The Item Is The Thing
When a Cuckoo or a Helen or a Madhumati suddenly made an appearance midway through the visual narrative, it was essentially to provide relief to an audience engrossed in the gripping drama, or add to the suspense. Bollywood then called it “cabaret number”. It was a popular ingredient though it is difficult to define its origin. There were also times when the intensity of the song will be augmented by either the emergence of the heroine centre-stage as well matching foot-tapping with the scantily clad girl, or her presence in the frame in a party or restaurant, discomfort and nervousness written large on her face. In the seventies, Bindu, Padma Khanna and to a lesser extent Aruna Irani were the familiar faces who combined the vampish with foot-tapping. There were also times when this “ritual” was entrusted to the heroine herself, especially in the crime-based stories of the 1950s, with the hero essaying a negative role, or the second heroine in a negative character.
Since then although this “song-and-dance” has continued to be a staple diet to engage and titillate the masses, its very shape and character has undergone a structural change. Like many other good and bad things that he did to mainstream Hindi cinema, Amitabh-cinema also brought into display the heroine skin-show with Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi flaunting their curvaceous bodies to seduce the angry man. The trend continued during the late seventies and early eighties with Sridevi, Dimple Kapadia and Madhuri Dixit celebrating overt sexuality. Subhash Ghai should get the credit for importing it from Tamil and Malayalam cinema where an “item” number was a must for a raunchy song-dance sequence, and the dancer had no other role to play, in Khalnayak where Madhuri Dixit and Neena Gupta performed Choli ke Picche kya hai. Silk Smitha was the epitome of sexuality on the South Indian screen cutting across languages. The fact that now a biopic is being made on her in Hindi, starring Vidya Balan is a tribute to her virtuosity.
Mani Ratnam announced his arrival in Bollywood by bringing out the “hidden” assets of Malaika Arora Khan with Chhaiya Chhaiya atop a train in Dil Se, and opened the floodgates for the heroines replacing traditional vamps for the “item” numbers. Urmila Matondkar shed all inhibitions lip-sing Chamma Chamma in Santoshi’s China Gate; Shilpa Shetty maddening Main aayi hoon UP-Bihar lootne in Shool; Yana Gupta Babuji zara dhire chalo in Dum; Isha Koppikar’s Khallas in Company; Shamita Shetty’s Sharara sharara in Mere Yaar ki Shadi; and Esha Deol’s Dhoom machale dhoom machale in Dhoom. Kareena Kapoor and Deepika Padukone obliging Shah Rukh Khan with Marjaani marjaani and Love Mera Hit Hit in the flop-hit, Billu. And then was the icing on the cake, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Ishq kamina in the flop Shakti.
But what was once a cabaret dance-song or an item number, it seems, is now here to stay and is threatening to become a bone of contention amongst even the most sellable heroines. It probably began with towards the middle of last decade with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan enticing the father-and-son combo of Amitabh and Abhishek with the Gulzar authored Aisi nazar se dekha us zalim ne chowk par, humne kaleja rakh diya chaku ki nok par…kajrare kajrare tere kaare kaare naina which sort of became a new anthem for the nation. Gulzar repeated it with Na lihaaf na gilaaf… bidi jalaile jigar se piya jigar mein badi aag hai in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara in which a sizzling Bipasha Basu cast her magical spell. The ultimate, perhaps, was Kareena Kapoor agreeing to do Yeh mera dil which Helen had done in the original.
Reports emanating from Bollywood insist that now any top heroine is willing to lend her talent for foot-tapping music in any big star cast film. It seems Deepika Padukone had been shortlisted for the Chammak Chalo number in Shah Rukh Khan’s forthcoming home production Ra.One, choreographed by Ganesh Hedge and meant to be released as promotional video but when heroine Kareena Kapoor heard it she outsmarted and ousted the competitor. Unfortunately, Deepika’s Dum Maaro Dum hasn’t really worked with the audience in Rohan Sippy’s film with the same title despite the controversy over its re-mixing. Many industry stalwarts including Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Prassoon Joshi and others have strongly condemned the trend of fidgeting and remixing old hit songs. But doesn’t such a situation arrive when Hindustani sangeet music has touched the lowest common denominator and vulgarity has become the norm?
But if heroines are falling head over heals on one-another, the item number itself has come to be a “must” in every film. While connoisseurs are still debating over the catchiness of Munni badnaam hui, and Sheela ki Jawani, there is Malika Sherawat romping over the audience faces in Anees Bazmi’s cold turkey Thank You with Razia gundon mein phas gayi. She will also be shortly seen hissing again in Indra Kumar’s Double Dhamaal as Jalebi Bai choreographed by the in-vogue Ganesh Acharya. “I don’t know why Indian men want to see me naked” wondered the hoity-toity actress who is reported to have demanded Rs 3 crores for two raunchy numbers in his forthcoming medium-budget, Bin Bulaye Baarati at a time when the A-grade heroines such as Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra are, the grapevine has it, asking for a Rs 5 crore fee for a whole film that might even include a “sizzler”. Meanwhile, Mallika has shot the Shalu number and television star Sweta Tiwari has swung in Ghagra-choli to Dil ka Achar in the same film, which the director defines as: “Her avatar is something that hasn’t been seen before on screen.”
In Bollywood not a day passes without a new announcement for a raunchy “item” number, and a new bhed-chaal that the industry is notorious for. Until a new “idea” drops down the skies. What you say, readers?
By Suresh Kohli