By Mallika Chakrawarti Jan. 08, 2019
Item girls shimmied their way into Bollywood back in the ’40s and there’s been no looking back ever since. Think Madhuri Dixit in “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai” and Malaika Arora in “Munni Badnam Hui”. But where are our item boys? What is stopping Bollywood from tapping into the sea of testosterone?
Last year, Bollywood was a great place to be a woman. Meghna Gulzar, Reema Kagti, and Nandita Das helmed three of the year’s most successful films and Alia Bhatt, Taapsee Pannu, Rani Mukherjee, Kareena Kapoor, and Sonam Kapoor shouldered four of the year’s biggest hits. And yet outdoing them, were the number of women who cavorted around in Bollywood’s favourite pick-me-up, the item song.
In 2018, Hindi cinema roughly served up 12 item songs that were only designed to offer male audiences something to salivate over. These songs bravely went where few have dared to by objectifying every part of a woman’s body: In Stree, we focused on Nora Fatehi’s “Kamariya”; in “Ek Do Teen”, men just yanked off Jacqueline Fernandez’ clothes; in “Dilbar Dilbar”, and “Chhote Chhote Peg”, Nora Fatehi and Nushrat Bharucha dunked themselves in sand and water respectively to sexualise themselves even further. It was really the best of both worlds.
To be fair, Bollywood’s long-standing affair with item songs isn’t new. Helen’s cabaret dances in “Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja” and “Yeh Mera Dil” are the stuff of legend. And she wasn’t even the first item girl to have graced Bollywood: You’ll find Anglo-Indian dancer, Cuckoo Moray (aka Rubber Girl) flaunting her moves in Barsaat back in the ’40s. In the 1951 Awaara for instance, you see Cuckoo in a dingy saloon, trying everything – from sultry dance moves to suggestive expressions – to seduce a callous Raj Kapoor who doesn’t think twice before pushing her aside.
In fact, it was Cuckoo and Helen who mainstreamed the trope of the item girl who dances in front of an audience of leering men, gets ogled, pawed, catcalled, and yet loves all the lecherous attention. There’s been no looking back ever since. Think Madhuri Dixit in “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai”, Malaika Arora in “Munni Badnam Hui”, Bipasha Basu in “Beedi Jalaile”, Katrina Kaif in “Sheila ki Jawaani”, and Sunny Leone in “Baby Doll”. With every passing year, these item songs heighten Bollywood’s obsession with suggestive lyrics, the camera’s stubborn focus on the item girl’s breasts and hips and most importantly, with uncovering the female body.
Helen’s cabaret dances in “Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja” and “Yeh Mera Dil” are the stuff of legend.
Yet the one thing that has remained constant in Hindi films’ utter dependence on item songs is the absolute absence of item boys. I don’t remember the last time a male actor happily volunteered to pole-dance in a film for some raunchy entertainment. I suppose, it’s because for years, we’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s the girl’s job to shimmy and shake while the man sits back to watch the show.
But allow me to put forward a crazy suggestion: Isn’t it high time we give the Basantis, Munnis, Sheilas, Suraiyyas a break? What is stopping Bollywood from tapping into the sea of testosterone in the Hindi film industry? Are our item boys camera shy, or are they flexing their muscles in private, away from the female gaze? For once, can women be the audience?
It’s not as if Bollywood has never played around with the idea of male beauty as a thing to ponder and appreciate: Remember Salman Khan’s bare-chested jig to “Oh Oh Jaane Jaana” in Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya in the late ’90s? It was probably the first-ever song that vividly put forth the idea of the male lead being the object of lust as much as love. An idea that was furthered in “Ek Pal Ka Jeena” from Kaho Na Pyar Hai (2000), by Hrithik Roshan in a meme-able black mesh vest that clung to his body.
Sure, compared to what the item girls had to contend with, both these songs seemed pretty mild. But that changed with Saawariya in 2007. It was in “Jab Se Tere Naina” that a mainstream Bollywood film didn’t shy away from exploiting the potential of the male body. In the song, Ranbir Kapoor bared everything – clothes and inhibitions – with a towel delicately balanced across his booty. And close on its heels, was Om Shanti Om, where SRK flaunted his six packs in all its oiled glory.
It was in “Jab Se Tere Naina” that a mainstream Bollywood film didn’t shy away from exploiting the potential of the male body.
And yet, even SRK’s item song needed to be backed up by a bevy of half-naked female background dancers. Come to think of it, that’s actually been the dealbreaker for most item songs with a man in the centre: Arjun Kapoor’s turn in Bhavesh Joshi: Superhero’s “Chawanprash” had him fully clothed but the female dancers surrounding him didn’t have the same luxury. Same for John Abraham and Akshay Kumar pole-dancing in “Subha Hone Na De” from Desi Boyz where their definition of “stripping” ended with them being shirtless. Don’t forget, it’s 2018 where you can’t get enough of item girls trying their best to serenade you with their smoky eyes and unrealistic abs but can count the number of item songs headlined by an item boy.
I’ve always been curious to dig deep into Hindi cinema’s seeming shielding of the male physique. It’s almost impossible to not connect this deep-seated aversion to flaunting the male body to both: how much Bollywood values masculinity and devalues women. The industry, in fact, views item songs as mere fillers; a sort of decoration for the plot. And it’d be sacrilege if male leads were ever made to feel dispensable. In that scenario how can heroes possibly allow themselves to earn a reputation as ambassadors of lust? It’s not a manly thing to do, you see.
But at a time when Bollywood is slowly witnessing women filling up every facet of filmmaking – right from cinematography to sound mixing, isn’t it also time for filmmakers to also end the drought of item boys? I don’t suppose there’s a better way to make our heroes do some heavy lifting.
Mallika is always looking out for little surprises. She is a writer and artist. Hugs, family, Bhangra, and a cozy bed to pass out in, are a few of her favourite things.