Bollywood through a feminist lens

Laila Main Laila (Raees, 2017)

What do item numbers do best? Push boundaries. Combine styles.

The music is an updated version of “Laila O Laila” from 1980’s Qurbani. The music is a bit faster, more electronic and processed (the original is more disco-influenced). The editing is full of fast cuts. Shahrukh Khan stalks through the scene in sunglasses, watching the item girl, dancing with her, participating in a shootout. And the item girl is Sunny Leone, an actress and model well-known for adult films.

On the one-hand, Leone’s casting makes the subtext text: item girls are beautiful and to be lusted after, so the logical conclusion is to cast an adult actress. Yet Leone is following the path of many actresses before her: she has been moving into mainstream media and away from adult entertainment. Many actresses starred in item numbers before moving on to meatier roles (Helen is a prime example). Leone has already starred in several mainstream movies, but certainly working with SRK provides valuable connections.

The song capitalizes on Leone’s willingness to show and use her body. At first glance, her outfit looks like a typical item girl’s outfit: small fitted choli, short lehenga. As she moves, the skirt reveals that it is comprised of many unstitched pieces, revealing more of her legs than a typical dance.

Additionally, her body is larger, particularly her breasts. In America, at least, adult actresses tend to be larger than Hollywood actresses. I don’t have hard data, but any Bollywood viewer of the past 30 years can see that the actresses have gotten slimmer. Leone is still trim and beautiful, with visible abs, but her size is notable compared to many contemporary Bollywood actresses and dancers.

Leone is commanding, leading a troupe of female dancers for a male audience. She grinds against SRK, leaning in to nearly kiss him, taking his hand and rubbing it along her side. This final movement is particularly interesting. Certainly love scenes between heroes and heroines show the heroine participating in the scene and expressing desire. But item girls are rarely so aggressive. Leone is not just there to be looked at, or there to be touched, she is in charge of that touch, in charge of the encounter. Rarely does the audience get to see a woman so in charge.

Catchy music, beautiful dancers/actors/actresses, gorgeous costumes and cinematography. What item numbers do best.

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