witness - hair india 3

Hair India

Filmmaker Raffaele Brunetti looks at the cult of beauty in the era of globalisation.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

For centuries Hindu pilgrims have donated their hair in a ritual of purification. Today this hair has become a precious commodity and an extraordinary economic resource.

Hair India follows the journey of human hair from the holy temples of Southern India to the production lines of Europe and on to high class beauty salons around the world.

Last year, filmmaker Raffaele Brunetti spoke to Al Jazeera’s Donata Hardenberg about the making of Hair India and how the film reflects the contradictions in modern Indian society.

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to make a film about hair and its journey?

Raffaele Brunetti: It was my co-director Marco Leopardi who came up with the idea. At first I didn’t see much in it. A story about the hair of poor people from India, used by rich and superficial jetsetters from the Western world, just seemed too obvious for me.

But once Marco took me to the Great Lengths factory in Rome, the world’s leading manufacturer of the extensions used to thicken and lengthen hair, where I learned that hair was also being shipped back to India, I was intrigued and realised the story could become a vehicle for showing the contradictions in modern Indian society.

Sangeeta has decided to get hair extensions for India’s most important fashion show

Why is this story important?

Our film offers an original view of today’s India with all its contradictions. A kaleidoscope of modernity, economic expansion and ancient traditions.

Hair India tells the story of the cult of beauty in the era of globalisation.

How did you prepare for filming and how long did you spend in India while shooting?

We made a first research and location hunting trip with a small HDV camera of about 20 days during which we visited several temples and villages. Then we spent 10 days in Mumbai where we participated in a lot of parties, art gallery openings and fashion shows.
We met as many people as possible. We employed two coordinators, one in Mumbai and one in West Bengal, where we met several ladies in the villages who were supposed to leave for the pilgrimage in the upcoming months.
Once back we started writing the story, edited a short demo and started proposing the film to potential partners. At the same time we were in constant contact with our coordinators to prepare for the actual filming.

After about four or five months we went back to India with the actual film crew and spent one month there filming.

How did you meet the main characters?
Marco lives very close to the Great Length’s factory in Rome and he took me to visit it. David Gold and his son Thomas, who own the factory, are very busy and were sceptical at first. But when we explained that the aim of our film was to show the various faces of modern India they accepted our proposal. They put us in contact with Mayoor, the hair trader in Bangalore, and with Dilshad, the hairdresser in Mumbai.

We reached the village of Muchipara in West Bengal through our coordinator who lives in that area. We immediately liked the village because it is a perfect example of the non-developed part of the country which is ‘watching’ the developing India: The village is just next to the highway and the people constantly look at cars and trucks transporting a huge amount of goods. For me, it symbolises the growing India passing by the very poor Indian village.

Janet Fine, an American lady who used to be an Indian ballet dancer and who had spent most of her life in Mumbai, was a special person. She introduced us to the glamorous world of Mumbai. It is quite a closed world and very difficult to enter, but thanks to her we got the chance to be invited to the most glamorous events.

It was at those events that we met our Mumbai characters, such as Sangeeta, the executive editor of Indian Hello! magazine, who was planning to have hair extensions.

Unfortunately Janet, who was ill, died in the period between the location hunting and the shooting. Our film is dedicated to her. 

Unlike his friends, Mayoor has made a fortune through buying and selling hair

How did you get the film’s characters to tell their stories?

I think that everybody is willing to tell his or her story, it is only a matter of feeling and of being honest about what you are doing. The rest is skill and experience. 
The family, on their way to the temple, were so excited, it was the first time they left their village. They often forgot we were shooting.

In Mumbai the opposite happened. Sangeeta was so happy to be go around the town with a camera crew – she was herself, though, happy to tell us about herself in that way.
Thomas and Mayoor, the extension maker and the hair trader, were on the phone all the time, filming them was enough. 

What challenges did you encounter while making the film?
I’ll tell you about a special and challenging moment: Marco and I with the rest of the crew travelled with the family on their same means of transportation, on foot, by bus, train, rickshaw, and it was a long and exhausting trip. By the end all of us, the family and the crew, were tired, hungry and irritable (not in a spiritual mood at all).

Also once we reached the temple the Brahmins denied us permission to film in the area where the hair was being removed and we had to go into long discussions. The members of the family, the mother and the children in particular, were nervous about losing their beloved hair.

But just after the ritual was complete, you could really see the family go through a transformation. It was very special. I think they were even surprised by it. A peaceful atmosphere overcame all of us. All the tension was gone.

How did temple authorities and others in the temple react to the filming?
During location hunting we went first to the temple of Tirupati which is the richest Indian temple. Here, tens of thousands of people were donating their hair.

Filming permission was denied during the hair donation ritual and we were not happy with the location. There were huge white rooms with neon lights where hundreds of pilgrims are shaved at the same time – a sort of assembly line where you could not sense the deep feelings of the pilgrims.

On the other hand, we were very happy when we heard that the village families who we had previously met traditionally went to the Simachalam temple. This is a very beautiful and ancient temple.

Here our visit was welcomed with surprise; they are not used to seeing Europeans appear from a long sacred staircase. We had a long conversation with the temple’s Brahmin, and we kept in touch after our first visit, thanks to our Indian coordinator who went back also during our absence.

There were tense moments immediately before shooting the shaving, but once we again explained why we were there, everything went smoothly.

Traditionally, many poor Indians devote the only thing they own, their hair

Do the pilgrims know what is happening to their hair and what does the ritual mean to them?

Before travelling for our research trip we thought that this was a crucial question to ask the devotees.

But after reaching the temple we realised that this question was not important at all.

The donors don’t care. They want to make a sacrifice to God and wouldn’t take any money for that.

People are donating their hair for a spiritual reason as a sacrifice to God. For them the hair was something they got rid of and whatever may happen to it afterwards is none of their concern.

What does hair mean for the temples – traditionally and today?

Our story begins with a myth. While planning his wedding to the goddess Padmavathi, Vishnu accumulated a large debt with Kubera, the gods’ treasurer, who, in consideration of the high interest rate he had stipulated, decided that the loan could be paid off by hundreds of generations over the centuries to come.

For hundreds of years, devotees have donated money or jewellery. Many will not hesitate to offer the only thing they own – every day 40,000 pilgrims donate their hair in a ritual of purification.

Until a few years ago the hair donated to the temples was burned or used to stuff mattresses. Today this hair has become an extraordinary economic resource.

In our film thousands of locks find their way to Italy, purchased by Thomas Gold, the owner of Great Lengths.

Great Lengths hair extensions are considered the best in the world market. The company exports not only to the US and Europe, but also to Arab countries, Australia, Russia, and many others, including India. 

Why is the hair valuable to the people who buy hair extensions?
Indian hair is considered the best in the market for its quality and length. Moreover Indian women from the villages don’t use any chemicals and take great care of their hair: they comb it frequently and only use coconut oil on it.

Many hair extensions find their way back to India, to Mumbai’s high society

Do those getting hair extensions in Mumbai know that their extensions come from poor Indians?

Yes, they know this tradition very well and sometimes they also go to visit those temples and sometimes they also donate their hair.

Is this a topic that is openly discussed in India?


When did the temples start selling the hair?

The business started to be consistent during the 1980s for producing wigs, but the real boom took place during the last 10 years with the increased popularity of hair extensions. 

What do you think about the fact that the hair is being sold?

We did not want to judge or give opinions in the film. We don’t think is our task to do so. As we often say, reportages and journalistic work in general are based on research and investigation in order to give solutions or answers. On the contrary, we think a documentary should raise questions. It should make you think. If our documentary makes people think then we have reached the goal we wanted.

All I can say is that it seeing the hair destroyed rather than sold would not reassure my Westerner’s conscience.

The fact that Indian temples can receive money from selling hair is not causing consternation. Thousands of temples do it and, I guess, the use of money is very diverse: there are those who practice the ritual to help the faithful in their spiritual exercises and use the money to help improve the standard of living of the poorest in the area and those who do it only to gather money – but that’s another story and it can be applied to all religions.

Why is the donated hair so expensive and why are people willing to pay so much for hair extensions?
There are different qualities of hair extensions. The ones made out of Remy hair, which means long Indian hair in a unidirectional fashion, are the most expensive ones. Companies like Great Lengths have developed and patented innovative ways of colouring and applying the hair and this is also part of the cost.

Brunetti was surprised how natural people in India are in front of the camera  

What was your experience of filming in India?

My last three films were shot in Africa, South America (Bolivia and Argentina) and India.

India was the easiest – the people were very nice. Indians are very natural in front of the camera.

Watching the rushes I was surprised to notice that the people almost never look into the camera.

The few times that this happened I liked the profound look of the people, and this is why I decided to edit these scenes which are actually in the film.

In our film the rich people from Mumbai sometimes seemed like they were acting, but that is their attitude toward life, as if they are constantly in front of a camera. When we were not filming they had totally the same attitude.

Do you think the financial crisis has affected the “hair market”? And if so, how?

As far as I know the crisis is not affecting the hair market which owes its success to the eternal desire to attain and retain beauty. Also trends will not affect the market.

Extensions are more and more used by women who want to thicken their hair and are not young any longer.

According to Thomas Gold, Indian hair will soon be insufficient to meet the demand. Thanks to research, big steps are being made to produce synthetic hair.

What did you learn about Indian society?

Today’s India is undergoing great changes. It epitomises all the contradictions of a country that is truly on the path to development.

The world’s greatest democracy is also a country in which the strongest rate of economic growth is leaving behind the overwhelming majority of the population; one in which opportunities and rights are still dictated by caste and in which, in rural areas, women’s rights are in constant abeyance; one in which most of the population lives on less than a dollar a day and where an apartment costs more to rent in Mumbai than it does in New York; where in Mumbai alone, every day, new wine bars, spaghetti houses, sumptuous art galleries and elegant show rooms open.

This is the country of the computer industry boom, the only place in the world to experience a reverse brain drain, where the brightest people find more opportunities to work than they would in Europe or the US.

This is also the country of call centres and where a new, young workforce is creating a huge market on which cosmetics multinationals have thrived.

All this lives together with an incredible living and immutable millenary culture.

Many years ago, Roberto Rossellini described India with these words: “What strikes about the history of India is the state of being contemporary. You feel immersed in a total primitive humanity, but you’re living the modern age. Examples of all historical times are in front of your eyes, absolutely on the same level”.

We think these lines can still today define the Indian reality.

What are the biggest challenges facing India?

To let a wide range of social classes, especially the poorest one, benefit from the fast and growing effects of the country’s economic growth.

It’s important to give the cultural instruments to the lowest classes in order to cope with the sudden cosmism boom, without being swept away.

Where do you see India in 10 years?
I don’t know, what I know is that the future of the biggest democracy in the world is crucial for the future of the planet.
Are you still in touch with the main characters? Has the film changed anything in their lives?
Their lives have not changed. I have recently received season wishes from Sangeeta and Mayoor, who are very happy with the film. We are in constant contact with our location manager in India who keeps us updated on the health and clinical needs of the son of one of the characters.

What are you working on now?

We are now developing a new documentary film on India, called Mother India. This time we will use the eye of Indian women and the subject of assistant reproduction technologies (ARTs) and, in particular, surrogacy.

India is the only country worldwide where commercial surrogacy is permitted. In recent years it has boomed as a result of skilled medical professionals, advanced technology, low prices, liberal laws and the availability of many poor women.

All our characters will be Indian women: the surrogate mothers, the embryologist, the feminists, the principal of the Law College of Mumbai, the fashion designer and the leader of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party.

Following the stories of these women from different social backgrounds we will offer an original perspective on India and a close subjective view on the boom in ARTs.

This film first aired on Al Jazeera on January 31, 2011