The red streak of vermillion in the parting of a woman’s hair is a trope by itself in Hindi cinema – such is the power of sindoor. It might have become the stuff of scandal when the actress Rekha wore sindoor publicly despite being unmarried, but on screen, it has always been associated with melodrama.
Sindoor has been coupled with several random ideas and objects in Hindi films. Consider the Hindi film titles Sindoor aur Bandook, Sindoor ki Saugandh, Sindoor Bane Jwaala and Udhaar ka Sindoor.
In Udhaar ka Sindoor, vermillion is a transferrable asset. Circumstances lead Raja into marrying Shanta instead of her sister Rekha, whom he loves. Shanta eventually commits suicide, and her final act is to wipe the sindoor from her hair and put in on Rekha’s instead.
Several scenes feature a woman’s sindoor getting wiped off after her husband dies. While most of these moments are ripe with overused clichés, the scene in which Meera’s mother-in-law Gowri wipes the sindoor off Meera’s forehead in Dor is particularly wrenching.
Serendipity, which performs an impressive compendium of tasks in Hindi cinema, is also skilled at strategically wiping off and applying sindoor. In Sindoor, Vijay accuses his wife Laxmi of infidelity and chases her out of his life, unaware that she is pregnant. Laxmi is in a temple when divine intervention strikes in the form of lightning and rain, wiping off her vermilion. The resident priest, who is proficient in the sign language of the gods, advises Laxmi to play the role of a sindoor-less widow while she is raising her child.
In Mujhse Dosti Karoge, although Pooja and Raj love each other, Raj is set to marry Tina. On the day of the wedding, when Raj accidently drops red powder, it lands on Pooja’s forehead with unerring neatness.
Hindi films channel their penchant for gore with names like Khoon Ka Sindoor. In Dil, Raja and Madhu arrange a wedding for themselves with sundry items standing in for traditional Hindu wedding paraphernalia, and Raja’s blood standing for sindoor.
Ketchup masquerades as blood, and blood as sindoor. The laws of transitivity dictate that ketchup is a viable replacement for sindoor. And sure enough, in Katti Batti, when Payal enacts a wedding scene with Maddy, she uses ketchup as vermilion.
Most screen women are not casual about sindoor, though. When Jodha is distraught at the idea of marrying Akbar in Jodhaa Akbar, she illustrates it with painful clarity: the man who will apply sindoor on her forehead won’t even know what it means. She later instructs Akbar about the red powder’s significance with a refreshing lack of fuss.
In Amar Akbar Anthony, Akbar brings his mother a box of sindoor and she is pathetically hurt because she believes that her husband is long deceased. Akbar assures her of her husband’s health and she revels in her newly re-instated sindoor privileges by promptly applying it in her hair.
When dialogue and deed are insufficient to express the importance of sindoor, women resort to singing. Consider the song Rakh Laaj Mere Sindoor Ki and the lines “Tu hi mera sindoor hai” from Saanson Ki Mala in Koyla. In the title track of Salaam-E-Ishq, the lines “Meri maang mein tera sindoor hai” clumsily demonstrate Tehzeeb’s acceptance of her husband Ashutosh’s religion.
Sindoor is often handily slipped into songs as a euphemistic proposal of marriage. In Humko Humise Chura Lo from Mohabbatein, Meghna sings: “Chutki bhar sindoor se tum ab ye maang zara bhar do.” In Ang se Ang Lagana from Darr, when Sunil asks Kiran to hug her, his sister-in-law demurs with: “chutki bhar sindoor manga kar, iski maang sajaana.” A contemporary hero might wonder how the situation escalated so quickly, but Sunil hugs Kiran instead.
When Paro and Chandramukhi dance together in Devdas to Dola Re, Paro gives Chandramuki the blessing to marry her childhood sweetheart by singing, “Maang mein bhar lena sindoor.” In Pinga from Bajirao Mastani, Kashibai is less charitable with her husband’s mistress, but expresses solidarity with “Dono ki maang lage sooni aadhi aadhi.”
The emotional heft of sindoor makes it boggy ground for couples who are merely pretending to be married or aren’t yet in love. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Nandini and her husband Vanraj travel to Italy so she can return to Sameer, the man she loves. However, she eventually develops feelings for Vanraj. Nandini’s internal conflict becomes evident when Vanraj applies sindoor on her forehead.
In Kitne Door Kitne Paas, Jatin and Karishma pretend to be a couple, but face a quandary when their friends insist that she wear sindoor. One of her friends even informs Karishma that she keeps a box of sindoor with her at all times, making it seem like the traditional equivalent of a pepper spray.
When Rahul and Meena pretend to be married in Chennai Express, they take part in a ritual that requires him to carry Meena up several steps into a temple. When they reach the temple and Rahul has to apply sindoor on Meena’s forehead for the ritual to be valid, he is oblivious to Meena’s emotions towards sindoor, and him.
Men in Hindi films seldom speak about sindoor without being passive-aggressive, or even violent. Devdas expresses regret for his decisions that lead to his childhood sweetheart Paro marrying another man by alluding to her “Bada bada sindoor”. In Hamaari Adhuri Kahaani, when Hari comes home to his wife after a long time and finds her without sindoor and mangalsutra, he demands to know why. Vasudha responds with a dramatic rant against customs that symbolise her husband’s ownership of her with the line: “Maang meri, sindoor tumhara.”
Kahaani demonstrates how films can subvert patriarchal connotations around sindoor with grace and restraint. Widowed Vidya kills a terrorist and disappears into a crowd of women participating in Sindoor Khela – a Durga Puja ritual for married Bengali Hindu women. When Vidya allows women around her to smear her face with sindoor, she effectively disguises herself, and escapes the men who are in pursuit.
Hindi cinema’s long and tumultuous relationship with sindoor has been delightfully spoofed in rebirth drama Om Shanti Om, with a dialogue that is now iconic. Seventies movie star Shaanti illustrates the importance of sindoor through the lines, “Har aurat ka khwaab hota hai, suhagan ke sar ka taj hota hai.” In 2007, when lookalike Sandy is required to speak the same lines, she is unable to contain her hilarity at their triteness.
Sindoor awkwardly tries to straddle both old and new without losing balance, like a gymnast trying to salvage a maneuver that has gone slightly awry. A metaphorical mother-in-law in filmic narratives, it is still too traditional to be universally cool, but too relevant to be mocked.