Bollywood through a feminist lens

“Chammak Challo” (Ra.One, 2011)

“Chammak Challo” is an infectious, joyful earworm with a video featuring two attractive stars dancing and being charming. While not an item song in the traditional sense, it topped a number of charts around the world and was an important part of the marketing for Ra.One.

The lyrics are simple and set to a beat that all but requires the listener to dance. The video, however, is deceptively layered. Ra.One is a goofy sci-fi tale about video game characters come to life. Shahrukh Khan plays the original game designer, who dies, as well as a video game character who looks like him. Kareena Kapoor plays his wife/widow.

At this point in the movie, Shahrukh Khan’s video game avatar is protecting Kareena Kapoor’s character from a bad video game avatar. She is still upset about the loss of her husband, and this avatar that looks like him only complicates her grief. The sing and dance sequence is a typical Bollywood sequence: takes place at a wedding, features many choreographed extras, features female dances in incredibly skimpy outfits. But both leads dance with smiles and joy. It’s rare in Bollywood to see a young widow enjoying herself and even hint at possibly falling in love again.

The female background dancers are another interesting piece of the sequence. They are all quite light-skinned. Bollywood, unfortunately, tends to emphasize light skin (as does Hollywood). But the women are treated rather like props — much the way Westerners often use Indian people in photo shoots. Of course, that they are treated like props is problematic from a feminist perspective.

“Prop” might be too strong a word: the women act as a chorus line, and seem to be a troupe of paid dancers. They dance as a unit. Musical numbers have used such backup dancers since, well, the inception of dance numbers. In this case, though, the troupe is more obvious: dressed completely the same, their clothes clearly contrasting with the clothing of the other characters, particularly the stars.

Still, this is an example of what modern item songs do best: fun, catchy music; enjoyable dancing; sexy costumes; a mishmash of Eastern and Western, old and new.

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