Hindi Film 101: The Structure of the Tawaif/Item Song, Inspired by how “Suraiyya” Wasn’t Quite Right

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.



19 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The Structure of the Tawaif/Item Song, Inspired by how “Suraiyya” Wasn’t Quite Right

  1. Thank you for this analysis. I love all your Hindi 101’s. Now I can see more why Suraiyya bothered me so much, apart from the obvious editing, Aamir (might loose my current irritation for him at some point, but not yet) and steps shown.

    But Tawaif songs in themselves are nice to listen to and most importantly watch. Umrao Jaan’s (the Rekha one, of course) are mesmerising and Pakeezah’s are so longing. The new ones are so much fun and its just nice music to dance to by yourself and especially Sheila ki Jawaani is wonderful if I need to feel like a powerful woman and body positive about myself at that moment. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had so much fun pulling these songs and watching them while I was setting up the post. The Sheila Ki Jawani lyrics are so empowering! I am so glad they added the subtitles to the song. And I love how in Lovely, at the point when in the other songs she starts spinning wildly as they sing to her, she is literally flying in the air above their heads. Farah Khan did something similar in Sheila come to think of it, she really gets how these songs are meant to lift the woman up on a cloud of worship, and makes that literally, lifting them into the air at the finale.

      On Wed, Nov 14, 2018 at 10:37 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. The entire purpose of the song in the narrative is very different from other films. This is an Indian woman performing for an audience of white men who are oppressing her and the entire nation. Aamir is a traitor who is taking on the guise of the white man in every way and is trying to manipulate her for his own ends. Her dance and reaction is awkward on purpose. She is not empowered in that moment except in her ability to say no to Aamir. Her sexuality is distorted in that context. This is not an audience capable of worshiping her or respecting her femininity, this is an audience that seeks to degrade her. It is distasteful to watch but it’s also in keeping with the themes of the film. I didn’t enjoy watching it and I wish Katrina had had different ways to shine but I also think it’s important to note how this plays out in the bigger context of the film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh fascinating point! So, you agree with my analysis, but have a suggested reason for why it is that way.

      If this is the goal of the song, I wish it had been clearer in the way it was promoted and sold. These songs tend to be watched outside of the context of the film, and everything around the song itself (isolated from the movie) is saying “Katrina is so sexy, Katrina is so awesome, watch this song it is just like her other great songs” instead of questioning context.

      I can’t remember, have you seen Sholay yet? Hema Malini’s famous dance in that is one I thought of and rejected for this post, because it is a similar situation to what you are suggesting for Katrina. She is being demeaned through her dancing, not empowered. And the film shows that by shooting her from above and having the audience within the film be at a higher level than her.

      On Wed, Nov 14, 2018 at 11:22 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • God, I haven’t seen Sholay yet. I need to make time for that and Bahubali or Melanie will never forgive me.

        As many people have pointed out, half the problems with the film are related to the marketing department not understanding what they were selling. If they wanted a song to sell Katrina as a sexy siren they should’ve included an end credits song (I’m astounded the film doesn’t have one).


        • I was stunned at not having an end credits song too! It really really felt like one was coming, the end was such a kind of a dribble out with all those talky talky scenes, we really need a final song to send us out of the theater with some energy.

          Watch out with Sholay and Bahubali, I think Melanie and some other people I’ve talked to didn’t like Sholay that much on the first watch because it really requires some concentration. Bahubali on the other hand is the reverse problem, it will sweep you away immediately so watch out that you have the 5 hours it takes to see them back to back before you even start!

          Oh! Do you have Thanksgiving off with nothing to do? Perfect timing! Just curl up in a turkey coma and watch all 3 movies back to back to back.

          On Wed, Nov 14, 2018 at 11:42 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

      • And what do you think about Mein Vari Vari from Mangal Pandey? The situation is similar – Rani is dancing for white soldiers, but still she is sexy and graceful. .


        • You just got me to rewatch Main Vari vari and it is fascinating! Rani is following the usual performance structure, but there is a little moment of hesitation and caution as she sees that the white audience is not treating her with the usual respect. And it ends with her being surrounded by aggressive men, instead of them staying back and cheering in tribute.

          On Thu, Nov 15, 2018 at 2:29 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Have you seen the movie? How this dance finishes? The soldiers grabs Rani’s hand, and then? Did Aamir come to help her?


          • I saw the movie and I have no memory of what happens next. I know Rani in general is in a tenuous position since the British don’t really expect the brothel rules.


  3. I always really like your dance posts. I know you do fewer of these because it’s not your area of expertise, but I find them fascinating and learn a lot.


    • I’m so glad you like them!

      I really don’t know anything about classical dance or music or poetry, but if I can manage to separate it out to just how it is shown on film, then I feel comfortable.

      On Thu, Nov 15, 2018 at 11:29 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. I love this post. According to a review I saw by MensXP (they do the most HILARIOUS reviews I have ever seen), people started laughing at Suraiyya Jaan legi kya.

    Katrina is interesting case in terms of dancing – she has tons of energy but she doesn’t have the typical grace you see of Madhuri, or the energetic clearness of Aishwarya. For that matter, people who are non – dancers like Priyanka and Kajol are excellent because they have attitude and have a certain joie de vivre when they dance. But I have noticed ‘sporty’ actresses – aka Deepika(I know, blasphemy!) and Katrina are gorgeous, and they can dance but overall the effect is underwhelming to me. This is how I felt when I saw the songs in this movie. The individual pieces are interesting, and the idea is to make it a musical, but the dancing never rises above the sum of its parts.


    • Deepika and Kat both come off as very “strong” onscreen, which I think works great for a typical “tawaif” sort of song. “Lovely” and “Sheila Ki Jawani” are great because it almost feels like they are attacking the song and the audience in the same way they would attack their opponent in a sports event, the cheers of the crowd and the competition drives them on.

      But when they try to go “weak” in a song, it just looks strange.

      On Thu, Nov 15, 2018 at 3:09 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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