(Published Sunday August 12, 2012)
Believe it or not Vyjyanthimala is considered Hindi cinema’s first heroine to record an item number in the 1954 hit film Nagin. ‘Man Dole Mera Tan Dole’ goes down in history for its mesmerizing nagin (snake) dance that surpassed the popularity of the film itself. Fast-forward half a century and you have Katrina Kaif gyrating to the beats of ‘Sheila’ and ‘Chikni Chameli’. In fact, you have every viable heroine, from Aishwarya Rai to Kareena Kapoor, eyeing an item number to complete her celebrity star status.
What’s the phenomenon all about? Very simply put, it’s about creating some sizzle to sell the film.
An item number can be as simple as a guest appearance that serves as an added attraction on the popularity of a film. ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ in Om Shanti Om was considered “mother of all item numbers” as it featured over 30 stars in that one song. Reema’s ‘Love Mein Ghum’ item number served the same purpose in Pakistan; it featured actors as well as musicians and fashion designers.
But item numbers don’t stop at guest appearances. The new trend is for an item number to feature an item girl in a saucy, racy dance. And while that item girl status was once exclusively to dancers (who did not wish for a serious role in the film) it has now spread out to heroines and leading ladies who feel they must appear in an item number to come full circle as a star. The latest is Sonakshi Sinha (who started her career in Dabangg) doing her first item number ’Go Govinda’ in the upcoming Akshay Kumar starrer Oh My God! Already, the buzz isn’t of her performance in the film but of her waistline in the song.
Things were different in the sixties. Post Vyjyanthimala era, item numbers in Hindi films were passed onto professional dancers who undertook roles as cabaret dancers, tawaifs or the villain’s sidekicks. Helen personified the cabaret dancer of the sixties and seventies as she created many hit items such as ‘Mera Naam Chin-Chin Choo’ (Howrah Bridge, 1958), ‘Piya Tu Ab To Aaja’ (Caravan, 1971), ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ (Sholay, 1975) and ‘Yeh Mera Dil’ (Don, 1978). One notices that leading ladies of this era were usually righteous, pious and sati sawitri types who may have danced and sang a bit but left the risqué seduction songs to the ‘other woman’. It was a very black and white time.
Then things took a turn for fifty shades of grey in the eighties. Commercialism started to creep into films more than you’d want it to. The trend of leading ladies performing items boomed with Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman and it snowballed with the smashing success of Madhuri Dixit’s controversial ‘Choli Kay Peechay’ (Khalnayak).
Today, the item girl obsession has come to a point where the heroine can get ahead simply by looking good and moving well. Acting is an added bonus. Katrina Kaif, despite doing some meaty roles, will be remembered more as Sheila or Chikni Chameli rather than Indu Sakseria (Rajneeti). Kareena Kapoor’s insignificant role in Ra.One was completely over shadowed by the popularity of ‘Chamak Challo’. Aishwarya Rai, despite doing Choker Bali and Raincoat, has been popularized by ‘Kajra Re’ more than anything else. Are item numbers – as entertaining as they may be – doing a disservice to leading ladies more than a service? Is this constant objectifying of the heroine making sure that she is reduced to an item girl rather than an actor of mettle?
“I don’t think that item numbers do a disservice to heroines,” says Ali Zafar, who spoke to Dawn Images exclusively for this story. “It all depends on how they manage to maintain a balance. Katrina does item songs but she balances with doing full-fledged roles too. Also Vidya Balan and others are a good example of how to balance it out.”
“Secondly,” he added, “it’s not a new phenomena. Madhuri Dixit was the most sought-out heroine of her time but she became a phenomenon with ‘Choli Kay Peechay’ and ‘Dhak Dhak’. There must be many more examples. It’s all about what kind of song and what kind of dance or item number it is and how they incorporate the art into it and carry themselves.”
Video film director Asim Reza, who’s working on his first feature film these days, seconds Ali’s sentiments.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with item numbers,” he spoke to Dawn Images between shoots. “But I would emphasis on the word tasteful. I’m all for tasteful entertainment, not cheap thrills. I don’t think being an item girl undermines an actress’s seriousness but rather adds to her star value. Again, anything can be done for cheap thrills, but anything done tastefully is acceptable.
Katrina did a fabulous job in ‘Chikni Chameli’; she looked fabulous. What Veena Malik did in ‘Channo’ was tasteless and crass. She should not have done it. Katrina is more of an entertainer and star rather than an actor. She’s a glamour doll so this item number suits her persona fine. It’s something I wouldn’t expect a critically acclaimed actor like Tabu do. You decide the direction you want to take in the industry and then you make it work.”
That more or less sums it up. Anything done well can be passed as kosher. A performer must decide his or her path to possible fame. For some like Helen and Malaika Arora, it comes solely as the item girl. Then there are heroines who want to be all-rounder stars. They want to be taken seriously while doing the items, the private wedding performances, the New Year party dances (all for a hefty price) and the fitness videos.
To be a star attraction or a guest appearance in a film is one thing; to undertake a role that portrays a racy character (like Vidya Balan as Silk in The Dirty Picture) is another. But to be a ‘serious item girl’ is an oxymoron. One does understand this obsessive need for looking good (read sexy/glamorous) but when it over shadows the need to be taken seriously as an actor it can be damaging. And that can’t be good for women in cinema. Vyjyanthimala must not have imagined that her innocent item could have led to the likes of ‘Jalebi Bai’, ‘Anarkali Disco Chali’ and ‘I wanna Fakht you’!