Bollywood through a feminist lens

Dancing Around Item Numbers

Short answer: I enjoy item numbers.

Long answer: Every feminist has to wrestle with media and decide what they will tolerate, what they will turn off their brain for, what they will refuse to engage with.

The difference between female-driven and male-drive item songs are striking. While an individual song may focus on a woman’s strength or desires (“You know you want it, but you’re never gonna get it” from “Sheila ki Jawani,” or the acrobatic power of Katrina Kaif’s body in “Kamli”), as a whole the focus is still on the woman as object. She is to be used in some way (“Sheila” still focuses on her sex appeal; Kaif’s character is watched by an expressionless Aamir Khan as she dances/auditions for him). The male-driven songs focus on the physicality of the hero’s body and how he can use it get what he wants (women; sex). He is to be.

Additionally, the heroine and hero of item songs often fulfill different roles within the Amovie’s narrative. “Dard-e-Disco” and “Tattad Tattad” showcase the male star, putting a focus on his coolness and desirability. He is not just important to the plot; he is the plot. Traditionally, the heroine of an item song was a one-off character: a dancer in a club, a prostitute or courtesan, a hired performer. More recent item songs have focused on the female star (see: much of Katrina Kaif’s career), but the focus isn’t quite the same. “Sheila ki Jawani” introduces to Kaif’s character in Teez Mere Khan; she is silly and causes trouble for the male protagonist. “Chammak Challo” shows that Kareena Kapoor’s character might be falling in love with a robot that looks like her late husband. These are not “cool” characters, not characters you want to be.

In a way, the traditional female item number characters were more admirable, though problematic: often women who owned their own money, outside of the traditional system. Of course, one shouldn’t romanticize these characters too much, as a courtesan or prostitute doesn’t have much control over her own destiny. Their outsider status left them vulnerable, and acceptable targets for these sexy songs.

Many modern item numbers show a woman who is part of the system (however you want to define “system”), often a love interest. She is in the entire movie, but functions as a prop for the male lead.

That said, the songs are catchy earworms by design. The dancing is fun and often breathtaking. The lyrics can be empowering, or at least close enough. Since I prefer masala films, I’ve already shut off most of my brain if I’m watching Bollywood movies, so I’m willing to forgive item numbers, too. However, I can certainly understand why someone might dislike item numbers, and how they can be considered anti-feminist. Stopping a move for 5 minutes simply to gawk at a body is definitely problematic.

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