Celebrating The Inherent Feminism Of A Bollywood Item Girl
What’s the first adjective that comes to mind when I say “Item Girl?”
On a scale of “cheap” to “vampish” we have vulgar, sexy (not meant as a compliment by the way), bitchy, sultry, raunchy provocative and plain improper.
That’s one way of looking at it. It’s the popular way. It’s pretty much the only way. The way things have been in Bollywood since the 50s and 60s when the trend began, even though it wasn’t necessarily called “item” then.
I, on the other hand, have had this great fascination for the so-called “item girls.” In fact, the running joke in our family is how I’d said “I want to be Helen when I grow up,” when my wise-cracking mama asked the eight-year-old me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Not a wife.
Not a teacher.
Not a mother.
Not an engineer.
Yes, our “item girl” – THE Helen. Helen of the cabaret fame. Helen the one woman who made sure films back then hit pay dirt! That Helen, who by the way, totally rocks to this very day.
What must have been going on in my eight-year-old mind then? I often wonder. Of course, to put things into perspective I’d seen Sholay. And to this day without an iota of doubt “Mehbooba, mehbooba” rules the charts when it comes to dancing with grace, guts and gay abandon. You can remix, and remix guys, no one comes even close to the legend. So, get the hint and stop. Let classics be.
The other “vamps” who absolutely fascinated me way back were Bindu and Aruna Irani. The Bollywood vamp scene was once totally ruled by these ace actresses. The heroine usually was their exact opposite, shy, simpering, simple and sanskaari.
Today, it’s an interesting turn of trend where the heroine wants to do the “item number.” The vamp is near non-existent, rolled as she is into the heroine’s mould as that spark of rebellion and spunk. With that, my fascination with the “item girl” continues to grow. Be it Katrina in “Chikni Chameli” or Deepika in “Lovely” or Malaika in “Mahi Ve” or Yana Gupta in “Babuji” or Zaraine Khan in “Character Dheela” or Shipla Shetty in “UP Bihar Lootne”. What’s my definition or let’s say interpretation of an item girl then, that makes me look up to her as one of the most charming, bewitching and alluring component of the reel experience that some part of me, wishes to emulate to this day at 40 plus?
Baring a few stray instances when the crude lyrics or hyper pelvic thrusts or the obscenely ill-fitting costumes do not do justice to the overall concept, I find “item girls” to be revolutionary women who are totally in control of their sexuality.
They own their bodies like a bawse. They are proud of their curves and flaunt them boldly. They stare back at men. They “look a challenge in the eye and wink.” If you listen to the lyrics carefully, in most they loudly and proudly proclaim how they are “beyond” most of the salivating men ogling them lustily. “Tere hath kabhi na aani” and “choone se jal jaaoge” being the common refrain. They rule. They rock. They reverberate, they resonate long after the show is over.
They aren’t shy or coquettish.
They revel in their superlative womanly charms and toned bodies.
They don’t mince words.
They set high standards.
In one line, they are “Women on Top” most certainly.
If classic feminism is the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes, if second wave feminism liberates women from the druggery and confines of domesticity bringing them out into the public sphere, which till a few decades was solely a male preserve, if modern feminism is Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and if millennial feminism is about body positivity, sexual equality and emotional freedom, then isn’t the “item girl” one hell of a feminist?
Her confident demeanour, her total ownership of her space and her complete command over her clear motives and pulsating moves, in my books, is what adds majorly to her overall ability to completely floor the audience. She believes she can and she does.
She’s not fazed by her dangerous neckline or naughty slit or sheer LBD or goth gown or bombshell bodice! She’s the queen of all she surveys, whatever she chooses to wear. She can carry off the slinkiest balconnet with aplomb. Slide down that slippery pole of popularity with panache.
She, in short, wears her attitude on her metaphorical sleek sleeve; heaving bosom, gyrating hips, saucy smile et al.
Her song celebrates her mood. Who are we to judge? Liberation can mean all sorts of things to all sorts of people isn’t it – and so, the freedom to sing and dance, to express your urges out loud, to tease, to tantalize cannot be denied.
Yes, there are those who argue about the commodification of the female form in the name of “item songs”, that to me is a personal choice, best left to the “item girl.” As for commodification, that, unfortunately, exists everywhere, in offices, at home, in the streets, in ads, on posters, in public transport, in school books and even in places of worship; everywhere, it’s up to you to face it with dignity and courage. And I am talking of all genders here.
The nagging riff-raff, in the meantime, will sadly always be there, to be treated as riff-raff and flicked off your shoulder like a speck of dirt. That’s how you move on. That’s how you achieve big. They are like unnamed, unseen, no-good trolls on social media. And the best way to deal with them is to “ghost” them out completely. To trash them. If ‘beauty” they say lies in the eyes of the beholder. Then so does vulgarity. So does cheapness.
With her glass half-full, my “item girl” embodies style, beauty, naughtiness and innocence in lustful doses. Impervious to the male gaze, she’s cool and collected in her cabaret or calypso moves. She’s sexy and she knows it!
There, that’s definitely a feminist. She’s not mouthing slogans. She’s not chairing seminars. She’s not pin-striped. But she’d a feminist in her own right, because remember, “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” Couldn’t agree more. Thank you GD Anderson! That is the whole point.
Picture Credit: Cinezone
Gunjan Pant Pande speaks her mind in her short stories, blogs, opinion pieces and poems. When not on mom duty she reads, writes, travels, watches re-runs of stand-ups, photographs, paints, knits, chats up her girl gang and cooks soul food with her twist! The views expressed are the author’s own.