April 20, 2015

A Feminist Critique on “Item Numbers” in Bollywood Films

An “item number” most commonly seen in Bollywood movies can be described as a musical performance of dance and song that has no importance to the plot but is shown as part of the movie for the sole purpose of entertainment. These songs often contain an attractive actress who is not in the movie but makes a special appearance in the song, wearing revealing and sexualized clothing while dancing suggestively to sexual and vulgar lyrics. The implementation of item numbers in Bollywood films is a direct representation of women being treated and seen as sex objects, for the viewing pleasure of male audiences. Item numbers are frequently seen as a promotion technique as well by the filmmakers because the songs will be featured in trailers and TV commercials promoting the upcoming movie. Thus from a feminist perspective, we can see how the Bollywood film industry gains from the objectification of women through commercial gain, marketability, and huge monetary profits.

The term “item” is used as a slang word for an attractive and promiscuous woman in the Bollywood film industry, consequently viewing a woman as a possessive piece of property that is subject to being owned and objectified by a man. From this slang word came the term “item number” or “item song” referring to a catchy and upbeat song featuring an attractive woman who is dancing for the pleasure and entertainment of her dominantly male audience. By incorporating item songs in much anticipated films and increasing their frequency as well as levels of raunchiness, the Bollywood film industry has implicitly normalized the objectification of a woman as an “item”. In addition to this, acquiring the role of an item girl is much sought after by actresses in order to make them popular and keep them in the eyes of the public as well as other filmmakers. Many media outlets have even gotten into heated debates about which item girl is the hottest, thereby perpetuating the idea that actresses and women are seen only as objects of entertainment.

The song Chikini Chameli is an example of an extremely popular item song from the 2012 film Agneepath, featuring the actress Katrina Kaif. Here we see Kaif dressed in a traditional fisherwoman outfit with a peg of alcohol strapped to her waist, dancing to sexually suggestive lyrics by gyrating, thrusting her hips, and drawing attention to her breasts. Around her are a swarm of men throwing money at her as well as openly drinking alcohol, while the lead actors of the movie, Sanjay Dutt and Hrithik Roshan, gaze and watch Kaif dancing. The general public and critics received the song very well, however the suggestive and vulgar lyrics may cause concern for some of its listeners. The lyrics “Husn ke teeli se beedi chillam jalaane aayi” translate to “With the fire of my body [I] have come to light up cigarettes and cigars”, depicting Kaif’s character as a means to titillate and tease the sexual desires of the men around her by using her body. As well as in the chorus of the song, the lyrics “Aayi Chikni Chameli chupke akeli pauha chadhake aayi”, which translates to “Good looking Chameli has come, quietly and alone, has come here after drinking a quarter peg”, portrays a woman coming to an event intoxicated and being the object of desire by the men around her.

Due to Kaif’s sensual expressions and fast-paced movements, paired with the songs catchy tune, Chikni Chameli climbed to the top of the charts with 13.5 million views on YouTube. In addition to the songs commercial success, Chikni Chameli has been nominated for several awards and even won awards for best choreography and best lyricist. For some, Chikni Chameli is just another song in a box office hit movie, but by critically analyzing the song and video, all anyone can take away is sex sells.

It is important to note that the main heroine of a Bollywood film is rarely seen smoking, being completely intoxicated, or wearing racy clothing, unlike an item girl. These sharp contrasts in the female characters of a Bollywood film show the two sides of how filmmakers portray their female characters: one character as being the “good girl” who is usually played by the heroine, and the other character as being a vixen and objectified for the pleasure of male audiences, often played by an item girl. Thus from a feminist perspective, we can see how male filmmakers incorporate item numbers to excite and seduce its audience as well as create more hype for the movie before its release, by the sexualisation and objectification of an item girl.

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