Does a Rajinikanth Film Need an Item Number to Stay Relevant?
He’s been Tamil cinema’s “ore sooriyan, ore chandiran, ore superstar” (one sun, one moon, one superstar), but the first promo that dropped for Rajinikanth’s upcoming film Jailer was not about the legendary actor’s trademark slow-mo walk or a punchy dialogue. It revolves around another star – Tamannaah. In what we’ve seen of the song 'Kaavaalaa', the only instance of Rajini swag is the superstar putting on his sunglasses while playing second fiddle to Tamannaah.
Rajinikanth, who modelled himself on MG Ramachandran, has done several films in his career where he has “advised” women on how to dress and behave. The misogynist ideas in his films were duly absorbed and repeated by the next generation of stars like Ajith and Vijay. Now in his seventies, it seems the superstar must shake a leg with Tamannaah – who is less than half his age – in an item number to stay relevant.
The 72-year-old actor’s last two films, Darbar (2020) and Annaatthe (2021), received unanimously negative reviews though the second is said to have performed well in B and C centres in Tamil Nadu. Given this, and his contemporary Kamal Haasan’s stupendous reinvention with the blockbuster thriller Vikram (2022), Jailer, with a multi-industry cast that includes Mohanlal and Shiva Rajkumar, seems to be a calculated move to score with key audiences, and the film’s success is critical for the superstar to maintain his position in the industry. ‘Kaavaala’ – which translates to ‘I want you’ in Telugu – seems to be a desperate push in that direction, inspired by Samantha’s viral ‘Oo Antava’ item number from Pushpa: The Rise (2021), which helped the Telugu film become a pan-India hit.
Did the item song that was on its way out before ‘Oo Antava’ really need to be revived? At a time when the space for the heroine has shrunk to playing the “love interest” in most mainstream Tamil films, do we need to bring back a trend that further reduces the role of women actors?
From record dancer to item number
The item song has its origins in Hindi cinema of the 1930s, when there would commonly be a stock female character known as the “vamp”. Dressed in body-hugging, glamorous costumes, the vamp was used to underline the moral depravity of a villain or the setting. Occasionally, she was also used to emphasise the hero’s masculinity. But the idea of the vamp predates cinema, originating in a culture of women dancers and entertainers who, depending on their social status, entertained different sections of society.
Elite courtesans, for instance, enjoyed royal patronage and were not accessible to those lower in the social hierarchy. Devadasis mainly catered to landed gentry and monied travellers and had greater agency than elite courtesans. Erotic folk dancers provided entertainment to commoners and eventually came to be called “record dancers” because they would dance to music records in public spaces (a popular form of entertainment in rural areas).
Indian cinema draws heavily from oral and performing traditions, which is why song and dance feature so prominently in its storytelling. The record dance, too, became a part of cinema to please the “front-benchers”, a term used to describe the lower classes who bought the cheapest tickets in the theatre. It came to be called the ‘item’ song or dance, and involved a young woman who otherwise had little to do with the plot performing the erotic dance and disappearing after that.
The male gaze
With the camera, it became possible to magnify the dancer’s body parts and reduce her personhood to that of an object. The camera decided how the audience should look at her, and the exploitative gaze became a collective titillating experience. It isn’t just the dance that is the ‘item’, but the dancer herself. The term is, in fact, colloquially used to refer to a sex worker. The explicit lyrics would often be sung in a breathy voice or be accompanied by suggestive panting. Take the ever-popular Kamal Haasan-Silk Smitha item number ‘Nethu Rathiri Yamma’ from Sakalakala Vallavan (1982) for example.
As Hindi cinema popularised the item song and actors like Helen, who specialised in it became stars, south Indian films too caught on. In the south, there were occasionally actors like Jayamalini and Vijayalalitha who managed to perform item numbers but also play the lead in other films, but by and large, there was a clear segregation between the women actors who played the heroine and those who played the vamp. The Madonna-whore binary was mostly followed – the first was considered marriage material, the second was for adventure and fantasies.
By the mid-Seventies and Eighties, item songs in south Indian films had become all the rage. Actor Silk Smitha, who shot to fame for her erotic dances and vamp roles, even set a world record for appearing in the most number of films in a year. She featured in a whopping 44 films in 1983, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Twenty seven years after her passing, her legacy remains alive – in Srikanth Odela’s Telugu action drama Dasara (2023), for instance, the ‘Silk’ Bar plays an important role and the wall has a seductive painting of Silk Smitha posing with her fingers lightly touching her mouth.
The glamour of item numbers
In the Nineties, with globalisation and the internet revolution, the moral codes in mainstream southern cinema also began to change. Gautami did ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’ in Shankar’s Gentleman (1993) and Mani Ratnam had stars from the Hindi film industry like Sonali Bendre dancing to ‘Andha Arabi Kadaloram’ in Bombay (1995). The lines blurred further and by the 2000s, women actors who played the lead also did item songs, though these were rather demurely labelled “special songs” or “party songs”, distinguishing them from the item number. Notably, this was a period when many women actors who played the lead came from outside the south, and were seen as adding an extra dollop of glamour with their presence.
Simran, who was the reigning queen of Tamil cinema and also very popular in Telugu in the Nineties and early 2000s, did an item number in Youth (2002) with Vijay. When the same song appeared in the Telugu film Raghavendra (2003), she did an item number in the film along with Prabhas. Anushka Shetty, who had a career breakthrough with Rajamouli’s Vikramarkudu (2006), did an item number with Chiranjeevi in Stalin (2006) that same year.
Kajal Aggarwal is another A-list star who has done quite a few item numbers including ‘Pakka Local’ in Janatha Garage (2016) and ‘Ratthaalu’ in Khaidi 150 (2017). Tamannaah has several such songs in her filmography – ‘Swing Zara’ from Jai Lava Kusa (2017) and ‘Sampige’ from Jaguar (2016) among them. There’s Pooja Hegde with ‘Jigelu Rani’ from Rangasthalam (2018) too.
Pulling in audiences and numbers
In Silk Smitha’s time, producers knew that adding an item song would bring the audience – cis heterosexual men who form the majority of the first day first show audience – to theatres because such erotic content wasn’t freely available. That’s no longer the case in the digital age. Additionally, many women stars like Nayanthara do glamorous songs when they’re playing the lead in the film, and such erotic dances are no longer restricted to the item number. With the heroine and the vamp coming together in a female protagonist, it seemed like the item number was a dying tradition.
All that changed with the immense popularity of ‘Oo Antaava’, which claims to subvert the male gaze but only ended up justifying it by equating women with food items and suggesting that being manly is to be predatory. The Samantha song may have improved the visibility of the film in the Hindi belt where Allu Arjun wasn’t yet a known name, but there were many other factors too that contributed to Pushpa’s success – not in the least the relatable underdog story and the charm of the star who played the lead. If ‘Kaavaalaa’ is the Jailer team’s attempt at taking a leaf out of the Pushpa playbook, then the film needs to do more than have a mere item number to become a pan-India sensation.