This piece could well have been called ‘Sexing up the Turban’. It’s not—in deference to fellow feeling and general goodwill, and perhaps, just perhaps, in fear of the clan’s warrior protectors. From the time that the turban was globally seen as something all Indians were born with, thanks to Air-India’s Maharaja and the nth orientalist caricature, to an age where it evokes responses ranging from undisguised panic to truthful salutations, this unique piece of headgear has wrapped itself around our lives in ways nobody ever expected.
Suddenly, it’s everywhere. In the US, the turban is undergoing another moment of assertion, as Sikhs agitate for their right to wear it in service of the US Army. This, in a country where a turban-clad Sikh peering at New Yorkers from an NYC Transit Authority poster in a subway sent them scrambling down the stairs in alarm. In France, it’s the very law of the land that disapproves. In countless other places, it’s reason enough to stop and stare.
In India, meanwhile, the turban is on a high. It is riding atop a cool crest of acceptability in the wider public arena, breaking moulds of Hindi cinema heroes, storming ramps at fashion shows and bobbing up in colourful splendour in all sorts of black, white and grey headcounts.
Most visible is the turban’s appearance on that vast colourscape that saturates Indian senses like nothing else, the cinema screen. For years, film after film has projected India as a land of jolly families that are given to hugging each other breathless, expressing themselves in the highest decibels known to humankind, and dancing the gidda with lassi-in-hand abandon. But the heads were always short of cloth. However, with the giddy success of Singh is Kinng has come a new coronation of sorts in the mass market. You can expect to see more turbaned heroes ahead.
In more exclusive circles, it’s the fashion industry that’s playing wave maker. A couple of seasons ago, Signor Armani had sent out models wearing turbans in an all-Rajasthan-inspired collection, thus knocking this element off the fashion no-no list for the first time since Gloria Swanson. The latest breakthrough is courtesy of a name not yet very well known, Sonny Caberwal.
This 30-year-old Sardar of Indian origin, who has rather prematurely been crowned the first Sikh Supermodel of the World, was instrumental in setting the ball rolling. First, by appearing in an ad for Kenneth Cole, and then a fashion shoot for GQ’s German edition, touting pink and sunflower yellow turbans with black-and-white dinner jackets. Caberwal had his first brush with fashion when Cole’s attempts to find a turbaned Sikh model for the label’s 25th anniversary ad campaign turned up a blank. Caberwal was persuaded by his brother-in-law to mail his picture, and that was it, he was on.
Much credit for the turban’s rising cool quotient must go to New York-based Vikram Chatwal. He’s the closest the turban has to a global brand ambassador, according to fashion designer JJ Vallaya who lives in Delhi and often wears a turban himself. “He’s done movies with the turban on and off,” says Vallaya, “he’s modelled with it, and he’s made it a point to flaunt it.” No doubt, it helps that Chatwal is rumoured to have dated Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen, his wedding was widely showcased as the Big Fat Indian Wedding, and he and his group of friends are at the heart of India’s foray into Global Cool.
Even in India, turbans on runways or fashion spreads are no longer seen as someone’s idea of comic relief, even if it has taken awhile to get here. When Vallaya used turbaned models for one of his shows some 15 years ago, it won applause as a cameo. But now, an entire troupe of turbans walking down the runway to the strains of Rabbi Shergill’s music would be just another day at a glam-fest. In an industry that thrives on standardised notions of beauty, desirability and glamour, this is quite remarkable.
The turban may have stepped into the arclights from the sidelights, but some popular stereotypes have not yet faded away; that it somehow suggests flashy loudness, that it signifies a sense of style that’s only good for a few laughs. This is unfair, says Vallaya. “Sikh maharajas have been some of the finest Indian royalties and patrons of Cartier and Louis Vuitton,” he says, “Some of the biggest polo families are Sikh, as are some of the classiest military officers.”
To an extent, stereotypes can be blamed on persistent cinema portrayal down the years. For a long time, the turban was used simply as a cue for some slapstick comedy routine. Or, more charitably, for a good samaritan (pronounced ‘smart-ian’, no doubt) in the form of a good natured cab driver or something. Until Kinng came along.
And though Chatwal accuses the blockbuster’s hero, Akshay Kumar as Happy Singh, of pandering to the same deadpan stereotype of the happy-go-lucky dim-wit in a turban, its director Anees Bazmee insists that his purpose was to showcase a “cool, good looking sardar”. The film is an all-turban affair. It is also a laughathon that depicts some crazy/clever jockeying/non-jockeying for power/love (whichever way you see it), among a gang of adorable goons.
The point, says Bazmee, is that an old Bollywood fear has finally been overcome—that of risking a Sikh as the hero of a film aimed at India’s mass market audience. “Akshay could have played a Sardar in Namaste London too,” he says, of an earlier release, “but apparently it was a risk no one wanted to take [back then].” All in all, helped along by a hummable soundtrack, Kinng seems to have repositioned the turban in the popularity stakes as something more than just a statement, as something to reckon with.
Such has been the impact that Saif Ali Khan is all set now to appear in Love Aaj Kal with a turban, and Ranbir Kapoor will turn on the same charm in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year; the turban was so integral to this script that Yash Raj Films is said to have committed the Bollywood blasphemy of thumbing down the King Khan himself, Shah Rukh, for the role. Meanwhile, the Kink Khan, Aamir, who can’t do without spiking his roles apart in some way or another, has found consolation in playing a turbaned fan of Tata Sky, the satellite TV service, even if his string of Punjabi endearments (or swear words) ends up playing to the same old stereotype.
The biggest cracks in the cinematic glass ceiling, however, have been caused by a turban in a Tamil film. The release Abhiyum Naanum (Abhi and Me) has Ganesh Venkatraman playing Joginder Singh, an insanely intellectual economist in his 20s with a knack of coming up with just what the Prime Minister needs in all matters of national importance. In Tamil cinema, itself none too good at busting hero stereotypes, this is the stuff of plausible entertainment.
According to Chatwal, having an Oxbridge educated PM has been a huge factor in changing the turban’s image in places far away from Punjab. “[Manmohan Singh’s] being the leader of the largest democracy with a lot of visibility over the years has made Sikhs more mainstream,” says Chatwal, adding that the global Sikh community now has a distinct identity of its own.
Cool or not, fashionable or not, the turban remains one of the world’s foremost symbols of religious identity, comparable perhaps to the Arab kaffiya. Its profile has risen sharply these past few years. If the odd film or glam-fest uses it as a script enlivener or fashion symbol, so be it, so long as it’s done largeheartedly.