I’m old enough to miss vamps. For those who never experienced their splendour, vamps were wicked women. They were unapologetically gaudy and glorious. They didn’t get to live happily ever after but they had more fun than the virtuous heroines.
Think of Nadira in the expansive nightclub in Shree 420, or Bindu in gold-sequined orange and green trousers tormenting Asha Parekh in the song, Mera naam hai Shabnam, in Kati Patang. Or Bindu again as the iconic moll Mona in Prakash Mehra’s landmark film, Zanjeer.
In the ’90s, once the villains exited, the vamps died a natural death. What remained was the item girl.
The item girl is a slightly more problematic persona. The item song is a set-piece dance number. In our films, songs carry the narrative further or express heightened emotions. But the item song usually doesn’t do this.
Years ago, Javed Akhtar described the item song as a monkey sitting on the shoulder of the story and doing tricks. It’s essentially an added perk for the viewer — like delicious nuts on top of vanilla ice cream slathered in chocolate sauce. The dancer in the item song is, by design, an erotic fantasy. She’s there to seduce with her dancing prowess, her dazzling body and her abandon.
The best item songs — Chaiyya chaiyya (Dil Se), Beedi jalaile (Omkara), Kajra re (Bunty Aur Babli), Sheila ki jawani (Tees Maar Khan) — feel like a celebration. There’s a sense of joy and a life lived large.
Watch the video of 'Chaiyya chaiyya' here
The worst item numbers have little of this joie de vivre. Instead, they are cynical exercises in objectification. Women are reduced to heaving body parts. And the lyrics, instead of being clever and provocative (remember Gulzar’s ‘Aankhen bhi kamal karti hain / Personal se sawal karti hain’ in Kajra re?) become banal and downright offensive. In Fevicol se from Dabangg 2, Kareena Kapoor lip-syncs to ‘Main toh tandoori murgi hu yaar / Gatka le saiyyan alcohol se’.
Sheila ki jawani is shown as a song for a film within the film. During the shoot, Akshay Kumar, playing the conman Tabrez, interrupts the dance saying that the director (played by composer Vishal Dadlani, who along with his creative partner Shekhar Ravjiani created the song) is doing ‘aankhon se balatkaar’. Sadly, most item songs allow for exactly that.
In the post-#MeToo world, the item number has become even more contentious. Last year, Karan Johar apologised for Chikni chameli (Agneepath), saying Dharma Productions would no longer be creating those sorts of songs. But in an interview with Rajeev Masand, Katrina Kaif who was in Chikni chameli said she felt otherwise — “the kind of clothes you’re wearing doesn’t objectify the women. What counts as objectification is if the woman feels objectified. If you love dance and you’re dancing for yourself, then it’s not objectification”
Malaika Arora told me that she always had a problem with the term item song because if someone said to her, kya item hai, she would slap the person, but she loved dancing and was comfortable being seen as sexy.
I vote to retain the item number (perhaps we can re-christen it?). After all, one of the functions of cinema is to provide pleasure, and life would be much less colorful without Chaiyya chaiyya. I just hope that more filmmakers find a way to celebrate women with dance, rather than denigrate them.