Shear Work: The Global Labour Trade in Hair India

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Esther R. Berry is Visiting Scholar at Ryerson University’s Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre.

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Image credit: MercuryMedia International

The observational documentary Hair India (2008), which tracks the multibillion-dollar global industry in Indian hair, by Italian filmmakers Raffaele Brunetti and Marco Leopardi, moves dizzyingly between the subjects who sacrifice their hair in religious devotion and the women who buy it. Hair India mimics not only the rapid, peripatetic flow of global capital, but also the dynamic medium of hair with its tendency for entanglement. The film first screened at Hot Docs in 2009 to lukewarm reviews, and there are indeed many things that are subpar about this documentary; the film’s chaotic narrative is weakened by what NOW Magazine describes as “no storytelling chops or characters we can get involved with.” Another reviewer in Exclaim! laments that it is missing “a central event like a competition or a crisis” with nothing and no one to grab onto, fall in love with or hate, and no titillating climatic urgency. However, it is helpful to note that recent bioeconomy critics have suggested that hair clippings “may be readily commodified precisely because they are waste, and do not signify the donor.”[i] With this in mind, the film’s emotional vacancy can be considered part of hair’s story as a global beauty product that floats freely, copiously, and quietly across continents, landing inconspicuously in salons and on scalps worldwide.

As a commodity, hair is different from other products that circle the globe in late-stage capitalism. This “black gold,” as beauty corporations dub the locks, cycles unceasingly between growth and re-growth, life and death—it is a connective tissue. It works like a fingerprint, bearing secrets and pointing things out, especially as it changes hands across the global stage, where it brings the tenuous boundaries between producer and consumer into deeply felt, literal, touch. While watching Hair India, one cannot help but link the film’s protagonists—an uneasy and at times uncomfortable entwinement, but an entwinement nonetheless. It is precisely this tangling of characters that matters in this film, and not the fastidious documentation of “India with all of its contradictions” (as Brunetti describes his project). In Hair India the strands of sold hair are more than the sum of their parts. They speak to the complex knot of class tensions and labour exploitation that, often quietly, shape our world.

Brunetti and Leopardi’s film opens in Simhachalam temple, Andhra Pradesh, where thousands of pilgrims have their heads tonsured each day—an offering to the deity Vishnu to help him pay off an ancient debt. Razors leave scalps bare, and we watch as devotees are stripped of their crowning glory. In India, as in the West, long hair is an unquestioned symbol of beauty, too often associated with normative views of femininity. An object of vanity, it performs a paradox. On the one hand, it symbolizes corrupting standards of beauty. But because of this symbolic value, it is also a pertinent offering in the quest for purification. Thanks to the uneven character of globalization, however, sacred strands make a return trip to vanity as they are redeployed to support the global traffic in beauty.

The film unfolds through a series of dogged cuts between the lives of the trade’s donors, brokers, and buyers, focusing on two women as they diverge and intersect over the matter of hair. One woman donates it, travelling miles to Simhachalam from her impoverished village in West Bengal. The other consumes it in Mumbai’s celebrity salons, where moneyed women go to chew the fat and make connections—superficially with other socialites and materially with temple strands. The former, Hemlata, is part of India’s economically marginalized, living in squalor with her family. The latter, Sangeeta, is a celebrity gossip editor who personifies the inflated needs of India’s growing upper middle class. The protagonists’ stories are interwoven by repeated scenes of sweatshop labour, where women workers in Bangalore sort through bales of hair. The ring of their bracelets is the film’s most resonant soundtrack, along with the swish and slap of hair in chemical baths, where it is leeched of the long, hot trip to and from Simhachalam. And halfway around the world, in sanitized imagery that accompanies Indian hair’s transformation into international merchandise, we glimpse the corporate innards of the Italian-based hair extensions juggernaut Great Lengths International, which sells women around the world the fiction of their own best selves.

Indian hair’s global odyssey—in action since the nineteenth century when Madras hair found itself in chignons and coronets across Western Europe—is easy to miss in light of the body’s other prolific tissue markets. Moral outrage at the illicit sale of organs, in particular, was ignited in the 1970s when the advent of transplant medication to prevent organ rejection incited the fast and furious birth of the international organ market. A flow of kidneys and corneas into the West, lifted from desperate souls in poor countries—notably the Global South—inspired a range of urgent responses that still haunt the filmic imagination (see, for example, Ric Esther Bienstock’s 2013 documentary Tales from the Organ Trade, or Rama Rau’s The Market [2011]).

The trade in human body parts has been effectively theorized by feminist writings on the global exchange of human materials for science and medicine. The strength of this criticism is that it asks us to re-imagine what counts as work in the current biopolitical climate, who counts as workers, and who counts them as such. And yet, the urgency of this re-imagining is still influenced by degrees of vitality: partisan decisions about the use-value of bodies and body parts informed by centuries of gendered representation that devalue the kinds of mundane (beauty) work we see in Hair India.

Perhaps intentionally, then, Hair India plays up the role in which hair is widely cast: a wasteful object, a leisure-time pursuit, a symbol of excess germane to the “useless” work of conspicuous consumption uncritically assigned to the feminine. Be that as it may, with biopolitics defined as the regulation of life in the interest of enhancing the vitality of the social body, the film demonstrates that traded hair is firmly implicated in the biopolitics of beauty regimes. Sangeeta’s investment in hair extensions shows a commitment to life—to putting “femininity” to work for the health of a new global India, which survives on free-market capitalism. Throughout the film, on passing billboards and in magazines, chock-full of western beauty products, trends, and brands, we see how femininity is shaped by globalized commercialism. While Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (2009), about the $9 billion black hair industry, presents a chain of uncut exploitation from temple to transnational, Hair India hones in on the complexities and contradictions inherent in global capitalism—especially when it comes to the mundane and deeply racialized work of femininity.

Accordingly, Brunetti and Leopardi show candid shots of Indian hair being chemically processed in slick antiseptic Italian factories, and of female labourers in sweatshops presided over by hair pimps, raising similar concerns to that of Rock about the trade’s exploitative measures. These scenes are evocative visual testaments to the rhetoric of imperial hygiene and to the reality of cultural imperialism, which makes it possible for companies like Great Lengths to build empires on foreign hair for mostly Western consumers. But things are less cut-and-dry when the same product is sold back to affluent women in India, who are influenced but not wholly absorbed by Western beauty norms, and who themselves occupy a place of acute class privilege.

Hair India raises questions about the often-invisible work of assimilation at play in consumer capitalism. In one of its longer close-up sequences, hair and busy fingers fill the screen as Great Lengths technology is applied to Sangeeta’s strands, which seamlessly merge with the company’s product. The procedure complete, her stylist exclaims, “Not a soul can make out that it’s not [yours]!” Removed as it is from Simhachalam, the hair makes Sangeeta feel “like a goddess.” The dominance of the commodity and the corporation are thus palpable in this mid-point of the film. Were it not for fluctuating perspectives of factory toil and snapshots of Hemlata’s pilgrimage told through unscripted confessions, snippets of softly lit train travel, bare feet on temple steps, and heads bending to the blade, the conditions of hair’s production would not be visible to the viewer.

But what does it matter when, as Brunetti tells us, pilgrims don’t care what happens to the hair once it is shorn? Does it matter that Hemlata hopes her offering of hair will bring her family good fortune while it is being sold for more than she will earn in her lifetime? Perhaps for these reasons it matters, and perhaps it doesn’t. What is interesting in the scene of Indian hair’s processing is how labour histories and conditions of production are easily mystified. This is a process we usually ascribe to the modus operandi of big business capitalism, where to make a sale it makes sense that consumers are encouraged not to imagine scalps—or slaughterhouses, for that matter. It is also, however, endemic in everyday dismissals of the mundane labour that hair evokes in concert with the work of femininity. Those things without apparent crisis, competition, or real character.

In one of many salon scenes, the enshrining moment of connection between temple hair and Sangeeta’s strands extend the gossip-rag editor to near-Mannerist proportions, culminating in what her stylist calls “every woman’s dream, to have thick luscious hair.” The transplant facilitates Sangeeta’s easy access to high-profile events; we follow her as she threads herself through Mumbai’s heaving cityscape, plastered with images of lightened, whitened Bollywood stars—the very faces she sees transfixed in the glow of a late-night fashion parade. At the same time, we hear Hemlata’s narration in the aftermath of the tonsure. She feels lighter. The gravitas of this statement is not lost on Brunetti and Leopardi, who decidedly cut between bald pilgrims and catwalkers burdened not only by their physical extensions, but also by the weight of hair’s lofty associations. In other words, on the surface, traded hair is not a biopolitical issue. It does not work explicitly to promote or enhance life, but instead to bolster so-called trifling beauty. Seemingly, it is a meaningless biological entity—a chain of dead cells no longer rooted in a scalp teeming with life. And so it teeters precariously between the living and the dead, handled not by doctors but by beauticians and spiritual players, reanimated not by biomedicine but by global capitalism and modern global consumerism.


[i] Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell, Tissue Economies: Blood, Organs, and Cell Lines in Late Capitalism. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006). 26.

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