Every once in a while the war drums start beating about how item songs are the cause of all the bad things that happen to women in India, and it always bothers me, because “item songs” ends up including a whole range of songs that are completely different in meaning. Oh, and this is kind of a partner with this post that goes into what objectification means, and this post that talks about male and female gaze)
I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve come up with 5 categories of Item Songs.
1. The item song that pokes fun at the whole idea of sexuality. Treats it as a cartoon, the men look foolish and so do the women, it’s sex, but it’s funny human sex that makes you happy and laugh, not delirious and angry. The dancers are looking back out of the screen and winking at us.
For instance, in “Sheila Ki Jawani”, we have the ridiculous director spoofing the male gaze, we have the lyrics making fun of how woman are sexualized to an illogical degree, and we have Katrina throwing herself fully into the song in a joyful way, everything just slightly over the top, making faces and holding finger to her lips and so on. And of course we have the end with Akshay, the jealous boyfriend, storming in to stop the song and ending up caught up in it, making fun of male possessiveness of the female form.
It’s also very sexy, of course, Katrina’s body is made to look very voluptuous with her sexual characteristics highlighted. But it can be sexy and also lighthearted.
There are loads of examples of this type. For instance, “Apun Ko To Bas” from Rishtaay, one of my favorites. Shilpa Shetty is inspired by the other woman to sing an aggressive song to her secret crush, Anil Kapoor. But what makes the sequence so joyful is Anil’s reaction, shocked and embarrassed and over come. We can admire the beauty of Shilpa’s body, and also laugh at Anil’s reaction. It’s sexy, but sex isn’t serious business, it’s just kind of funny.
And for a final example, one of my favorites of the many many Shahrukh examples of this type, him being ridiculous and silly while watching Sonali Bendre dance.
2. The ones that truly want to explore what it is like to be a woman dancing for men. “Bar Dancers” are an actual thing in Bombay, part of the fabric of the city. And there are gritty sequences that give us a real sense of what that feels like, to be dancing for a mob of men.
Like, “Angoori” from Jaanwar. We don’t just see Karisma onstage, we see the slimey businessman watching her, the seedy darkly lit bar, the whole experience of it.
Or “Yeh Jawani Hadd Kar De” from Sarfarosh, which uses the inventive technique of going between multiple bars and showing multiple dancers all dancing to the same song in the same kind of seedy small room, cheap costumes, and middle aged lecherous audiences.
Or one of my favorites, the same idea but in a village setting. “Lut Gayee” from Hulchul, 3 hardworking dancers trying to catch male eyes and make some money in the village square.
Or it can be a pure form of this, like “Yeh Mera Dil” from the original Don. It’s not about a bar dancer and a patron, it’s about a woman using her sexuality to survive in a very literal way.
3. Item songs are also a moment for pure spectacle. Any time a woman is leading a dance, it tends to be called an “item song”. But sometimes it is just a dance number that happens to have a female lead, and it is fun not because it is “sexy” but because it is incredible. There are a lot of classic songs, especially Helen numbers, that fall into this category. Helen was an amazing dancer, but her songs became classics not just for that. It was also the costumes, the choreography the sets. Back then, they used to be called “cabaret songs”, and that was truly what they were, performances that an audience of men and woman could watch together, little mini-skirts and entertainments.
Like, “Badkamma Ekad from Shatranj. Helen is dressed skimpily, but beyond that it has little in common with today’s “item numbers”, the audience in the film is a respectable mix of genders (this is not just for the male gaze, we are told by the female gaze who is looking at it within the film), and she has a male co-dancer.
It wasn’t just “item dancers” who did these performances, Waheeda Rahman, very respectable actress, did a song in the same film, “Jungle Mein”
We still have songs like this today, “Malang” from Dhoom 3 for instance. Which had Katrina in a skimpy sparkly costume, but it wasn’t about that, it was about the whole spectacle of it.
Or “Ek Do Teen” from Tezaab, Madhuri and her many costume changes, guitar shaped stage, and so on. She also does a great dance number, but it’s about the whole image of it, not just her body.
4. Item songs that glorify the female form. Again, an “item song” is often just meant to be a song that features a female lead dancer. Sometimes these songs are less about making her sexual for the male gaze, and more about making her strong and beautiful for the female gaze.
Almost any Madhuri number is about this. As a great dancer, she takes the song and the moves she is given and elevates them, makes them a tribute to the female form, the natural female form and all it can do, not just a woman’s body as a tool to fulfill male sexual desire. In “Badi Mushkil” from Lajja it is made explicit, Madhuri is dancing to show Manisha her power.
Or there’s “Aga Bai” from Aiyyaa, in which Rani shows off her natural female form, inspired to feel sexy by embracing her desire.
Or there’s something like “Lovely” from Happy New Year, where Deepika and the other dancers are shot at a low angle, making them tower over the men, turning them into goddesses being worshipped instead of woman being used.
Or “Kamli”. Technically Katrina is stripping off her clothes, but the song isn’t about that, it is about her using her body to fly through space, duck in and out of obstacles, be all powerful like a superhero.
5. And finally there are the actually “bad” item songs. The ones that have no grace to them, no spectacle, no commentary, and no humor. The ones that are just about cutting the female body up into pieces, any body, in any clothing.
When I sit down and try to think of examples for these, it’s hard to come up with any. Partly because I won’t remember them since I don’t like them. But also, I think, because these kinds of songs have a very short shelf life. They appeal to only the basest lowest version of sex appeal and the audience tires of that quickly.
For instance, “Mere Naam Mary” from Brothers. There isn’t much to it besides Kareena in skimpy clothes, with a lot of focus on her legs and waist and not as much on her face. Sid ignores her and makes her into just a sex object, the undignified one while he is dignified. It isn’t quite spectacular enough to be spectacle, or worshipful enough to be respectful, or silly enough to be funny, or gritty enough to be realistic.
And there’s the new “Ek Do Teen” of course, with a costume and set that is completely uninteresting, no sense of humor, and no grace.
Or “Pinky” from the new Zanjeer, again there isn’t much to it besides skimpy uninteresting clothing and edits that cut Priyanka’s body to pieces, no humor and no spectacle, no grit and darkness, and certainly no glory of the power of women.
Or “Halkat Jawani” from Heroine, which is essentially “Sheila ki Jawani” without a sense of humor, a lead who is natural dancer, or any real sense of spectacle (no perfectly timed fire flares here).
These are the 5 different types I see, but they aren’t exclusive. Most item songs fall into multiple at once. The great ones fall of the good 4 simultaneously. “Oo La La” has a sense of humor, shows the price women pay and why they do this, is spectacular, and glorifies the female lead like a goddess, all at the same time.
“Kajre Re” does too, makes the whole idea of a bar dancer funny, without making her small as a person or ignoring the reality that she has to please the bar patrons to survive.
“Munni Badnaam Hui” which combines a unique village setting, complete with light up cut outs, and Sonu Sood and Salman both throwing themselves into playing the foolish audience for comedy. And of course silly lyrics, great dance moves, and a set-up that acknowledges she is just a dancing girl and will dance for whoever pays her however they need. Humor, grit, and spectacle.