Are item songs about power?
Is sex about power?
An item song is an opportunity to show off a body. I was about to add this is also an opportunity to use sexually charged lyrics, yet the actual song is often not very different from a duet between the hero and heroine. Those duets are about love and love-making, and so item songs are about sex.
If item songs are about sex and about power. . .then what is that relationship?
In movies, sex is often a reward, a duty, an inevitability, something required, something owed. We can’t talk about a character’s agency, because the character has no agency; they are at the whims of the writer and director.
The powerful person (male hero) gets to have sex, or at least the relationship that will lead to sex.
The woman who dances in the item number represents what he wants but currently can’t have.
So if we flip the item number, and it is a man who dances, is he suddenly powerless? No. The focus is on a body, but not a soft yielding body, but one that is hard and strong. The viewer has power over the woman, and fantasize about having the power of the man. A male item song is this idea writ large.
In “Dard-e-Disco,” the focus is on Shahrukh Khan: his abs, his flowing locks, his strength. His is not an object, but a subject. He still retains a personality, which is particularly contrasted to the group of female dancers behind him. His physicality is aggressive. He is enjoyable to look at, but his body is not meant to merely for an audience to look at or act on; rather that body will be used on the viewer.
He is a masculine fantasy of strength, vitality, power. In a song like “Kamli,” the body’s strength is also highlighted, but there is an explicit viewer: a man watching the woman. She is performing specifically for a male audience. For whom is SRK performing? Not the female backup dancers. Not the male director in the movie-within-a-movie (since his character has been established as a prima donna, and the director isn’t shown during the song).
SRK’s body is certainly sexualized. He licks his thumb and runs it down his torso. His shirt completely disappears and his pants have slipped below his hips, revealing the band of his underwear. He rises from a pool, shirtless, tight pants, completely soaked and the camera lingers on his dripping body. He spends the last part of the song completely soaked, rising from pools, being rained on, being hit with blasts of water.
But add to that how he treats his backup dancers: He literally rests his arms on women arching their backs, treating them like furniture. The women often have no expression; many of the dancers are white, blonde, European looking and dressed in “harem” clothes. The conquered turning the conqueror into the Other? A metaphor for SRK’s popularity around the world?
What would the female equivalent, true equivalent, look like? A song centered on a woman whose power the audience wants, power, not body?
To end on a positive, conclusive note: The song is incredibly catchy, with a fun-to-sing chorus and a hilarious leitmotif (the phrase “dard-e-disco” itself). It’s one I sing to myself a lot.