Hair is often described as a woman’s crowning glory. But to adapt the Shakespearean adage, a host of cultural and religious assumptions ensures that a woman’s head will always lie uneasy – regardless of how she chooses to wear her crown.

The Hindu fundamentalist organisation Hindu Janajagruti Samiti’s recent advisory illustrates some of the religious assumptions associated with women wearing loose hair. According to the organisation, women who leave their hair untied are more prone to “attacks by negative sources” which make them “do and say things they normally wouldn’t”.

Apart from sundry spiritual jargon, the advisory alludes to cinema to drive its point home: while horror films portray female ghosts as having untied hair, mythologicals depict women who have their tresses firmly under bun and plait. In a classic case of circular reasoning, the advisory passes off cultural products as factual evidence to validate culturally entrenched prejudices. Since the code of conduct prescribed by the organisation reflects deeply ingrained misogyny, it is unsurprising that several movies echo their ideas in a milder way.

Hindi movies have a lengthy list of hairstyle do’s and don’ts in the form of unsolicited advice sung by men, but these instructions are meant to function as poetic compliments, not rigid norms.

Na Jhatko Zulf Se Pani from Shehnai (1964).

In Shehnai, Biswajeet sings “Na jhatko zulf se paani” to convince his lover not to dry her hair because the droplets in her tresses are as precious as pearls. In Nazrana, Raj Kapoor advises Vyjayanthimala to not step in a garden with her hair open with “Bikhra ke zulfein chaman mein na jaana”. In Zulfon Ko Hata Lo Chehre Se, Manoj Kumar asks Sharmila Tagore to tuck her hair away from her face and let the brightness of her visage shine through.

Most male protagonists refuse to get out of women’s hair, describing long tresses in loving and exhaustive detail. Long-haired women have been repeatedly compared to clouds (Aap Ki Mehki Hui Zulf Ko Kehte Hain Ghata from Trishul) and silk (Yeh Reshmi Zulfein from Do Raaste).

In a move befitting the colour-blind, a brunette’s hair has also been compared to gold (Yeh Chaand Sa Roshan Chehra, Zulfon Ka Rang Sunehra from Kashmir Ki Kali). In the reworked Humma Humma from Ok Jaanu, a mostly unintelligible rap fondly regards a woman’s hair as zaalim (tyrannical).

Yeh Chand Sa Roshan Chehra from Kashmir Ki Kali (1964).

But the most compelling metaphor is in Yeh Zulf Kaisi Hai from Piya Ka Ghar, when Anil Dhawan’s character compares his fiancé’s luscious locks to a zanjeer (chain).

Women describe their own long hair with equally interesting, if dubious, analogies. In Kali Naagin Ke Jaise from Mann, Rani Mukherji equates her hair to a snake, and by corollary, herself to a modern-day Medusa. In the melodious Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera from Mere Sanam, Mumtaz’s hair doubles up a homing device as she assures her love interest that the fragrance of her hair will always lead him to her.

Loose and long hair is often meant to be subtly suggestive. In the song Zara Zara from Rehna Tere Dil Mein, a woman fantasises about her paramour lovingly running his fingers through her unfettered locks. In Aaja Piya, Asha Parekh invites her lover with the lines lat bikharaye… baithi hoon main tere liye (I sit waiting for you with my hair loose). In Abhimaan, Uma’s wet, loose hair signals her growing sexual intimacy with Subir.

Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera from Mere Sanam (1965).

Wet hair also has other strengths. In Devdas, when the titular protagonist first greets courtesan Chandramukhi, she seductively flips her wet hair against a mirror, causing the glass to shatter. Her precise calculation of the momentum required would put the average physicist to shame, but her shampoo deserves more credit. It finally appears to deliver what manufacturers have been promising since eons – hair so long and strong, you might never need a rope, weapon, or self-defence classes.

While long hair on female heads is meant to be aesthetically pleasing, it is not without practical uses. A woman might ask her lover why he is fond of her lengthy tresses, and he is likely to respond, much like the big, bad wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the better to hold you with, my dear. Consider Salman Khan grabbing the plaits of several women while singing Joote Do Paise Lo in Hum Aapke Hain Koun.

Women who are unfettered by the patriarchal grip often appear in short hair – consider Romila in Lakshya or Jaggu in PK. The length and quality of a woman’s hair seems to be directly proportional to her feminine traits. Women who aren’t girly enough are saddled with a short or unkempt mane, such as Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Sanjana in Main Hoon Na. Their hair becomes long and gorgeous when they learn to conform to conventional ideas of beauty.

But Hindi cinema also subverts some connotations with long hair by associating loose tresses with sexual power and self-confidence. In Begum Jaan, Vidya Balan is a powerful brothel madam whose hair is as wild and unvarnished as her dialogue. In Queen, Rani’s hair is firmly tied up initially, while her sexually frank friend Vijaylakshmi leaves her hair loose. When Rani finds her self-confidence and confronts her ex-fiancé’s mother, her hair is finally loose, swishing about tantalisingly on her shoulders.

Anushka Sharma in PK (2014).