Iconic ’90s Bollywood film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai turned 20 this week. In honor of its anniversary, this seems like the perfect time to revisit the movie’s heroine and one of India’s most compelling actresses: Kajol.
Kajol has always carved a fascinating figure in the Indian film industry. For young women especially, the actress was baffling: She wasn’t as slim as the others, she wasn’t as pale, and, quite notably, she had a unibrow.
This unibrow was a source of great distress to me as a youth. It stuck out like an especially sore thumb against a backdrop of exquisitely groomed Bollywood actresses, and as a child for whom eyebrow-plucking was forbidden, I simply could not understand why an adult, an actress no less, would choose to let her eyebrows grow into such a lush and offensive line. I hated it because it confused me, but I also couldn’t look away.
Kajol was and is beautiful in a conventional way. That said, she dared to defy the pageant-level beauty standards Bollywood set when no one else really was. If you haven’t encountered Bollywood much, it’s worth noting that the women on India’s silver screens are conventionally attractive to a mind-boggling degree. While the film industry at large is notorious for its toxic beauty standards, India runs an even stricter circus: “If you are a woman in the Indian film industry, you always have to be young and fresh—just like a vegetable,” actress Soha Ali Khan noted at India’s Women in the World Summit in 2015. And indeed, each decade of Bollywood film sees a fresh handful of women granted plum contracts. That same small cohort will star in every film until they age out; there are almost always several Miss Indias, Worlds, and Universes among them.
Kajol’s unibrow started to make more sense when I met feminism in the form of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who famously declared, “I am my own muse. The subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.” Kajol echoed this sentiment, perhaps less eloquently, to the Guardian in 2015: “I never gave a damn what anyone said about me. I still don’t.” Through Kahlo, I began to understand that Kajol’s gratuitous display of facial hair wasn’t an oversight or a gimmick, but a rejection of constructs around how women should look.
And if you aren’t convinced that an ungroomed brow is a radical act, consider the long and distressing history of “good” eyebrows. As far back as the 18th century, European women glued tiny mouse pelts to their heads to achieve the desired half-moon shaped eyebrow that was fashionable at the time. They would also blacken them using everything from toxic lead to the soot from oil lamps.
Even today, eyebrows remain a great source of anguish for many women, as eyebrow trends move quickly and without reason: The over-tweezed brows of the early-2000s have done a full pivot to today’s fuller look, and at every stage, women are encouraged to defy the science of hair growth and adhere to them. Indeed, everyone from Goop to the New York Times (paywall) has something to say about achieving “good eyebrows.”
So if you’re not sure if you should pluck or fill or simply shave your eyebrows off, I recommend you look to Kajol, who—in refusing to adhere to the tyranny of eyebrow upkeep—considered her image precisely on her own terms, which in Bollywood, and in society, is an act of great subversion.