“Tu Mungla” is my ideal item number.
The classic tropes: a lone woman in a bar full of men, dancing in a skimpy outfit to a catchy tune, and trying to entice the movie’s hero; and the lone woman is Helen.
The next level: She carries a sickle through most of the song, threatens men with it, takes one man’s cigarette and puts it out on another’s arm, her sari is tied like tight pants or a dhoti, allowing her unusual movements (compared to a typical lengha choli or sari).
The number opens on Helen’s headless torso, showcasing her hips and butt — and sickle. Ominous strings play on the soundtrack as a man tries to enter the bar, but the focus is not on the danger he represents but on Helen’s sickle. When we finally see her face, it is next to an insect she has trapped in a glass. There is no doubt she is in control.
Helen’s movements are frenetic, wild. Not the usual presentation for an audience, but almost movement for its own sake. Although a short interlude dancing against a wooden pole and later a metal pole returned the number to its normal function.
Later, she dances with a bottle, offering alcohol (as she has done throughout), holding it at her hips. At times, the bottle gives a phallic appearance. My guess is this is unintentional (that is, hip level is a natural place to hold the bottle while dancing), but the image adds to Helen’s power.
As the number ends, the men lift Helen to their shoulders, cheering her.
“Tu Mungla” certainly echoes in modern numbers, such as “Sheila ki Jawaani.” The woman is not only front and center, but in charge. The presence of the sickle ensures that one doesn’t fear for Helen (as does her self-possess performance). Beauty doesn’t have to be vulnerable.