Vidya Balan and Sonam Kapoor created ripples when they donned large nose rings while walking the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. But Aamir Khan’s shiny little nose pin, which is part of his look for the 2018 film Thugs of Hindostan, has prompted waves of gushing praise. Since nose rings are traditionally worn by women, it is unsurprising that Khan’s ornament continues to attract nosy speculation every time he makes a public appearance. Clearly, when it comes to actors donning jewellery, what’s sauce for the gander is not sauce for the goose.

Sushant Singh Rajput’s selfie with Aamir Khan. Image credit: Instagram.

Hindi films have employed the gender subtext associated with jewellery to diverse effect. Characters often ask men to “choodi pehen le” (wear bangles) when they are unable to prove their masculinity. Nose rings don’t appear often in the list of baubles that are used to pejoratively signify femininity, but Sher-E-Hindustan (1998), starring Mithun Chakraborty at his most overwrought, offers a dubious example. Inspector Kranti Kumar’s authority and masculinity are challenged when a local criminal disrobes him in public and brutally shoves a ring in his nostril. Kranti wears the ring as a reminder of the insult, and avenges himself by forcing the same nose ring through the criminal’s nose.

Mithun Chakraborty in Sher-E-Hindustan (1998).

Even as the world is getting enthralled by the idea that men can wear jewellery to challenge traditional gender norms, Hindi cinema has been providing shining examples of this rebellion since decades. Consider Dilip Kumar telling the world to stop and stare at his gait after he wears anklets in the song Mere Pairon Mein Ghungroo from Sunghursh (1968). Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela (2013) also features men wearing earrings and necklaces that are gorgeous enough to strike envy in the hearts of women. But the male characters generally stop short of wearing nose rings.

On the other hand, women in Hindi films have been wearing, flaunting and shedding nose rings with gleeful abandon. They also characteristically break out into melodies about their shiny baubles, employing a range of risque metaphors that might cause a seasoned matron to blush. Although Hindi film songs have found ingenious ways to weld sexual metaphors onto almost every piece of jewellery (consider Jhumka Gira Re from Mera Saaya, 1966), the nose ring has been particularly sexualised.

Nathaniya Jo Daali from Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978).

In Nathaniya Hale Toh from Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong (1971), a woman dripping in diamonds declares that her nose ring will be a source of great joy when it moves. In Nathani Meri Dole Re from Madhosh (1974), a dancing woman imagines that someone holding her moving nose ring will bring her a lot of happiness with the lines “Nathani meri dole re, koi thaame toh bada maza aaye”.

Rakhi Sawant’s ceaseless gyrations are marginally intimidating as she cautions her lover to remove her nose ring carefully in Nathani Utaro Sambhal Ke Piya from Horn Ok Pleassss (2009).

Most of these songs employ euphemisms that are laughably on the nose, and the dance movements accompanying them leave little room for doubt. Women who sing about nose rings are often performing their sexuality for a man, and the mention of their ornament is meant to titillate and seduce.

Consider Bindiya Chamkegi from Do Raaste (1969), where Mumtaz attempts to amuse a disgruntled Rajesh Khanna with her unapologetic sexuality – she doesn’t care if the shine on her nose pin intimidates men.

Bindiya Chamkegi from Do Raaste (1969).

Jewellery is an indispensible part of a woman’s everyday performance of her own identity, and her ornaments signify her social standing. In Bajirao Mastani (2015), the difference between Mastani and Kashibai’s position in Bajirao’s life is easily illustrated by their nose pins. Kashibai is his official wife, wearing a traditional Maharashtrian nath, while Mastani wears a large nose ring. When Bajirao reminds Kashi that she is the eldest daughter-in-law of the family, Kashi responds with a sardonic smile that her adornments testify to her status in the house. She has the ornament, but not her husband’s attention.

Deepika Padukone in Bajirao Mastani (2015).

As Wendy Doniger notes her book A Ring of Truth, loss of ornamental rings signifies a loss of identity and virginity, and has the power to determine a woman’s chastity. When women in films sing about misplacing their nose rings, they are often speaking of a sexual encounter with a man – and their nose rings are never simple ornaments purchased off the self.

In the song Meri Sawwa Lakh Ki Nathni from Tulsi Vivah (1979), a woman is reminded of her blindingly expensive nose ring, which she lost at a very young age. Eh Thaiyya Motiya from Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007) features a woman lamenting the loss of a pearl from her nose ring after meeting a man. In the non-film song Nathani Se Toota Moti Rey, Manna Dey’s softly emotional voice conveys a bride’s disillusionment with her new life.

Since nose rings are traditionally worn by Hindu brides, they feature in several wedding songs. Consider Sun Sun Goriya from Daman (2001), in which pieces of the bride’s jewelry, including her new nose ring, are surprisingly eloquent.

The origin of nose rings remains unclear, but Western theorists have argued that it is a sign of control and oppression. The practice of females wearing nose rings has been compared to the guiding ring that is put on the nose of cows. But Hindi films offer a cheerfully ironic counterpoint to this idea, since women often lead men by their noses with their glittering nose ornaments. Consider songs such as Mere Pairon Mein Ghungroo Bndha Do from Patiala House (2011) and Bindiya Chamke Choodi Khanke from Tumko Naa Bhool Paayengey (2002), in which men cannot stop crooning about their lovers’ shiny nose pins.

Salman Khan and Dia Mirza in Tumko Na Bhool Payenge (2002).

The song Ram Chaahe Leela from Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela bends traditional gender dynamics by featuring a woman praising the titular woman’s adornments with the lines “Ghanan ghanan megh jo barse, Leela na Sringar no tarse, chudlo, nathni, patlo kandoro.” When Ram and Leela decide to kill each other to escape the violence around them, the bullet that Ram pumps into Leela’s torso dislodges her nose ring. Leela loses all the social markers that define her, finally content to spend her last moments with the man she loves.