Item Songs: Double Standards of Liberal Bollywood?
We can’t stop gushing about the women in Bollywood. No, I am not just talking about their airport looks and their Instagram workout videos – there’s more to them. Look at Priyanka Chopra for instance, the woman has effortlessly captured America’s heart. Not only her, Sonam Kapoor in Neerja, Kangana Ranaut in Queen, and Alia Bhat in the upcoming Raazi, all taking the lead in movies that solely revolve around their character- what the censor board dismissed as being “women centric” in Lipstic Under My Burkha, seems to have become Bollywood centric. Where Bollywood was all about its heroes, who would have thought that its heroines will steal the spotlight? Women in Bollywood really seem to have broken the glass ceiling – haven’t they?
Well, maybe. Item songs seem to be a part and parcel of Hindi Cinema. The trend became a norm in the 2000s with the emergence of ‘item girls’ in the Bollywood lexicon, while celebrities such as Rakhi Sawant, Sunny Leone, Mallaika Arora Khan etc. became household names. They rose to stardom purely on the popularity of their songs and their dance numbers. Given the derogatory and misogynistic undertones of the term ‘item girls’, this article will refer to such entertainers as Bollywood dancers.
The concept of so-called item songs isn’t a new trend in Bollywood. What began with Helen dancing to “piya tu ab tu aaja” or “Yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana” in 60s and 70s, has over the years transformed itself with the changing expectations of audiences. It’s a well-established fact that song and dance sequences are an important component of a Bollywood movie. Often some movies sell entirely based on the popularity of an item song- Tees Mar Khan’s Sheila Ki Jawaani, Kala Chasma from Baar Baar Dekho are examples that come to mind.
It is, however, important to note that over time, item songs got associated with women dressed in skimpy clothes, loud makeup, and seductive moves, not to mention the overt misogyny propagated by the likes of Badshah and Honey Singh, among others.
Sahil Faroqi a 15 year old film buff says,
“At the end of the day film-making is a business. Producers make what the audience likes and if you really want the trend of item songs to disappear, stop watching these songs and it would go away. Also, It is incorrect to say that only women are objectified, I see nobody having a problem with Hritik Roshan or Salman Khan flaunting their six pack abs. The audiences would have to evolve before the film industry does."
I completely agree with Sahil nobody bats an eye when male actors take their shirts off, or when John Abraham does an innuendo laden photo shoot in Dostana. I guess it is easy to question a women over a man. I also find it ironical when I observe so called feminists and people who are generally anti item-songs- the kind who write long intellectual sounding posts on Facebook or rant over sexualization of women in on late night television- dancing over these songs in weddings and parties. I have nothing against their ideas, but I feel this armchair activism doesn’t work for a long time and certainly does not help improve the situation in Bollywood- but then, who wants to be a “buzzkill”.
More and more item songs are being produced every day. Female Bollywood dancers are in a male dominated industry and they too understand what seems to be the Bollywood mantra- sex sells. The good thing is that atleast our society is moving forward and openly discussing these issues which is a great move but does this armchair activism help in any means?
Interestingly, in the 2000s item songs were not performed by female leading ladies, however, steadily, the trend changed with female protagonists such as Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra and, Bipasha Basu. In some movies, these popular actresses did guest apprearces too in innuendo laden songs- Malaika Arora Khan’s Munni Badnam and Kareena Kapoor’s Fevicol.
Item songs also become a claim to fame for actresses or models who haven’t been able to establish themselves in the industry, or find themselves caught in smaller roles in movies as supporting cast. Gauhar Khan, model and TV celebrity made her debut in Bollywood in 2009, but, her work got noticed and appreciated only in 2012 with the movie Ishaqzaade. She performed two item songs in the movie as a part of her character of a prostitute- Jhalla Walla and Chokra Jawaan re. It is noteworthy that she was praised for her acting talent as well.
In the end, while I have no solutions for the problem, I carry this hope that our society and media industry would evolve a solution that addresses the complex nuances of the problem. Perhaps one could look at this situation the way Sahil does- as long as we equally objectify both genders on arbitrarily defined benchmarks of beauty, it is alright. Now whether such objectification is inherently problematic for women owing to the inherent biases of society, is a question you must answer.
About The Author
Tarana Faroqi is currently a second year Masters in International Affairs student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Tarana holds a graduate degree in Journalism and mass communication from Lady Shri Ram College for women, University of Delhi and a Post graduate diploma in conflict transformation and peace building.She has worked previously with MSF India, Hindustan Times, The Indian express, and The South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center.