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Decoding Item Numbers Through The Lens Of Sociology

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By Sayendri Panchadhyayi:

The incorporation of ‘item’ numbers in movies has always believed to be a bonus or an indispensable component to ensure a successful movie. It is also considered as a launch pad for the aspiring starlets or making an established actress feature in ‘item’ numbers to spurt up the market value of the product. These songs with their suggestive lyrics and titillating choreography are a strategy to catapult the masses into the theaters. Every mainstream actress ranging from Sridevi to Vidya Balan have shown their versatility in appearing in ‘item’ numbers. However, for many actresses the word ‘item’ is derogatory and questions have been raised why these songs are not tagged as special appearances or guest appearances?


Another feature of item songs is that a group of women scantily clothed accompany the lead dancer. Although they play second fiddle to the lead, their presence is of vital importance to add colour to the entire performance. Nowadays, the trend is to hire dancers mostly from European and Latin American countries to ride on their international appeal. But the actual truth divulges the other side of the page. Indian women have to be presented as ‘pure’, ‘auspicious’ and divine figures hence they should be properly covered whereas fair-skinned ‘foreign’ women can be presented at the whims and fancy of the director. They can be made to wear anything under the sun because of these women’s supposedly loose morals.

It is the evidence of ‘peaceful coexistence’ of discrepancies. Idealization and Idol worship of women is a part of Indian culture. Women are supposed to submit to conformity. Here the conformity is suggestive of being ashamed of her physiology and hence there should always be a sincere attempt of being fully-clothed. However, the emergence of capitalism thrives on hefty consumption. Hence the word ‘item’ is significant. It is associated with consumption and the item numbers are targeted to appeal the voyeuristic nature that lies in every human. The backdrop of an item song with leering men, often subjected to substance abuse in the form of alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, whistles, cat calls and claps is a manifestation of the definition of freedom amalgamated with entertainment. It is a visual satiation of the wishful thinking of the desires of a section of men. In an Item number the camera strategically dons the voyeur’s hat and the end result is at everyone’s disposal.

Another trend in item number is to set it at a rural backdrop. The lyrics of these songs are in your face coupled with regional languages, the ‘Item’ woman often sporting an itsy-bitsy choli. It sends out the message that there is a yearning for the countryside at the same time underlines an element of fantasy which is associated with the rural belles.

If one is to ratiocinate about male actors treading the same path as of their female counterparts then there is a rider. When male stars perform these item numbers, there are yet again women in their bare minimum whose presence becomes indispensable. Here the prowess of the male to swoon women off their feet adds to his machismo becoming a celebration of eternal male sexuality.

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  1. Raj

    A few points :

    – People love sexy men and women. It’s as simple as that.

    – Most item girls have been Indian and they are usually portrayed as Indians only.

    – While many are in rural backdrop, many are in an urban pub setting.

    – And you say that women swoon at an male item guy. But don’t men swoon at female item girls? Isn’t that a derogatory depiction of men?

  2. shimadrish2013

    Items song should be completely banned by the I&B Ministry if they want a civilised society, coding people and to maintain at least the thin layer of respect which men have for women in the country…

    1. Raj

      Why not go further and give punish the women who consent to such item numbers?
      And also, how about banning every form of violence against men and women?
      And banning knives since they kill! And banning marriages since they cause divorces! Whooooooo!

  3. Sayendri Panchadhyayi

    R@Raj m goin’ to start with the second point first. It’s trend to import foreign girls as dancers in in an item song. Although they do not share similar attention as that of the prima dancer nonetheless their functional role remains the same. Regarding the third point i acknowledge that item numbers do have an urban backdrop but one needs to be abreast with the recurring trend which i have presented. lastly Its not a deragatory depiction of men because item numbers disempowers women although a branch of feminism will share different views. It’s not because women are shown in a particular way but also because it is for male entertainment and if u observe carefully, U’ll see how puportedly the male gaze is projected. There’s a book entitled “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey which discusses various forms of male gaze. Now coming over to the first point that you have made there is a difference between sexy, sensuous and gross and crass. It depends on the aesthetics and sensibility of us whether to accept crass or refine our taste. nonetheless thanks for going through the article. Will keep ur points in mind..:)

    1. Raj

      I agree with you on the 1st 2 points. Yes there is a trend of importing foreign item girls, although I’m not certain if it is because they are considered loose. It could be simply because white skin and blond hair are new to the Indian audiences, who watch cinema with very little racial diversity

      I am not sure how exactly a women is dis-empowered when she is shown to have men captivated by her female sexuality (consensually, mind you), quite like how semi-naked men wearing AXE deodorant have women captivated by their (purported) boost in male sexuality. Either both are sexist or neither is.

      I agree that many item numbers (maybe not all) are indeed meant for male fantasies Whether they are derogatory is debatable, especially when you expand the scope and take the movie as a while.
      Many movies show men behaving like idiots around beautiful women, which suggests that men are stupid and can be easily manipulated through feminine sexuality. Not to mention the amazing amount of violence that men endure in movies. Also the depiction of the male hero (who is to be emulated as the ideal man) as a sacrificial animal whose job is to fight evil and defend the society. As if it is his job to do stuff which benefits the society at a great personal risk and harm. Why doesn’t he pursue his own hobbies and interests? Is he an insecure servant of the society, craving for the society’s approval? And the villains also are mostly men who too are shown to be absolutely crazy and evil, and who too suffer great harm and losses. All these things, I could argue, are very derogatory and dehumanizing to MEN.
      And when it comes to the romance part, why are these men doing all that romantic crap and risking their lives in order too woo the girl? Why not let the girl do all that and run after him for a change? What we have here is the objectification of the hero as an object of female fantasies i.e. an officer-gentleman and a Knight in shining armor.
      And if you think movies are made only for men, then why would any woman even watch them if it offered her no entertainment at all?

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