I already did a general post on item songs (here), this is specifically looking at how they are structured, the components of them, inspired by how “Suraiyya” from Thugs of Hindostan kind of twisted the standard structure.
I am not a musicologist, I am not a dancer, I am not an expert on poetic stylings. All I know is how these particular songs usually appear in films. So take this post in that light, not as real historical information on this particular kind of art form.
Watching “Suraiyya”, on one level there was just vague irritation because the cuts and camera angles were not the best, and I felt like the dancing wasn’t given the right filming. But there was also that feeling of something that should be, and usually is, one way now being another. Like seeing a purple cow. That worked away at my brain until I was able to sit down and think about how I would have expected that kind of a song to go, in that setting at that place in the film, and figure out exactly what is usually in those songs. And then I could see how “Suraiyya” just wasn’t right, wasn’t what I expected.
“Item song” may not be the right term here, “Tawaif song” might be even better. A song that is a woman trying to entice men to her and follows a certain pattern to do so.
First, there is the intro, the part where she teases the audience with revealing her true beauty while at the same time bragging about it.
Slowly, she exhibits each part of her talent, her grace, her face, her hair, and of course the wit of her lyrics.
Eventually, once she has brought them to a fever pitch, the audience starts singing back to her, so over come by her beauty that they are inspired.
In joy at their tribute, she spins wildly and dances crazily.
In the end, she is a Goddess, her woman power has overcome the weak men watching her and inspired the other women with her, there is no appropriate response but cheers and the throwing of money, raising glasses, throw scarves in the air.
There are some other parts of this. For one thing, the men never touch her. In fact, her body is so powerful that they run in fear of touching her, mere close proximity is enough to make them faint. The highest joy is to be able to dance with her, close but not touching.
Ultimately, most importantly, it is a skill and a job she is good at. This is not like the “drunk heroine” song where an unskilled girl turns into a sexy dancer with one drop of liquor, this is a triumphal display of skill, both by the character and the actress, which is lovingly and clearly filmed in order to make the audience in the the theater bow down in worship just as the audience onscreen does.
Now, let me say what seems “off” about “Surraiya”. First and most importantly, our heroine has no voice. Part of the Tawaif tradition was not just showing off their bodies, but showing off the intelligence of their minds through their words. But in this song, Katrina does not sing for herself until almost halfway in. Instead, Aamir takes her voice from her.
There is no build, Katrina is just there, then we cut to the audience, and back to her. No curtains pulling back, no moment of stillness before the first move, none of that. She is not a magical being to be worshiped, pulling towards her the enormous power of her talent, but just a woman to dance for us.
And there is no build towards the crazed dancing. In most songs, the moves accelerate, faster and faster, as the song goes on. There is an energy being given and received from the audience to the performer and back again, building and building up, until it reaches full expression at the end. But in this song, Katrina dances as wildly and crazily at the start as she does at the end.
And it ends not with men cheering and throwing money (as is the classic pre-cut moment of these songs), but instead the men ignoring her and chasing Aamir.
Beyond that structure, there is also the other parts that are just not right. The whole song is having Aamir trying to touch her, to possess her, that is disturbing. It minimizes her performance from a moment of great power that deserves to be respected, to just a tease and a body that men want to touch.
There is the way it is clearly a duet just between her and Aamir. She even turns her back on the crowd, she is not trying to bring dozens of men to their death, she only cares about Aamir. And her power is not increased by their worship because the camera does not show that, does not show her at a higher level than them, but instead focuses on how she and Aamir are equals or he is even superior.
It would be one thing if Aamir was her true love and she was performing in an effort to bring him to her. But instead, she is struggling to keep him off, and failing.
Most of all, there is no talent here, no skill. Katrina is constantly forced into graceless moves that diminish her female body instead of celebrating it. She is on the floor, at least half the time, crawling around like a pitiful thing. Unlike most of these songs, where the female body does amazing things, stretches and sways.
A woman’s power is in her hips, like a man’s is in his shoulders. Literally, it is where her center of gravity is located. Dance moves that accentuate the hips are natural and easy for a woman’s body and look right on her, look strong. Katrina’s moves here diminish the hips, she is constantly bending in the middle, throwing herself literally off-balance. Katrina’s body and her hard work and her dancing skill is all made small, and weak.
Now, for comparison, look at the first great Katrina item song, “Sheila Ki Jawani”, which is all about her singing out her own glory as the men cheer, pushing away and controlling the men around her, and being shot at a low angle so that her body is turned into a figure of worship and power. Not to mention the constant moves that emphasize her natural female grace, hips and breasts prominent and strong.