In the trailer of Shaad Ali’s upcoming OK Jaanu, Shraddha Kapoor looks appropriately forbidding as she glances at Aditya Roy Kapoor with big eyes from behind even bigger glasses, announcing with a flick of her well-coiffed hair that “it’s over”. In her bespectacled avatar, Kapoor looks serious and mature, much like the several actresses before her who have donned similar eyewear.
Spectacles on women are flexible symbols of intellect and experience and everything in between. Janice’s iconic round glasses in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) are a fashionable manifestation of her rebelliousness. In Ijaazat (1988), heavy black frames distinguish an older, mature Sudha from her impetuous younger self. In Life in a… Metro (2007), Neha’s elegant rimless spectacles transmit her serious commitment to her job.
But most often, glasses perched on women’s noses are an indicator of a plain, buttoned-up (and therefore unattractive) personality.
Bespectacled women are portrayed as unattractive, trapped by conventions or their own lack of confidence. True to American satirist Dorothy Parker’s famous quip, men in Hindi films don’t “make passes at girls who wear glasses”. On the rare occasion that they do, they first nudge women into makeovers. The path to true love, at least for women, is paved with neat contact lenses.
Hardly any piece of clothing or accessory has acquired as much gendered subtext as a pair of glasses. When men wear glasses, they are meant to come across as dapper intellectuals, like Samar in Rajneeti (2010) and Krish in 2 States (2014), or as adorable schmucks sometimes unfairly ignored by women, such as the endearing Kumar in Chupke Chukpe (1975) and Suri in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008).
In the Raees trailer, Shah Rukh Khan’s bespectacled look seems to suggest sharp authority and shrewd experience. However, when women wear glasses, they often grapple with feelings of inadequacy.
From Love in Simla (1960) to Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), sharp and rebellious young women have been transformed into conventional beauties at the drop of a pair of glasses. The sorcery of this change is simply explained away by the Demise of the Spectacles.
In Khoobsurat (1999), bespectacled Shivani is painfully shy and written off as an unmarriageable plain Jane. Although it is clear that the tortured Shivani needs rescuing, her knight in tarnished amour is Sanju, a con-and-molester who likens her appearance to a “naani” and “item puraani”. Instead of receiving a swift slap as his reward, Sanju wins Shivani’s love, but only after he “motivates” her to shed her glasses and swap her kameez for a short dress.
Glasses are more often an indicator of an observant and intellectual woman than of visual deficiency. Young women who are particularly smart often wear spectacles. The sweetly incisive Raajeshwari in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995) and Ayesha’s witty young cousin in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) both wear glasses. In Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), bespectacled Meeta (Parineeti Chopra) is an eccentric, intelligent and acutely observant IIT graduate.
When smart women shed their glasses in a makeover, the implications are even more convoluted. In Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), the studious and adventurous Naina sets out on a trek to Manali with friends she barely knows. She often turns her bespectacled eye on Bunny and her observant glances are one of the more rare visual treats in Hindi cinema – a woman looking at and lusting after a man. After she falls in love, she seems to have dumped both her geeky glasses and her predilection for intellectual activity. Naina becomes a spectacle herself after she sheds her glasses – she is firmly put back in the conventional mould of a heroine whom the hero ogles.
In Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), when Aman liberates Naina from desperate gloominess, he also rids her of her black-framed glasses. After Aman works his magic on Naina, she is able to laugh, and look “khoobsurat”, as her friend Rohit observes. One would expect Naina to ask for a clarification, but she simply laughs some more.
Much like Naina, a woman wearing glasses is often unhappy and alone. A bespectacled Dalbir Kaur in Sarabjit (2016) is constantly agonised and crusading for justice. Although Dalbir’s grief is shrill and melodramatic, a similarly bespectacled Sabrina’s sorrow in No One Killed Jessica (2011) is quietly wrenching. Sabrina’s quiet personality, plain attire and prosaic eye gear are a sharp counterpoint to her sister Jessica’s exuberant and bold persona.
Glasses on women double up as a large and forbidding “keep out” sign, meant to soundly discourage friendly banter or romantic overtures. In Guzaarish, nurse and caretaker Sofia puts on her glasses as she rebukes her patient Ethan for concealing his motivations from her. In Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995), an angry and disinterested Simran perches glasses on her nose and buries it in a book to transmit the message that she wants to be left alone.
The primness implied by spectacles is a sexual challenge that the male must (and often does) overcome. In the song Jumme Ki Raat in Kick (2014), it is a moment of triumph for the male when a thoroughly buttoned-up and bespectacled Jacqueline Fernandez is spurred by a dancing Salman Khan into shedding her glasses and coat and dancing with him.
The association of glasses with a stuffy and forbidding personality results in extreme depictions of female sexuality. In Desi Boyz (2011), the bespectacled Tanya is a hot professor who ineptly teaches macroeconomics with a strip learning game that would have made John Maynard Keynes shudder.
As spectacles become a fashion statement, female characters wear and shed them with impunity, like Ayesha in Dil Dhadakne Do or Simran in I Hate Luv Stories. Few female characters in Hindi films don their spectacles unapologetically in every scene. An excellent exception is Deepti Naval’s Tanu in Angoor (1982). Sporting thick glasses with ease, Tanu is sensible, quietly but cheekily sexual, and unwilling to efface her intellect.