Forget corruption scandals, political wrangling, crippling inflation, and even threats to national security. When 2010 ended, India was gripped by a far greater debate - which was hotter, youthful Sheila or infamous Munni? The songs ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ and ‘Munni Badnaam Hui,’ and their videos, have been forensically analyzed from every possible angle. Their huge popularity has also revived the trend in Hindi cinema of incorporating such carefully designed chartbusters into films where they have little narrative connection to the plot. Several filmmakers have already hyped 'item numbers' in their forthcoming films in 2011, with the current hit 'Mit Jaaye Gham' (Dum Maaro Dum), featuring Deepika Padukone, firmly ruling the airwaves. We take a look (with lots of visual aids) at this often ridiculed element of Hindi cinema to see how it has, despite its shortcomings, redefined Indian pop culture.
The 'item number’ is a truly unique quirk of Indian cinema. The concept has often been criticized for being gimmicky and providing cheap thrills to audiences, very often choreographed on scantily clad women being sexually provocative. It has also traditionally been a heavily gendered club, open exclusively to women – labeled ‘item girls’ – who add the extra glamour or sex appeal to a film. But the trend has also given Hindi cinema some of its most memorable music and, serving its true purpose, has given numerous films increased marketability and repeat value.
In its most traditional sense, the item number features an aspiring actress or a well-established star that doesn’t have a role in the film. While some actresses swear off such work, others use it as a public relations tool to increase their star appeal. Then there are the models who become item girls exclusively, such as Malaika Arora Khan. Khan, a model and a trained dancer, refuses to act in any films but has built a reputation as Hindi cinema’s most reliable item girl, establishing a standard of "high-end" sensual yet graceful item numbers. Her most memorable appearance was dancing on top of a moving train with actor Shah Rukh Khan and dozens of other dancers in ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ (Dil Se). The song and its video became one of the most successful item numbers in history.
Item songs are by no means a new phenomenon. The concept took off in the late 1960s and 1970s. The unchallenged item girl of the times was actress Helen who became renowned for her sexually provocative dance moves. Helen featured in some of Hindi cinema's most enduring item numbers such as 'Mehbooba Mehbooba' (Sholay), 'Piya Tu Ab To Aaja' (Caravan), and 'Aa Jaane Jaan' (Inteqam). One of her most iconic appearances was in the song ‘Yeh Mera Dil’ in the 1978 action thriller Don. And in a fascinating example of the eternal appeal of good item numbers, the song was modernized and included in the remake of the same film in 2006, this time featuring actress Kareena Kapoor.
The trend really exploded in the 1990s, which also gave way to the shifting definition of the term. While the item number still thrived in its original form, the term was then expanded to include dance numbers featuring the the lead actress of a given film. Actresses such as Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi indulged regularly in this alternative version of the item number and also benefited the most from it. For Dixit, the song that established her as a star was 'Ek Do Teen' (Tezaab), which incidentally was also a last minute addition to the film by the producers to boost the film's publicity. For Sridevi, her playful performance in 'Hawa Hawai' (Mr. India) amped up her star value immensely. Both Dixit and Sridevi went on to be featured in numerous such dance numbers in their own films, often eliminating the need for a cameo performance by any other actress.
In the 2000s the item number evolved even more, with two major changes. Male actors had historically distanced themselves from doing their own item numbers, mostly due to the established gender roles in the film industry. The very first "item boy" appeared only in 2004. Actor Abhishek Bachchan made a cameo appearance in the Hindi version of British boy band Blue's song 'One Love' in the film Rakht. While the song, and Bachchan, tried hard to be hip, this item number proved that male actors could be utilized in this way too. However, despite consequent item numbers by superstars Shah Rukh Khan (solo in Krazzy 4 and with Malaika Arora Khan in Kaal) and Hrithik Roshan (Krazzy 4), male actors still remain largely scarce in this arena.
The other major change in the last decade has been the arrival of the "mega" item number. In 2007, directors Sajid Khan and Farah Khan (siblings, but working independently of one another) released their respective films with song sequences that featured not one, but several cameos. Sajid Khan's Heyy Babyy opens with a song sequence where the three male leads of the film dance with a series of 15 recognizable actresses in a nightclub setting.
Later the same year, Farah Khan released Om Shanti Om, trumping her brother's achievement by filming her song 'Deewangi Deewangi' with a staggering 30 of the top stars of the film industry, making it in a sense the biggest casting coup in Indian cinema. In the same film, Khan also paid homage to the item number by ostentatiously objectifying her lead actor Shah Rukh Khan (six-pack abs, getting drenched, the whole package) in the song 'Dard-E-Disco.' Needless to say, the film became one of the highest earners ever due to this bombardment of marketing bonuses. While the "mega" item number is a goldmine for film buffs, it ironically has the shortest shelf life of all the variations of the concept. If a few songs can rope in almost the entire film industry, then there is very little novelty in yet another song sequence of a similar kind. Director Aditya Chopra attempted this again in the song 'Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte' (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi), an ode to cinema over the decades with some of the most well known leading ladies of current times. However, there now either needs to be a long wait until the next such "mega" item number or a completely new treatment of such casting coups.
When it fell on the numerous award ceremonies to pick a clear winner in the media-hyped rivalry between the Sheila and Munni songs, they too shied away from the responsibility. Both songs shared the accolades, splitting between them the related categories (playback singer, music, choreography, etc). The item number, in all its forms, may not be any kind of marker of a good film. But this brazenly commercial tool of Hindi cinema has been consistently successful. It has firmly established many stars and unforgettable dance tunes, and has been responsible for pulling in crowds to the opening weekend of a film's release. No other major cinema in the world attempts to use such cameo dance numbers to enhance the film's packaging, but Indian filmmakers have refined the process over the years and made it one of the most viable marketing strategies for a film. These are the item numbers of Hindi cinema and such is their power that they can truly grip a nation.
If all that has put you in the mood to watch more celebrated item numbers, then here’s our not-so- definitive list of some of the biggest hits of the last two decades:
- Koi Jaye To Le Aye (Ghatak), featuring Mamta Kulkarni
- Humma Humma (Bombay), featuring Sonali Bendre
- Kali Nagin Ke Jaisi (Mann), featuring Rani Mukherjee
- Chamma Chamma (China Gate), featuring Urmila Matondkar
- Ishq Kameena (Shakti-The Power), featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan
- Sharara Sharara (Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai), featuring Shamita Shetty
- Kajra Re (Bunty Aur Babli), featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
- Mayya Mayya (Guru), featuring Mallika Sherawat
- It's Rocking (Kya Love Story Hai), featuring Kareena Kapoor
- Shut Up and Bounce (Dostana), featuring Shilpa Shetty
- Love Mera Hit Hit (Billu), featuring Deepika Padukone
- Marjaani (Billu), featuring Kareena Kapoor