How the ‘Item’ Number Became a Star Act
When Karan Johar asked Samantha Ruth Prabhu — one of the guests on Season 7 of his Kontentious talk show — if deciding to do a song like “Oo Antava” from Pushpa: The Rise (2021) was a brave decision, the actor defended her choice: “It was a satire on the male gaze. I know I got a lot of criticism about pandering to the male gaze while making a satire on the male gaze. My logic was who else can satire a male gaze except for the nautch girl I was playing in the song or an actor who has a wide experience or wide range of the male gaze? Only a nautch girl or me can satire the male gaze.”
“Oo Antava”, which has nearly 400 million views on YouTube, serves as a momentary musical interlude in Pushpa: The Rise, providing respite from the action and violence that characterises the film. Before we see Prabhu’s face, we see the face of one of the men in the crowd leering at her as she dances on stage. Her eyes, lined with kohl, smoulder. She swishes her lehenga in the guy’s direction, before singing directly to the camera, mouthing lyrics that speak of men whose lascivious eyes scan a woman whether she’s wearing a sari or a skirt, whether she’s fair or dark, tall or short, stout or slender.
In the hook of the song, Prabhu and her posse of female dancers place their feet on the chests of grovelling men, shaking their hips provocatively. Prabhu pinches her waist, her bosom and her cheek — an echo of the men who would do the same to her — before beckoning Pushpa (Allu Arjun), who is gawking and grinning in the crowd, to dance with her. When the chorus comes around again, the choreography involves a step in which Prabhu straddles Arjun’s thigh, leaning back and writhing towards him while he gyrates aggressively. It is, put simply, lewd. It is also an example of an actor at the top of her game choosing to do what was once derogatorily called the ‘item’ number.
The Item Number: Origins
Whether or not audiences of the testosterone-fuelled Pushpa are really picking up on the satire that Prabhu claims drew her to “Oo Antava”, the discourse around item numbers has come a long way since Helen gave this trope of commercial Indian cinema a makeover. In the Seventies and Eighties, the item number entailed a special appearance, performed by a dancer, in which a ‘fallen woman’ acted as a foil to the virginal heroine. In “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja” (Caravan, 1971), for instance, Helen as Monica — in a red dress, black stockings; drink in hand — lolls at a bar, anxiously waiting for her lover. Her movements are bold and uninhibited as she goes into raptures when he finally calls her name. She pants in anticipation and desire, bounding across the dance floor as the song begins in earnest. At one point, Helen gazes into the camera, daring the viewers to resist her, seemingly uncaring of her audience and inviting intimacy with the viewer on the other side of the camera.
Acting as the scene’s moral compass is the film’s heroine, played by Asha Parekh, who watches on, visibly discomfited by the provocative performance put on by Helen’s quintessential ‘vamp’. In Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story (2001) by Nasreen Munni Kabir, Helen was quoted as saying: “The dancer had to be a vamp in those days. The public would take to the vamp because she related to the real world. You know, a woman is not only sugar, she has to be spice too. The heroine was too goody-goody, wishy-washy for my liking. The vamp had to be seductive, a brazen hussy, have a cigarette in one hand, a glass of whisky in the other.”
Helen is often referred to as the original ‘item girl’ of Bollywood, and has perhaps been described best by author Jerry Pinto in his book Helen: The Life and Times of an H-bomb: “[Helen] was there while the studio mastodons were shivering in the Ice Age; she was there when the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar dominated the box office; she sashayed through much of the Bachchan era.” Though she wouldn’t make it as a heroine, her performance in songs often drew much of the audience to the cinema. In her item numbers, she performs to men (albeit rarely the virtuous heroes) but it doesn’t feel like she’s objectifying herself. Whether it is dancing for the viewing pleasure of the leering villains in “Mehbooba Mehbooba” (Sholay, 1975), or for the entertainment of a pub full of drunken men in “Mungda” (Inkaar, 1977), or to seduce Amitabh Bachchan’s smooth criminal in “Yeh Mera Dil” (Don, 1978), Helen dances with gleeful abandon, a knowing twinkle in her eyes, defying the male gaze rather than being defined by it.
The Heroine and the Vamp
The distinguishing lines between heroine and vamp steadily blurred, as one way to establish that a woman was modern and strong was to show her as someone who had two key qualities of a vamp: An independent spirit, and an awareness of how powerful her feminine wiles can be. With Zeenat Aman (Qurbani, 1980 and Shalimar, 1978), Parveen Babi (Shaan, 1980 and Namak Halaal, 1982) and most famously Madhuri Dixit (Tezaab, 1988 and Sailaab, 1990), heroines claimed for themselves the songs that would at one point be set aside for the item number. The sexually-charged performances were often written into the plot. For example, “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai” in Khalnayak (1993) has Madhuri Dixit’s Ganga, an undercover cop, posing as a dancer to nab the bad guys.
After Mani Ratnam cast Sonali Bendre to appear in “Ek Ho Gaye Hum Aur Tum” in Bombay (1995), the trend of casting a heroine to make a cameo in a song elevated the ‘item’ to a respectable status. Think: Aishwarya Rai in “Kajra Re” from Bunty Aur Babli (2005); Bipasha Basu in “Beedi” from Omkara (2006), Kareena Kapoor in “Yeh Mera Dil” from Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006) (an homage to Helen), and Malaika Arora in “Munni Badnaam Hui” from Dabangg (2010). These songs take the business of delivering some oomph, but they are also odes to the women who star in them. Like vamps of yore, these women play a character who isn’t unsettled by desire. Instead, she celebrates it, whether it’s her own or that of the men who can’t get enough of her. Munni refers to herself as an “item bomb”, and the chorus of the song promises that she will ruin her reputation for the sake of her darling. There is no regret lacing any of this.
The same year as Munni, we had Katrina Kaif’s Sheila, who brought the country to a standstill with her performance in “Sheila Ki Jawani” from the otherwise poorly-received Tees Maar Khan (2010). In the film, Kaif’s character is an aspiring actor, and the song is part of a film she’s shooting. The first two lines of the song are: “I know you want it but you’re never gonna get it, tere haath kabhi na aani.” Sheila sings about how the whole world is madly in love with her, but all she really needs is herself. The men directing the performance express obscene enthusiasm at the sight of Sheila dancing, while her indignant husband (played by Akshay Kumar) scrambles to shut down the whole operation.
A Frisson of Discomfort
Kaif has been outspoken about rejecting the term ‘item song’. She cited her favourite female performers, including Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit, to make her argument that sexy women should not be viewed just as ‘items’. “If one feels that they are being objectified by the choreographer and what they are doing in the song, then they must refrain from doing a song like that,” she said. “If you are dancing to express yourself, that’s a beautiful thing; it’s not a wrong thing.”
Her point is valid and yet, there’s a hint of defensiveness to the argument. As self-assured and confident as these cameo artists may seem to be, there is often a frisson of discomfort at directly associating themselves with the genre in the first place. Kareena Kapoor Khan's special appearance in “Fevicol Se” (Dabangg 2) caused quite the furore when the film came out in 2012. Veteran actor Shabana Azmi, who has been vocal about her distaste for item number culture in the past, said about “Fevicol Se”: “I have reservations against item numbers. That’s because I think if a top-most heroine is singing ‘I am tandoori murgi, swallow me down with alcohol’, it’s not a laughing matter. It’s a serious issue.”
What Samantha Prabhu didn’t reveal on Koffee With Karan was her initial reluctance to participate in “Oo Antava”, for which she charged Rs. 5 crore. Reportedly, leading man Allu Arjun went out of his way to convince her, especially given that she had reservations about some of the dance moves. That initial hesitation is an indication of how the thought of a woman doing this kind of song-and-dance routine remains mired in the trappings of whatever makes for a virtuous woman — mostly because of an anxiety that an on-screen performance will inform how the actor is treated off-screen. It can’t be a coincidence that the feminist campaign demanding respect for all women and reclaiming narratives around marginalised people has trickled into popular discourse just as perceptions around the item number have changed. Even the term ‘item’ has become unacceptable because it degrades and dehumanises a performer who deserves the spotlight.
The Item Number: Present and Future
However, the song sequence that plays on sex appeal and glamour to draw in crowds remains an important element of commercial cinema, not least because it serves as excellent promotional material for a film. The songs are catchy (if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics), the videos are fun to watch (if you disregard the crude steps), and they keep finding their ways into films regardless of genre. In the opening credits of Roohi (2021), Janhvi Kapoor — who plays a meek, small-town woman possessed by a vengeful chudail in the film — inexplicably dances to a remix of Shamur’s “Let The Music Play”, dolled up in a racy golden dress.
Occasionally, we have heroes adopt the persona of the ‘item boy’, such as Shah Rukh Khan (and his abs) in “Dard-E-Disco” (Om Shanti Om, 2007) and Prithviraj Sukumaran in “Dreamum Wakeupum” (Aiyyaa, 2012). The two actors were the leading men of the films, but for these songs, they offered their bodies up to the audience’s gaze, purely for the gratuitous pleasure of it. (It’s worth keeping in mind that both men were allowed the space to do so — without losing respectability on or off-screen — because the films belong to the comedy genre. Both songs teeter between objectifying the hero and treating that objectification as a joke.)
Bottom line: Item numbers are not going away anytime soon. This is partly because the audience’s voyeuristic gaze laps up these song-and-dance sequences, but also because they bolster a film’s commercial prospects. So long as those bringing these songs to life on camera are given respect for their work and the focus is on pleasure and empowerment, the item number has all the makings of a Bollywood success story.