(this above was a hit item number from my teen years.)
An article in yesterday’s Guardian argued the case for songs featuring item girls (cameos featuring scantily clad women gyrating suggestively to songs that reek of sexual innuendos) in Indian cinema. Apparently, at their best, item girls “can symbolise feminine power in its most powerful – and even enfranchised – form”.
The article talks about how India, the land that gave the world the Karma Sutra (yes, that’s what she calls it), lost touch with its easy relationship with sex instead adopting Victorian morals when the British came along. And how these item songs with their lewd and lustful thrusts are a rare outing for overt displays of sex which Indians were always known for.
I couldn’t disagree more. In a film industry where women rarely get properly written roles and are frequently reduced to mere arm candy for the leading men, an item girl is a further denigration of her non-status. An item girl often provides a counterpoint to the main heroine to show her off in better light. The item girl’s loose morals to the lead actress’ virtuous self.
Few of the actresses who dance in an item number do it out of choice. Most know that once they’ve done such a role, it’d be very difficult to find a meatier part. And that they’d be typecast as the gangster’s mol who is rolled out to shake her booty for about three minutes of screen time. Several of them are former lead actresses who, in a bid to make a comeback, drop a few layers and dance the dance of desperation.
More recently, many lead actresses have started shedding their clothes and been doing item numbers themselves. Perhaps they feel they need show a bit of a flesh and do a bit of oomph to stretch their perilously brief shelf life as a heroine.
I have sat through movies where most women squirm when an item number comes along. Instead of empowering them as the article suggests, these songs only magnify the fact that the movie is not directed at the women in the audience. It is mainly for the viewing pleasure of the men.
I don’t know enough history to say with certainty what the status of women in ancient India was. Or their own expression of their sexuality and sexual needs were. I only know that contemporary India’s attitude towards its women is pretty shocking and could do with a lot of improvement. And contrary to what the article suggests, instead of putting Indians in touch with their “neglected cultural heritage”, the item numbers are just a flesh show where a woman is paraded and salivated over for the enjoyment of male gaze.