Hindi Film 101: 5 Kinds of Item Songs, and Only One of Them is Bad

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.

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17 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: 5 Kinds of Item Songs, and Only One of Them is Bad

  1. It’s funny that you included Sheila Ki Jawani in this because it was what came to mind when you mentioned you were going to write this post! It’s all very interesting. In a way it’s like the famous definition of porn: I know it when I see it. As a woman, you know the sleazy type of item number that makes you feel like Purelling yourself after you see it.

    The Stree number that kicked this all off was so interesting for showing the woman’s bodyguard escorting her after the performance. Young men’s sexuality always holds the implicit threat of danger for women. And then turning that around by having the Stree strike shortly afterward. It was fantastically subversive, which is why I got cranky that Anupama Chopra for example was all Item Number = Bad and Not Feminist.

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      • Yes! Agree!!!! She isn’t a trained dancer, but she kind of attacks the dance in a way that feels like she is in control. Have you seen her big break out dance number? “Just Chill”, she was only 19 (officially) and everyone kind of knew she was cast only because she was dating Salman, but the song is still so fun. The other heroine of the movie was Sushmita Sen, and she kind of reminds me of her, both women who aren’t afraid to do a sexy dance number, but never feel like they are being exploited.

        On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 10:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • What I really loved about the Stree number is that we see how goofy and stupid the young men are, these aren’t the stranger rapists of legend. But then, she still has a bodyguard. And it tells you how she sees this men, even the silliest youngest types can turn on her. There were really a surprisingly large number of songs once I looked for them that dealt with the real danger to a woman of performing for men. And sure, on the surface they look like any other item number, but there is that edge to them that tells you it isn’t just about the male audience, it is also a warning to the female audience.

      One other thing with Sheila Ki Jiwani, and a lot of the most famous item songs: they were conceived and directed by women. Farah Khan (Sheila), and Saroj Khan (Ek Do Teen) before her, and Vaibhavi Merchant (Kajre Re) after them, were the ones behind the camera controlling everything. And now we have male choreographers trying to imitate what they built and, most of the time, not succeeding.

      On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 10:42 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I consider Manohari from Baahubali under category 5 .
    The women seem to be singing and dancing pointlessly, although it is stylishly choreographed

    there is a song from Tamil movie Jay Jay “May Maasam 98’il Major Aanaeney …” picturised on Reema Sen (Minnale) but the lyrics explicitly poke fun on the male gaze/attitude.
    It is sung by popular RJ, Suchithra, which gives a strong personality to the female voice

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    • I was thinking of Manohari as well. It just feels kind of joyless. And a lot of Telugu films have really happy feeling songs, like the one you picked. The woman are sexualized, but they are also dancing free and fearless through the streets, it feels powerful, like the female version of the young male “gang” songs.

      On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 11:31 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. All sexy songs are not called item songs. Malang, Ooh La La, Agga Bai etc do not qualify as item numbers just because they had scantily clad women. Usually item numbers are those songs where a non-lead actor/actress makes a guest appearance in one song. Aamir Khan’s song in Delhi Belly & SRK’s song in Kaal we’re called item numbers too. When female actors do the same-very often in sexy costumes & dancing to sexy steps-the intend is obvious. It is thrown out as a bone to certain section of the audience to fantasise. The serious cop investigating in a seedy bar while a sexy bar dancer is dancing is such an overused trope.
    Remember Vidya’s character in Dirty Picture had the whiplashing song that turned the film’s fortunes. Actors like Silk Smitha, Disco Shanti & Helen in Hindi were made to dance only for the audience to see them dance. In olden day’s heroines never danced sexily, vamps did. Now that distinction is not there.
    The song itself maybe be good to listen, wonderfully choreographed etc. But if that song had been not there, the story & characters would still be the same & unlike the other regular songs, there’s an overt female body being shown-for no reason. Not many among the audience can look beyond the gyrating female bodies, scanty dress ,energetic beats & easy lyrics to categorise them into good & bad item songs when the term ‘item’(maal in Hindi, charakku in south languages)itself is an invitation to objectify a female body. The audience are expected to revel & rejoice at an item song which they do.
    An example of a well-done item song is Chayya Chayya. Great song, great choreography, sexy lead dancer. But more than Malaika’s abs, the catchy song,choreography & train was talked about & it was a great promotional tool to bring in audience. Also Rekha’s bar song in Parineeta-a tastefully done item song. But then you don’t feel like calling them item songs because the revelry & glorification of sexy bodies isn’t quite there.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I thought of “Baby Doll” as an example of number 5, although I think it’s supposed to have funny and fun, and Sunny doesn’t seem exploited or anything. It’s just that the choreography is basically “look at my butt” as if the choreographer thought he could just phone it in because it’s Sunny Leone.

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  5. You missed a key problematic aspect of these item songs – lyrics. Nobody is trying to replicate the settings, costumes or even choreography. Even if somebody dances to Sheila Ki Jawaani, nobody would dance like that in real life. But words are just people (not many because they are just weird) listen to and start singing aloud. It’s cringeworthy to hear little girls mouthing lines like “Mai tandoori murgi hu, gateau le alcohol se” (I [The item girl] am like tandoori chicken. Devour me with alcohol.) from Dabbangg-2’s Fevicol. You see, I don’t mind the rest of the song. The song is set be a man ‘celebrating’ in a brothel and everything is appropriately crass (Unlike Ghagra, where a photo journalist is looking for a story about prostitutes and ends up matching steps with the most classiest dancer while I roll my eyes) The lyrics are a problem.
    A Telugu item number comes to my mind where a bar dancer complains about her getting a lot of unwanted attention and the hero berates her that it is somehow her fault for enticing them.

    Here’s a heroine and a bunch of ‘respectable’ women who at first are talk about all the times they are harassed by men around (sometimes their own partners), and yet at the end of the song ‘confess’ that they secretly enjoy this kind of behaviour, while a gang of boys conveniently spy over their fun time. If that’s not creepy, I can’t say what it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are completely right. Of course, this stuff goes over my head because I don’t get the meaning of the lyrics.

      It seems like there are two separate issues. The first would be a song like “Fevicol Se” which has clever non-harmful lyrics that are just a little overly sexual. She’s not saying “It’s my fault when men follow me” or something, she’s just being sexy in a way that fits the mood of the song and the scene. But it’s also a catchy song that got a lot of airplay so you end up with little girls repeating it. I don’t know what the solution to that is, asking parents to police their kids more, asking lyricists to be a little more subtle (“Choli Ke Peeche” for instance, nothing technically wrong with those lyrics), creating “radio edits” of the songs that are more appropriate for children?

      The second seems like it relates not just to the lyrics but the whole presentation of the song. What bothers me is that those kinds of songs are usually not considered “item songs” and therefore are not criticized. Or, not always. I am far more irritated by a love duet that plays into bad gender dynamics, even if the woman is fully clothed and barely objectified, than I am with something like “Fevicol Se”.

      On Fri, Sep 7, 2018 at 12:38 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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