Anarkali apne disco chali

Like many who work in films, I often get emails or messages from aspiring actors. I find this a saddening experience, because the desperation is so palpable. But it’s also interesting because it often reveals the kind of stereotypes that society and media feed back into each other. To give an example, one gentleman told me he looked “bilkul kameena” and so, would make an excellent villain.

The salwar kameez now has an interesting identity it is neither elaborately traditional, nor emphatically Western
The salwar kameez now has an interesting identity it is neither elaborately traditional, nor emphatically Western

More recently I received a message from a female actor who, laying out proof of her versatility said she’d done an ‘arty’ film in which her character was absolutely de-glam. So de-glam was the character, that she wore only salwar kameez throughout the film. Another young actor had called this look “ekdum simpal normal.” A man once described an old girlfriend to me as “very regular, salwar kameez type.”

In my college years the churidar and salwar staged a major comeback. But to be cool it had to be bandhej, ikat or khadi that set it apart from the printed cotton with chiffon dupatta salwar suit that Punjabi women wore. Because they were ‘traditional’ or ‘housewives’ and we were, allegedly, modern but connected to our tribal roots through ethnic chic.

Somewhere along the way, as fashions do, that changed. Now, though from time to time actors land up at award ceremonies in anarkalis, and up north, exquisite chikan, patti ka kaam and Pakistani embellishments are fussed over, the salwar kameez is looked down on and even the occasional push from a Bunty aur Babli doesn't do the trick. A friend of mine was once not allowed to enter a club because she was wearing a salwar kameez something that shocks me every time I remember it.

The default dress for those who would want to be considered ‘modern’ is western. People would rather sweat in polyester pants and fake casual in thick, tight denims than wear a salwar kameez. If they want to go desi, they will usually choose saris, currently enjoying an exotic renaissance via the #100saripact and Vidya Balan’s brief glory.

Why is the salwar kameez demoted to permanent dowdy-dom? If I were to hazard a guess I’d say it’s because it is so practical. Following its new popularity in the mid-1980s, the salwar kameez, under the name Punjabi dress became popular from one end of the country to the other. It has the practicality of pants but is also modest. It can be made from any kind of fabric chintzy flower prints, dramatic paisleys or the latest digital prints. You can get badly stitched ones for as little as Rs 150 a set in the lanes of Lajpat Nagar and Mulund market. That is why so many ‘regular’ women like to wear salwar kameez.

Most interestingly, via its many pan-Indian travels, the salwar kameez now has an interesting identity it is neither elaborately traditional, nor emphatically Western.

The salwar kameez as an outfit also shrugs off very defined ideas of an ideal feminine body. Sure you can get a really tight kameez, if your tailor’s good, but it doesn’t demand a body be a certain way like the fitted shirt does, or suggest sinuous curves as saris sometimes whisper.

In short, the salwar kameez is a thoroughly common, happily un-elite, nominally feminine dress which is really why it’s considered infra-dig. But in many senses, it allows you to forget about your body and there’s such freedom in that, no? Like being in your own disco, dancing to your own tune which is an important element of glamour actually. What an idea, ma’am.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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