Right from “Chhaiya Chhaiya” atop a moving train in Mani Ratnam‘s Dil Se (1998) to “Hello Hello” in Vishal Bhardwaj‘s Pataakha (2018), Malaika Arora has become the go-to girl for item numbers in Bollywood. With the cultural climate changing and Karan Johar apologising for the item numbers in his films, saying they were mistakes, we asked her about the significance of the dance form today:

Anupama Chopra (AC): You’ve been part of many blockbuster songs – “Munni Badnaam Hui” and “Anarkali” – but now we live in a post item number world. And you have filmmakers like Karan Johar saying that he would not do a “Chikni Chameli”. I know you’ve said that you were very comfortable and did it out of choice, but what do you think is the place of the item song in today’s world?

Malaika Arora (MA): I still stand by what I say because that’s how I look at things. Whenever I did a song, I did it of my own accord, I never did it under any duress.

AC: You were comfortable.

MA: I was comfortable. If I felt I was not okay with something, I’d voice my opinion. I’d say, ‘No, I don’t like this step.’ If I felt I was being objectified in any way, I’d say it.

I always had a problem with them being called ‘item songs’ because I imagine turning around and saying, ‘Yeh kya item hai?’ I would want to turn around and slap that person, says Malaika

AC: Really? Even back then?

MA: I’m not stupid. I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m not comfortable.’ Suddenly if a camera was going down my cleavage, I would say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You can shoot my face, you don’t have to put the camera down my cleavage.

AC: Did people listen?

MA: They did. It’s how you tackle things. And I think I’ve been very clear. Yes, there were lyrics that were probably suggestive. But I’m not stupid, I heard the lyrics. I was part of it so I was well aware. Most of them have always been tongue-in-cheek and fun. I never felt that it crossed a line where it was downright vulgar or offensive. Coming to today, I think things have changed a lot. There’s a lot more emphasis and focus on women being objectified. A lot of filmmakers and actresses have taken that stand where they’re like, ‘You know what? Let’s not have any more of these songs.’ I come from a different school of thought. Each to their own. If you feel that there’s definitely a space where it needs to be completely fazed out, so be it. But if you have the voice and you’re able to tackle things in the right space with some brains, I think everything can be perceived in the right space. But having said that, in today’s day and age, if a woman feels that it’s not a safe environment of if she’s being objectified, or it’s downright offensive, then I think, not then.

AC: But you haven’t made any rules for yourself about wanting to or not wanting to (do an item number)? You’re going to take it as it comes?

Such numbers make our films different and stand out from the rest of the films made around the world. They are unique, so why should we suddenly pull the plug on them just because there is a certain wave of thinking? she asks

MA: I’m not going to stand over here and say, ‘Ban all these songs and stop these so-called item numbers’. Firstly, I always had a problem with them being called ‘item songs’ because I imagine turning around and saying, ‘Yeh kya item hai?’ I would want to turn around and slap that person. So I do have a problem with that terminology. But I’m not going to stand here and say, ‘Stop it or completely get rid of it.’ At the end of the day, our films are all about that culture. There is a certain song and dance that’s been there since time immemorial. Why should one just change it overnight? Yes, if something is not right in terms of it being offensive, then do away with it. But this is part of our films. This is what makes our films different and stand out from the rest of the films made around the world. It is unique, so why should we suddenly pull the plug on it just because there is a certain wave of thinking?

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