Our relationship with hair is tenuous. Too frizzy, too short, too curly, too straight. But for many Sikh men and women, this relationship straddles between faith, culture and identity. In Harjant Gill's documentary, Roots of Love (playing at VISAFF), six men share their stories and the deep personal meaning attached to their hair.

Filmmaker and anthropologist, Harjant Gill, seems to court controversy with his documentaries. With Milind Soman Made Me Gay, Harjant shares stories of gay South Asian men in the USA, and with Roots of Love six Sikh men share their experiences of growing and cutting their hair in India.

Jugni Style's Naveen Girn interviews filmmaker, academic and all around talented guy, Harjant Gill.

JS: Tell me about some of your earlier films like Miland Soman Made Me Gay and Everything. Were their specific events that inspired you to make these films?

HG: Everything was the film that I needed to make to get over high school and teenage years. My high school experience was a bit tough, because I came out at an early age, so Everything was literally about everything that I was feeling, experiencing and thinking in those years – condensed into 8 minutes. It was great making the film… the whole experience was very therapeutic. I named it after Lauryn Hill's song, "Everything is Everything" (its my anthem).

Milind Soman Made Me Gay was a meditation on home and belonging. Conceiving the film, I took key events and memories from my childhood and worked backwards and try to make sense of who I am now and how I am shaped by my past. It was also inspired by the work of Marlon Riggs, an African American gay filmmaker who died of AIDS in the 1980s. The idea was to create a sense of disjuncture, a sense of uneasiness throughout the whole film by disrupting traditional and nostalgic narratives of home and belonging. I wanted the audiences to feel the sense of uneasiness and disjuncture that I grew up with and continue to live with, because of my sexual and ethnic identity.

"In a world where, increasingly, art is bowing to commercial considerations, it is heartening to find young filmmakers like Harjant Gill who have the courage to use their art as an instrument for social change." – Shabana Azmi, Actress + Human Rights activist

JS: Where did the idea for Roots of Love come from?

HG: A New York Times article on the topic. I wanted to explore this for quite sometime, but [the article] reignited my interest.  We posted flyers up all over Chandigarh and surrounding neighborhoods, and also word of mouth, through friends and people in the community. We pre-interviewed about 20 guys, before deciding on the 6 main stories.

JS: At one point in the film, one person mentions that this idea of “modernity” is to blame for Sikhs cutting their hair and not keeping a turban. What do you consider are some recent trends regarding the wearing of turbans?

HG: No, I don't think its so black and white. What’s interesting in Punjab, is that guys are cutting their hair, yet still wearing the turban. So it’s almost like they are practicing flexible citizenship. They can pick and choose when to wear the turban and when they can go without. So the turban is certainly not going anywhere. After all there are many advantages attached to wearing the turban (especially in India). It signals your class, your position, and marks you as very masculine..

What is, however interesting to note is the relationship between hair and turban, and the desire to keep uncut hair. Its not what it use to be 20 years ago and that in part is due to modernity and globalization and the increasing demands that are placed on the citizens of India to assimilate into one unified national identity.

In a nutshell, the idea of what it means to be a successful man in Punjab today, often entails migrating abroad and being transnational. So most of these guys are simply waiting for their turn to go abroad. And cutting hair is part of fitting into the transnational modes of masculinity.

JS: Is blame the proper response? Or is it individuals exercising a personal choice about their religious beliefs? Two of the most prominent stories are of the 14 year old boy who's having his Dastar Bandi ceremony and Gurkirpal Singh Grewal who has cut his hair.

HG: I think that is the million dollar question… I am on the side of practicing individual choice, I am not very religious myself. However, listening to the Sikh communities grievances, I feel equally sympathetic towards their point of view. Cultural change is inevitable, perhaps this is one unfortunate consequence of all the benefits of modernity… this is for viewers to decide. However, you'd be surprised how adaptable your family can be once you begin voicing your agency. Especially for sons, all is forgiven at the end.

JS: Your own picture is included in the documentary and your grandfather speaks about his disappointment when your and your brother's hair was cut. What was the impact of this action on you?

HG: I wanted to capture a glimpse of my grandfather's personality and his memory of our childhood. My grandmother and grandfather took care of us when we were little. My grandmother would comb our hair everyday, so, they felt personally invested in us keeping our hair, because they had taken care of our hair for so long. Of course, as time passed, we have changed and moved on to more exciting things in life. However, for my grandfather, who is quite old and at the end of his life, this is period of reflection and remembering the past. So I wanted to capture a bit of that in the film. Nostalgia for childhood I guess.

Plus my grandfather is a total character… he came across as a grumpy, angry old man, but he's really putting on a macho persona. Boys in our neighborhood (in Chandigarh) have nicknamed him the Turbanator.

Roots of Love was broadcast on Desi Doordharshan in India in March 2011, and is playing at the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival on July 16, 2011. You can order the documentary online here.

Watch the Roots of Love trailer.

Story By: Naveen Girn  |  Photography Courtesy: Tilotama Productions