Believe it or not Vyjyanthimala is considered Hindi cinema’s first heroine to record an item number in the 1954 hit film, Nagin. Man Dole Mera Tan Dole goes down in history for its mesmerising nagin (snake) dance that surpassed the popularity of the film itself. Fast-forward half a century and you have Katrina Kaif gyrating to the beats of Sheila ki Jawani and Chikni Chameli. In fact, you have every viable heroine, from Aishwarya Rai to Kareena Kapoor, eyeing an item number to complete her celebrity star status.
What’s the phenomenon all about? Very simply put, it’s about creating some sizzle to sell films.
An item number can be as simple as a guest appearance that serves as an added attraction on the popularity of a film. Deewangi Deewangi in Om Shanti Om was considered “mother of all item numbers” as it featured over 30 stars in that one song. Reema’s Love Mein Ghum item number served the same purpose in Pakistan; it featured actors as well as musicians and fashion designers.
But item numbers don’t stop at guest appearances. The new trend is for an item number to feature an item girl in a saucy, racy dance. And while that item girl status was once exclusively to dancers (who did not wish for a serious role in the film) it has now spread out to heroines and leading ladies who feel they must appear in an item number to come full circle as a star. The latest is Sonakshi Sinha (who started her career in Dabangg) doing her first item number Go Govinda in the upcoming Akshay Kumar starrer, Oh My God! Already, the buzz isn’t of her performance in the film but of her waistline in the song.
Things were different in the ’60s. Post Vyjyanthimala era, item numbers in Hindi films were passed onto professional dancers who undertook roles as cabaret dancers, tawaifs or the villain’s sidekick. Helen personified the cabaret dancer of the ’60s and ’70s as she created many hit items such as Mera Naam Chin-Chin Choo (Howrah Bridge, 1958), Piya Tu Ab To Aaja (Caravan, 1971), Mehbooba Mehbooba (Sholay, 1975) and Yeh Mera Dil (Don, 1978). One notices that leading ladies of this era were usually righteous, pious and sati sawitri types who may have danced and sang a bit but left the risqué seduction songs to the ‘other woman’. It was a very black and white time.
Then things took a turn for fifty shades of grey in the ’80s. Commercialism started to creep into films more than you’d want it to. The trend of leading ladies performing items boomed with Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman, and it snowballed with the smashing success of Madhuri Dixit’s controversial Choli Kay Peechay (Khalnayak).
Today, the item girl obsession has come to a point where the heroine can get ahead simply by looking good and moving well. Acting is an added bonus. Katrina Kaif, despite doing some meaty roles, will be remembered more as Sheila or Chikni Chameli rather than Indu Sakseria (Rajneeti). Kareena Kapoor’s insignificant role in Ra.One was completely overshadowed by the popularity of Chamak Challo. Aishwarya Rai, despite doing Choker Bali and Raincoat, has been popularised by Kajra Re more than anything else. Are item numbers — as entertaining as they may be — doing a disservice to leading ladies more than a service? Is this constant objectifying of the heroine making sure that she is reduced to an item girl rather than an actor of mettle?
“I don’t think that item numbers do a disservice to heroines,” says Ali Zafar, speaking exclusively to Images on Sunday. “It all depends on how they manage to maintain a balance.
Katrina does item songs but she balances with doing full-fledged roles too. Also Vidya Balan and others are a good example of how to balance it out.”
“Secondly,” he added, “it’s not a new phenomena. Madhuri Dixit was the most sought-out heroine of her time but she became a phenomenon with Choli Kay Peechay and Dhak Dhak.
There must be many more examples. It’s all about what kind of song and what kind of dance or item number it is, and how they incorporate the art into it and carry themselves.”
Video film director Asim Reza, who’s working on his first feature film these days, seconds Ali’s sentiments.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with item numbers,” he spoke between shoots. “But I would emphasis on the word tasteful. I’m all for tasteful entertainment, not cheap thrills. I don’t think being an item girl undermines an actress’s seriousness but rather adds to her star value. Again, anything can be done for cheap thrills, but anything done tastefully is acceptable.