Item Number Songs: The Dangers of a Guilty Pleasure

During this last year, I consumed and watched a ton of Bollywood. I re-watched movies from my youth and obsessively consumed the multi million and billion plus viewed videos on YouTube. The nostalgia and the addictive nature of the old songs from my childhood were a great way to distract myself from the pandemic world we were living in and helped me escape back to a simpler time. 

The love songs, ballads and outstretched arms of Shah Rukh Khan made me venture to the newer parts of Bollywood and even to some “evergreen” songs that were not a part of my upbringing. During this binge watching, however, as an adult, I did start to notice parts of this kind of media that I had never thought of as a child.

 Most specifically were the so-called “item number songs”. A marketing staple in many Bollywood films, that highlighted the bright colors, costumes, and rhythmically hypnotic beats– but most importantly, a feature woman with shaking hips who oftentimes was surrounded by a gaggle of men– think of Chikni Chameli, Fevicol, and Sheila ki Javani. There tends to be an assumption or environmental hints that this woman is a prostitute or a lady of the night in some capacity. My matured brain could not help but  gawk at the overt demonstration of the Madonna-Whore complex in Indian cinema. Some women are “good” and others are not but serve a function– a function that is basically only good for the male gaze. 

I would love to tell you that I hate these songs but frankly, they are great and some of my most played. They’re catchy and I have definitely tried to learn the choreography of more than one of them. Having lived life though, being a woman and viewing more of my life through a feminist lense, I do have to say that these songs are difficult to watch without feeling guilty or feeling a deep cringe internally the whole time. 

So, I tried to change the lens to add a more positive spin. Could this be a celebration of female empowerment? Women owning their bodies? Unfortunately, the realities in South Asia do not match that very idealistic perspective. With child prostitution, sex trafficking, and domestic violence still a lingering problem in many parts of South Asia, mostly affecting the vulnerable and disenfranchised, it seems inappropriate at best to glamorize this way of life in India. Neither Katrina Kaif nor Kareena Kapoor deal with the true and ugly ramifications of sex work while dancing in their beautiful ghagaras. 

I will probably continue to watch item number songs and sing along, feeling myself want to bust a move. I will consume this content the way I consume other problematic content for women in the American music industry and otherwise. That being said, we should collectively come together to have a conversation much like the Western world did with a song like Blurred Lines that reinforced rape culture. Hopefully, this time and uncensored conversation is approaching the Desi community soon.

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