Are you one of those who love the cinema industries of India barring the language barrier? If yes, I have a question for you. Has the process of movie-making changed? In today’s context has the focus shifted towards content-oriented movies? Are better roles being written for women these days?
Maximum of the answers would be affirmative and the progress of cinema in the country can be hailed, until the topic of item numbers comes up.
The cinema industry in India is inflicted with a tumour that is not only malignant but fatal too. And the tumour can be named as item numbers. Item numbers have become so mainstream that the young generation is not able to make distinctions between normal song tracks of the film and item songs.
You can pick any movie from any industry, there will be a similarity and that is the presence of a song performed by a seductively-named curvaceous female wearing skimpy clothes. Time and again questions have been raised against the presence of such songs in films and their main-streaming. The cinema industries may have progressed in writing well for female characters but are still obsessed with such songs.
The term item number was coined with the success of “Chal Chhaiya Chhaiya” but the phenomenon is not new and it can be traced back to the 1930s. But there is a difference, back then there was a clear demarcation of the good sanskari female and the vamps. Generally, the vamps were made to perform the songs then referred to as musical numbers. Through this, sensuality was introduced in a tame film.
However, this changed with Madhuri Dixit’s “ek do teen”. In the late 80s and 90s, the female protagonists started performing these dance numbers. Two kinds of narratives were used by the filmmakers to unveil the sexy side of the main female protagonist, either the female is too helpless that she is forced into dancing and she has no other option. The second being the goodwill of the women, it was particularly portrayed as the ‘heroines’ performing dance numbers for charity like in “Sailab” or for catching a gangster like Madhuri’s “choli ke piche kya hai.” The music style has also changed according to the pop culture. The item numbers transformed from Helen’s cabre to folk-style dancing like “chamma chamma baje re meri paijaniya” to electronic or hip hop, and costumes transformed accordingly. However, despite the transition, the costume style remained similar, something that would present the women in a more sensuous way. The lyrics however remain the same talking about lust and male gaze.
These instances normalised the occurrence of item numbers in films of any plot. Actresses started showcasing their dancing talent through these songs. And gradually there came another transition, the item numbers became a compulsory element of films. In the plot that was not able to accommodate the song, the sensual item numbers were put at last, as post-credit sequences, to attract audience and give a party chartbuster to the public.
The problem with item-numbers
The ‘Feminists’ may have made you believe that item numbers and portrayal of female sexualisation on screen is revolutionary and a liberal step. But be it the tech bubble or the insertion of item songs, everything that seems revolutionary at the first sight, does irreversible damage to society.
The public narrative may have made the actresses or their viewers believe that item numbers are about women empowerment, the way the camera crawls around the body of the women, along with the clothing, and dance moves suggest a different story altogether.
The industry has stooped so low that a song written to express the grief of farmers, like “biddie jalaile” became the most famous item song of its time. No matter how contradictory to the common belief it may sound, item numbers are not about women taking control of their choices and celebrating sensuality. Rather it is more about surrendering to the male gaze. At the time, when someone is called an item girl, she is commodified and objectified.
The actresses might have travelled the distance from being the heroine of the hero to female protagonists, but until the section does not stand up against such objectification of women, nothing can be substantial.
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