Edited by: Sreeja Pavuluri
Content warning: graphic sexuality, mentions of obscenity, harassment, and rape
Earlier this year, the Government of India included digital media and OTT platforms under the ambit of the IT Rules in February 2021, giving itself overriding intervening powers in the censorship of certain scenes in digital content, particularly those that display sexual activity and violence.
However, it has not articulated what can be considered sexual and has repeatedly failed to address the explicit sexualisation and objectification of female bodies in mainstream entertainment. Objectification refers to the act of reducing women to mere objects of sexual desire. This particularly occurs in ‘item songs’, which are the ‘masala’ heartbeat of the Indian film industry’s most successful blockbusters.
Heaving bosoms, skimpily clad women seductively cat-walking ahead of a trail of gawking men practically falling at her feet, ‘swivelling’ hips, a raucous bar with a woman dancing to a racy tune… does this sound familiar? If this article is already making you uncomfortable, it is time to examine what we, as an audience, have internalized about the sexualized and ‘item-ized’ dynamic that these songs perpetuate.
The Item Number: Tracing Its History and Locating Irony
The term ‘item number’ or the reference to women as an ‘item’ is homegrown, finding a place in the colloquial lingo of the subcontinent. Today, the item number is a 3-4 minute raunchy number, typically with a sexually charged atmosphere and a singular, highlighted female lead surrounded by a leering, male audience. However, while the term ‘item number’ has emerged in recent times, what these songs essentially portray is not a contemporary phenomenon.
For instance, through the ages, one of the dance forms embodying this in Indian cinema was cabaret. Women put on alluring performances (especially in the mid-20th century) in nightclubs, which were popular at the time. It is telling that the women in such songs, like ‘Mera Naam Hai Shabnam’ and ‘Husn Ke Laakhon Rang’ were often the vamps of the storyline — they had ‘dubious habits and morals’ and often seduced the male lead away from his ‘destined’ female partner. The fact that the main ‘innocent’ heroines performed ‘classical’ dances instead, like in ‘Koi Matwaala Aaya Mere Dwaare’ also speaks volumes about the portrayal of the item girl, even before item numbers explicitly existed.
These dance performances were still only implicitly suggestive and relatively innocuous. The modern item girl, on the other hand, has been transformed from a woman who was often only the ‘extra’ for that film, to a ‘kadak’, drool-worthy, enticing on-screen figure; and which feature Bollywood superstars like Katrina Kaif and Malaika Arora.
Visualization of contemporary item songs are accompanied by a common package — flashy lighting, catchy beats, fast melody and overtly sexual dance moves, where the camera strategically zooms in and out to accentuate specific parts of her ‘feminine’ body. Often the saree pallu coyly falls; only for the horde of surrounding, typically intoxicated men to catch it and trail after her lustfully.
What is most ironic is that the item song, which is little more than an appendage to the film, and which never adds anything to the plot/narrative of the film itself, has ironically become its most identifiable feature. The song ‘Sheila Ki Jawaani’ in Tees Maar Khan features Katrina Kaif in an off-shoulder shimmering fabric, surrounded by ogling men, and its view count of nearly 200 million speaks for itself. The music video was cleverly wielded by the producers and marketing team to create hype and attract audiences pre-release.
The item girl is also perceived as the bolder, sexualized version of the Indian monogamous woman who embodies authenticity, tradition, honour and ‘Indian’ values. This constructed image of the ideal Bhaaratiya mahila (Indian woman) is contrasted against the item girl who is depraved and immoral. The Censor Board, thus, often puzzles over the corrupting influence this portrayal of women might have on its audience, and consequently, over Indian society.
But what is most problematic is the fact that these item songs are scrutinized by the Censor Board only because of its visual sexualization of women, and not their pervasive and toxic biases. What, then, do we make of the idea of masala in mainstream entertainment that normalizes the male gaze?
Contemporary item songs have touched new heights with their lyrical crassness and vulgarity. Scholar Rita Brara, who researches popular culture, shared some insight into the curious intersection between food ‘items’ in India and the itemization of women’s bodies. Small Indian eateries often list ‘items’ on their menu cards that ‘constitute distinct entities that are tempting, chilli-hot, and often what men drool or salivate over’. Often, this terminology is carried over into the social realm. The labelling of certain women who are ‘provocatively dressed’ or sexually appealing as ‘items’ also carries similar associations of ‘spiciness’, temptation, and male craving.
- Songs like ‘Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast’ reduce a woman’s identity into exactly that — a ‘mast cheez’ (a fantastic thing).
- Lyrics from ‘Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai’ go: “Tujhpe Right Hai Mera, Tera Raasta Jo Rokun, Chaukne Ka Nahi” (I have a right over you; don’t get surprised when I block your path tonight).
- The chorus of ‘Aa Re Pritam Pyaare’ exclaims in delight, “Pallu Ke Neeche Chupa Ke Rakha Hai, Utha Doon Toh Hungama Ho” (you have hidden something enticing underneath the pallu of your saree. If I remove it, there will be an uproar).
This cross-section of songs acutely represents item numbers at large and the ways in which they obliterate a woman’s sense of self, identity, and consent. Reference to a ‘mast cheez’ explicitly commodifies the woman, and presents her as merely an object that satisfies the ‘needs’ of any man who may desire her. The latter two songs also normalize unrequited lust and romanticize harrassment — be it in the form of physically undressing her or stalking her. The item girls in the music videos of these songs also wink and smile at the male crowd at periodic intervals. This assumes that women actually desire such attention and harassment in romantic relationships, which is a very problematic fantasy. In summary, the item girl (and by extension, women at large) are reduced to an on-screen persona that can be owned, used, and even replaced; because these women are not portrayed as women with separate identities and lives, but basically just replicas of the same characteristics.
Item songs construct an enticing woman who freely invites and welcomes sexual advances by any and all men. What is most preposterous is that the item girl, i.e. the woman, often refers to herself as an object — for instance, Malaika Arora seductively lip syncs to “Mein Zandu Balm Hui, Darling Tere Liye” (I will become an ointment only to soothe you). Once again, such representations of female desire are highly misleading. They project the idea that a woman’s individual worth and stake in the relationship boil down to her utility to her male partner — and moreover, that women are eager to perform this ‘service’.
They also perpetuate the notion that the female body has to be a certain kind and exists to provide pleasure to men — “white wrists”, “slender waist”, “long legs”: these are not only visually displayed by the dances, but are also incorporated as male cravings in the lyrics. Lyrics from the song ‘Buzz’ — “Jahan Se Hona Chahiye Wahi Se Hai Tu Thick” (Your body is thick, exactly where it needs to be) reflects exactly this notion. Thus, item songs build an image of ‘ideal femininity’ and perpetuate colourism and harmful body standards. Additionally, they also encourage toxic, ‘macho-istic’ masculinity — the ‘bad boy’ womanizer eventually gets the girl.
It is also interesting to note that the discourse around commodification has mostly centred around women, failing to see men at the receiving end as well. In tracks like ‘Subah Hone Naa De’, Akshay Kumar and John Abraham are shown as strippers. Some songs (which include both men and women, but are not necessarily as racy) also feature shirtless men flaunting their perfect, muscular bodies at the beach or the gym. However, neither is a song by male actors in a film (which are rare but still exist) called an ‘item’ number, nor are the men referred to as objects or ‘items’, at least in popular discourse. I think this poses further complex questions. Why is the woman’s body fetishized over a man’s? Does this sexualization of the female body over the male’s not reflect a failure to honestly represent female desire in another dimension, that of its heterosexual female audience? Do these songs not portray problematic body standards for men to live up to as well?
Item songs create a cine-sexual experience that brings together dance, desire, and pleasure — they serve up instant gratification on a screen to its target male audience, which they cannot access in social reality. Item songs represent women as sexual objects that have no social or intellectual faculties, yet they continue to be made because the ‘public demands them’.
A conversation with an auto-rickshaw driver who plays item songs was published in The Hindu; it perfectly illustrates how sadistic male pleasure is derived from item songs—
“The auto driver said that the songs give him a kick because they have words that describe female anatomy in great detail and some of them extol rape.
Surprised, I asked him how he got them and how he played them when female passengers were in the auto. “I play them at night when they have no other option but to behave as if they are either not listening or can’t understand. The CDs are available on footpaths…You just have to ask, ‘Honey Singh ka gande song wala CD de do (Give me Honey Singh’s CD with dirty songs on it).’”
The same audience, which takes pleasure in item songs, assumes a ‘high’ moral pedestal when it comes to web series like 4 More Shots Please, which depict Indian women who are sexually independent on their own terms. Suddenly, the remarks passed around are “Aisa sab ladkiyon ko shobha nahi deti” (Deeds like these are not honourable for Indian girls). How much longer will we harbour such hypocritical standards?
So, Should Indian Cinema Bid Adieu to Sexually Charged Women Characters?
One of the reasons behind the innate lyrical misogyny prevalent in item songs is because they are almost entirely written by cis-het (cisgender-heterosexual) male lyricists, and therefore, reflect gendered male perceptions and desires of female sexuality. They further ‘define it in their own language’. It is also important to notice the dramatic black-and-white binary that alternates between the Indian woman being ‘sanskaari’ (who has ‘good’ values and morals by conservative Indian standards) and an unrealistic sexually charged individual. This notion is highly problematic.
Item songs where the female dancer almost ‘beseeches to be pounced upon’ by the surrounding, ogling men are not a celebration of the body and sensuality. Rather, they further sexualize the woman, and socialize men to view women as objects and property. The fact that Bollywood A-listers perform these songs lend them further legitimacy.
Popular entertainment and music should be a platform that breaks away from ‘the unidimensional portrayal of women to a more inclusive depiction of sexuality and femininity. It should also be a space where people who identify as women can express their sexuality and desire on-screen on their own terms. They must have greater autonomy over the song-writing process themselves, and reclaim agency over their bodies and how they are represented. Conversations that alleviate the hush-hush attitude and taboo around sex might also contribute to a positive circle of impact.
Some Concluding Remarks: Re-Examining Our Bias
Item songs constitute an almost irreplaceable part of the social fabric of Indian life today. Be it at parties, restaurants, karaokes, or weddings, you will find these songs blaring through loudspeakers everywhere. In fact, we might have even caught ourselves singing along and dancing to these catchy and upbeat songs.
Sparking a change can begin from something as simple yet immensely powerful as re-examining our own bias. What have we unconsciously or consciously internalized? Are we taking steps towards a change in attitude in ourselves and our friends and family? Or are we also part of this process of perpetuation through ‘harmless’ remarks that could potentially be emotionally and physically traumatizing? Objectification of human beings, and women in particular, in the discourse of item songs is not okay. Non-consensual advances are not okay. Acknowledging that we might have normalized and internalized what popular media drills into us is an act of courage. Trying to unlearn it is an act of humanity.