When Sunidhi Chauhan and Vishal Dadlani began recording the song, Sheila Ki Jawani, for the 2010 film Tees Maar Khan, they could have scarcely imagined that the song would go on to become the first viral Hindi song of the upcoming decade. This was the era of TV and while the song was available on YouTube, India was still in the nascent stages of the internet revolution that would take place about five years later. The song was a chartbuster and Katrina gave the item song a superstar status instantly. However, if one were to be factual, it was Munni Badnaam Hui (Dabangg) which was the first draft of Bollywood’s renewed love-affair with item numbers. The song featured Malaika Arora who had made a name for herself as B-town’s go-to sex symbol.
If 21st century Bollywood has an “item girl”, so to say, it definitely is Malaika Arora. One can even go ahead and say that she is Bollywood’s last item girl, considering that we don’t use that term anymore. Arora’s acclaimed dance performances in Chaiyya Chaiyya, Maahi Ve and Kaal Dhamaal were huge successes even though they couldn’t come close to the popularity that Munni Badnaam Hui enjoyed. Known for her choreography as much as she is known for her fit physique, Arora has managed to successfully carve a career and a niche for herself in Bollywood’s notoriously competitive social circles.
However, for all her popularity, Arora wasn’t Katrina Kaif. Kaif was (and is) an A-list actress who was a box office manna. Anything she touched turned to gold even though critics bemoaned her wooden expressions and perceived lack of talent. In the 2010s, Kaif was a phenomenon who surpassed her male co-actors in the popularity polls. In retrospect, it seems natural that Sheila Ki Jawani would go on to become such a massive cultural phenomenon.
Kaif oozed oomph and panache matching Chauhan’s infectious energy beat for beat. As per industry standards at the time, it was raunchy, yes, but it wasn’t crude or vulgar. It was pure sex appeal. Flashing her navel, Kaif gyrated to lyrics that glorified female masturbation.
Sheila Ki Jawani and Munni Badnaam Hui set off a trend of item numbers in Bollywood with producers and directors vying to create the next chart-busting number. We had a Laila and a Dhanno and an Anarkali and a Jalebi Bai. They were all popular in their own regard but it took a Katrina Kaif (again) in Chikni Chameli and a Kareena Kapoor Khan in Halkat Jawani and Fevicol to make some real noise.
In 2021, the item number has lost its charm, not because it lacks popularity. Oh no. Just ask Nora Fatehi whose Bollywood career rests on her shapely waists and the successes of O Saki Saki and Dilbar Dilbar. We say that the item number has lost its charm because it has become common. The “item number” is not an item anymore – it’s a regular occurrence.
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Even the most indie films feature a peppy chartbuster that is usually sung by Neha Kakkar or Tulsi Kumar. What happens when every song becomes a YouTube sensation? It becomes boring and loses its legacy. Sheila Ki Jawani could not even imagine the numbers that a Haye Garmi racked up on the day of its release but does one even remember who sang the song or who danced in it? Exactly.
But Bollywood’s love with item numbers didn’t start in 2010. It began with a woman from Myanmar (then British Burma) who trekked to the city of dreams all the way from her home country after the Japanese Occupation in 1943. We’re talking about Padma Shri awardee Helen. Interestingly, Helen was got into the industry by another dancer called Cuckoo. In the 1940s, item numbers were known as cabaret and the biggest cabaret dancer was Cuckoo who ruled the early years of the Hindi film industry and paved the way for Helen.
Helen was arguably Bollywood’s first “item girl”, a term that was used to separate the vamp from the leading lady The vamp and the leading lady occupied completely different roles in Hindi cinema of that time – the vamp was the fantasy while the leading lady was the sati savitri. Though Helen tried her hand at acting, she found true success in cabaret. There weren’t choreographers then and she was given complete creative control and she sashayed onto screens in glitzy outfits that left almost nothing to the imagination. Her popularity was so immense that it was a given that a film would have a Helen “item number” in it.
Many actresses tried to emulate the Helen model but the only ones who managed to come close were Bindu and Aruna Irani. The three of them, together, formed the holy trinity of Bollywood’s earliest vamps and item girls.
Then came the wild 70s and 80s revolution led by bohemian babes, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi. There are very few actors who have single-handedly managed to change an entire movie culture – what Amitabh Bachchan did with the “Angry Young Man”, Aman and Babi did with the wild and the western. Their image (on and off-screen) enshrined them in Bollywood history as the original sex symbols. One can safely say that this was when the line between the “item girl” and the leading lady began to change. Unlike other A-list actresses, Babi and Aman did not shy away from doing bold numbers in their films, thus making the “item girl” redundant, with the exception of a Kalpana Iyer, who rocked the screen with her disco numbers.
In Hindi cinema, the item song is never essential to the narrative of the movie. Over the years, a debate has intensified over the objectification of women and their bodies in Bollywood and the item number has taken the brunt of it. The women in these item numbers are sexual and proud of their sexuality but their pride comes from titillating the male gaze. But that didn’t begin now – it started way back in the 60s and 70s when the “item girl” would hold sway over the masses but fail to seduce the sakht launda of a hero. She had to either shed her decadence or die.
In 2021, such is not the case. Actresses begin their careers with item numbers because the item number doesn’t have shame attached to it anymore. While it would be erroneous to say that the line between the leading lady and the vamp has completely blurred, it is evident that the leading lady of today has taken over the primary roles that the vamp occupied, making the vamp redundant in 21st century Bollywood cinema.
There are no “item girls” anymore – in fact, that term is seen as problematic. A Nora Fatehi is not referred to as an item girl and neither is a Urvashi Rautela. They’re both seen as actresses.
The true essence of the item number may be dead but every few decades or so, following a lull in cinema, it rears its head and the nation becomes obsessed.
[Image Credit: Nora Fatehi]