Being Beardless in Malluland

How did beards end up the defining aspect of the Malayalee male image?

It is the era of the beard. A well shaped beard perfectly covering the lower face (in addition to a shapely mustache) is today the defining aspect of the male Malayalee image. Young men not sporting a beard in Kerala seems to be somewhat of an anomaly these day, you will be hard pressed to find any guy below 40 not wearing one. And it isn’t that the beard has to be shaped, groomed or trimmed. Any level of facial growth is acceptable, ranging from brittle wisps precariously clinging to cheeks and chins, to long, thick growths that look like black tropical jungle.

What is amazing is that this trend is exactly the opposite of what it was when I was growing up.

Sporting a beard back then meant that you were not from the mainstream society. You were either a “budhijeevi“, an ascetic, an artist, recently heartbroken, or, mostly, a junkie or on other fringes of the society. The strictly expected male look was to be clean shaven with a neatly trimmed thick mustache perfectly filling the space between nose and upper lip. This was the only acceptable look for anyone who wanted to be considered to matter in “decent” society. All politicians, businessmen, officials, professionals, actors, etc., young and old, without exception, were clean shaven. Actors wore beards when characters demanded it, which were also mostly always wigs, because no self-respecting person would be caught with hair on their cheeks in real life. Turning up unshaven for work was borderline criminal! I can’t remember any of my dad’s friends or relatives sporting a beard back then (or now). You would have no chance with the ladies with a beard, you had to be beardless without exception. “Beards were considered dirty“, if you ask any woman above 50.

Let me reiterate that. There was a time when beards were considered dirty.

So what changed? How did beards go from outcasts to an utterly indispensable part of male looks and grooming? The most widely accepted answer is, a movie.

It currently gives an utterly cool vibe of a guy who has it all figured out and would kick any ass coming his way. A far cry from the times when North-Indian movie stars in all their clean shaven glory were considered exactly the same as a bearded guy is now.

It was 2015 when Premam took Kerala by storm. It was among the first massive hits of the Malayalam New Wave movie movement and did its fair bit to popularise Malayalam movies pan-India. The real effect of Premam was how it spawned a series of pop culture references what was lapped up by the Malayalee youth that seriously changed society and outlooks. Its biggest impact was how it it turned the image of the “manly” male for the twentysomething Mallu guy on its head. It was no longer a portly ageing superstar with a komban mustache, but suddenly was Nivin Pauly’s George’s bearded and sunglasses in a white mundu and black shirt look. It did make wearing Mundus cool again while also launching a massive craze of guy gangs turning up everywhere wearing white mundus (with a black kara/border) paired with black shirts. That craze died out soon enough, but the beards stuck.

Photo courtesy: Nivin Pauly Fans on X (Twitter)

It is amazing how a single movie could singlehandedly turn traditional male grooming on its head. Young males of Kerala wholeheartedly embraced the bearding culture and there was no going back! Nearly ten years later, it is still going strong! Now, it is the opposite of what was 30 years ago. Most actors, politicians, influencers, officials, etc. all sport a beard. In addition to being the current thing, it also helped guys cover up acne scars, chinlessness, double chins, weak jawlines and such. The ladies seem to absolutely adore bearded guys, so much so that being beardless is considered effete, effeminate and erudite. A beardless man probably wouldn’t stand up for you. A beard is indespensible to give that utterly cool vibe of a guy who has it all figured out, and would kick any ass coming his way. A far cry from the old times when North-Indian movie stars in all their clean shaven glory were considered exactly the same as a bearded guy is now. Most men reluctantly start to shave only after its starts greying.

Why am I writing this now? I’ve been asked a gazillion times why I don’t wear a beard (never have, not even the mustache), questions that ranged from curiosity and incredulity to remarkes that are snide and mocking. And then this happened the other day.

“Did you see the email about the newly joined delivery manager? Seeing his photo I thought it was you!” Chimed the doe-eyed 24-year old at office.

Me: “Huh?”

“No, he’s clean shaven, and so he looks just like you!”

And then I realised that she must’ve even have seen a lot many beardless guys in the circles she moves around, because having a beard was the norm ever since she hit teenage. Most cleanshaven guys must look alike to a lot of people, who probably must consider me weird, just like how back in the day considered men with beard were considered weird (see how they rhyme?).

Things change.

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There’s a scene in The Devil Wears Prada in which Meryl Streep sees the “cerulean” blue sweater that Anne Hathway is wearing, and traces the colour’s possible journey from a specific runway show a few years ago to the discount shop that Anne picked it up from. An iconic scene that opens the intern’s eyes to how blind she has been to the forces guiding her own choices.

I feel that way now.

I’ve not seen many of the stylish-angry-young-man Malayalam movies of the past decade, let alone Premam. And yet I started to wear a beard since about that time too, as did all my male Mallu friends and relatives. And I’ve never considered why. To think it was because of a movie I didn’t even watch?
::stunned Anne Hathaway face::

I’m reevaluating my belief in free will now. 😅

Fascinating read, as always 👍🏻

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