashback reveals that in younger, more carefree days, she had a chic bob (and a boyfriend).

‘Hu Tu Tu’.

If a female character chops off the hair that made her a guy magnet, it’s a sure sign that she has matured. In Lakshya (2004), Preity Zinta’s college student has long and bouncy curls. Her boyfriend, played by Hrithik Roshan, also has a floppy wig that is supposed to signify his devil-may-care attitude. The message is in the haircut. When the two meet next, Roshan has the buzz cut that befits his Army soldier status, while Zinta’s business-like close crop proves that she is a serious television journalist in the mould of Barkha Dutt.

These women are unlikely to inspire comparisons between their tresses and the rainclouds, as seen in this AK Ramanujan translation of a Sangam poem by Kapilar:

“O your hair,” he said,
“It’s like rainclouds
moving between
branches of lightning.
It parts five ways
between gold ornaments,
braided with a length of flowers
and the fragrant screwpine.

Short hair may simply be a function of styling – an attempt to give a heroine a young and gamine image that is different from her previous films (Rani Mukerji in Bichoo, Twinkle Khanna in Baadshah, Priyanka Chopra in Barfi!, Anushka Sharma in PK). These are the occasions on which the production’s hair stylist gets his or her photo-op in the media and gets to hold forth on the “rocking new look”.

Short versus long hair is handy for double roles (Kajol in Dushman and Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu Returns). A cropped style is also shorthand for madness and medical treatment of some kind (Pooja Bhatt in Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi, Konkona Sen Sharma in 15 Park Avenue).

A woman may cut off her locks when she wants to conceal her gender. On the run from baddies or recalcitrant family members and with no place to hide, she may adopt the close crop and pant-shirt ensemble of men, and pray that audiences suspend their disbelief and do not let their eyes wander to the breasts and hips that refuse to be tamed.

Padmini posing as a man in ‘Mera Naam Joker’.

Short-haired women do occasionally get to score in love, but not by themselves. It takes Aamir Khan’s alien in Raju Hirani’s PK to reunite the androgynous Anushka Sharma character with her Pakistani boyfriend. A woman who gets to keep her mane and her man is indeed a rare beast.