Call of the beard

Watched the Robert De Niro video clip that went viral last week? The one where the actor, while speaking at the Tony Awards in New York, shook his fists and cussed US President Donald Trump with the F-word? Yes, yes, like most people I too laughed helplessly as he repeated the insult and got a standing ovation from the audience. But a part of me was busy with another thought: De Niro, the craggy-faced star of many virtuoso performances, was wearing a beard. A nice white beard that underlined his seniority and made his denunciation of Trump seem even more whiplash than it was.

Thing is, I’ve become a beard-watcher lately. I’ve suddenly become conscious that a huge number of male celebrities in India and the West are sporting facial hair. Straggly or spruce, abundant or close-clipped, a rippling cataract or a mere stubble — the beard seems to be very much a part of the male zeitgeist today. Heck, even Prince Harry wed his American bride Meghan Markle with his ginger beard intact — upending tradition and giving grief to those who were betting that he would shave.
In India, too, the beard has become the marker of masculinity. And like any other fashion trend, this too is being driven by cricket and Bollywood — the twin engines of our culture. Who can miss Virat Kohli’s sharply contoured beard that’s pointed almost to a V? (V for Victory, V for Virat — take your pick.) However, it’s not just Captain Kohli. Most members of the Indian cricket team wear some sort of facial fur. It’s as if they wouldn’t be admitted into the dressing room if they left their cheeks exposed to the elements.

The hunks of Bollywood have taken up the beard challenge too. Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Vicky Kaushal (of Raazi fame), Saif Ali Khan, Aamir Khan, Shahid Kapoor… they’re all magnificently whiskered and bearded now. In the much-talked about recent film Veere Di Wedding, Kareena Kapoor’s intended wears a patchy goatee; her friend Sonam Kapoor’s one-night stand exhibits a lush, glossy beard. He also grins like a jackass, but that is beside the point.

Indeed, the only Bollywood A-listers still batting for the clean-shaven are Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar. But given the formidable peer pressure, who knows how long they will hold out.

In India the beard has become the marker of masculinity. And like any other fashion trend, this too is being driven by cricket and Bollywood

Our politicians are also doing their bit for the power beard. Witness Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exquisitely groomed snow-white beard, Amit Shah’s somewhat scant salt-and-pepper one or Chandrababu Naidu’s short white chin-beard. Rahul Gandhi too flaunts a greying stubble off and on, though one wishes he would make up his mind whether he wants it off or on.

So how did things get so, er, hairy? Time was when a beard — flowing, luxuriant — signified a certain saintly sagacity. (Think Tagore or Tolstoy.) Later, ageing movie stars took to growing beards — Sean Connery’s rakish beard made him way more shekshy and Amitabh Bachchan’s catapulted him into a whole new avuncular league.

But today, the beard is undergoing a tremendous democratisation. Men are embracing it — not just as a fashion statement, but as a badge of their machismo, a symbol of their surging testosterone. In India, though, it’s mostly the younger lot who seem intoxicated with the idea of wearing facial fur. Even as we speak, maybe fathers are telling their young sons about the beards and the bees. Sure, women can do most things men can, but they can’t grow a beard, right? So there.

Sadly, facial foliage is not for everyone. Brad Pitt’s occasional unkempt beard is a perfect fright. Leonardo di Caprio’s beard — now vigorous, now like a denuded rainforest — is pretty hideous too. But when fashion rules, who cares about looks? The other day I went to a busy south Delhi market and stood people-watching for five minutes. Believe it or not, every second young man passing by, including two parking attendants, sported bristly cheeks.

Guys, we get it that the beard is having a great cultural moment. But really, the world would be an awfully boring place if most of you went around with hair on your faces.

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