With her enchanting songs, her rare beauty and clever tricks, this wild ‘wanderess’ ensnared my soul like a gypsy-thief, and led me foolish and blind to where you find me now’ - Roman Payne, The Wanderess
When one hears the term ‘item number’, the image of a catchy and often provocative dance sequence, which often has no link to the story of the Bollywood film, flashes before one’s eyes. Bollywood cinema has always been synonymous with song and dance sequences; Dance has been integral to its success. In fact, even some badly made films survived at the box office because of their ‘catchy’ dance sequences. ‘Item’ dance numbers have enticed the Indian movie-going audience for decades – especially those in the ‘front stalls’. During the first fifty years of ‘Bollywood dancing’, the lead actresses also danced seductively, but only for the hero of the film, and the rare ‘item’ numbers, performed by professional dancer-actresses, were set in ‘shady’ surroundings - a veritable stereotype of masked morality. In the few cases where the heroine would dance in the presence of gangsters, smugglers and underworld dons, the ‘item number’ had a definite purpose – like the hoodwinking of the bad guys. This was considered an ‘acceptable’ act, within the overall concept of ‘victory of the good over the bad’. Sensing the popularity of ‘item numbers’ with the audience, by the 1970s almost all ‘popular movies’ had one dance sequence set in a nightclub or a ‘den’. With this was created a breed of ‘item dancers’, a trend that continued well into the 1980s. These ‘item dancers’, most of them performing cabarets in sleazy nightclubs, became an integral part of the pre-release publicity posters. Padma Khanna, Prema Narayan, Jayashree T, Kalpana Iyer, Bindu and, not to forget the dancing diva, Helen became ‘household’ names. Though many lead actresses were exceptional dancers themselves, they probably would not have had the same ‘impact’ as these ‘item dancers’ – assuming first, of course, that that would have agreed! Imagine Asha Parekh performing ‘Piya tu ab to aaja’ in place of Helen (Caravan, 1970) or ‘Mera naam hai Shabnam’ in place of Bindu (Kati Patang, 1970), Rakhee performing ‘Reshmi ujala hai’ in place of Jayashree T (Sharmilee, 1971) and Hema Malini performing ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ in place of Helen (Sholay, 1975). The nouveau hippy generation of the 1970s loved these dance sequences, which often relieved them of the ‘monotony’ of a three-hour ‘serious’ film. Thanks mainly to R.D. Burman’s catchy numbers, all these movies, aided by their dance numbers, became runaway hits.
However, within a decade Indian society was ready for the ‘item course’ becoming the ‘main course’. By the beginning of the 1980s the sensuous item girls had been replaced by the lead heroines themselves. The actresses were bolder and had less inhibitions. Who can forget the talented Parveen Babi essaying the role of a club dancer in Namak Halaal (1982), enticing Shashi Kapoor with her dance sequence ‘Jawaani jaaneman haseen dilruba’. This trend continued well into the next decade, with heroines like Mandakini, Kimi Katkar, Sonam, Rati Agnihotri, Dimple (in her comeback avatar), Madhavi, Farah and Neelam. However, most of these heroines, and other new age vamps like Kunika, did not get the audience’s approval, and ‘item’ dance numbers went comatose for some time. Only Madhuri Dixit, the Queen of Bollywood for more than a decade, bucked the trend. ‘Ek do teen’ (Tezaab, 1988) and ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ (Khalnayak, 1993) became the dancing hits of the century. Failed actresses like Ayesha Jhulka, Sheeba and Kanchan, and even successful heroines like Karisma Kapoor and Raveena Tandon tried to tread on the Madhuri path, but only had limited success. However, the strong potential of an ‘item song’ had by now been well acknowledged. By the turn of the millennium, producers were willing to put in crores of rupees for the shooting of one item song. Malaika Arora and Yana Gupta excelled as exclusive ‘item dancers’, lapping it up with Munni badnaam hui (Dabang, 2010) or Babuji zara dheere chalo (Dum, 2003). New generation stars like Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone have had no inhibition in shedding clothes or performing acrobatic manoeuvers in ‘sizzling’ dance numbers - like Chikni Chameli (Agneepath, 2012) or Dance like a Chhamiya (Happy New Year, 2014). These numbers had no bearing on the storyline and were intended only for entertainment. Some of these songs have become so popular that they are played by DJs at discotheques, parties and even marriages, where ‘respectable’ men and women shake a leg - a significant departure from the ‘moralistic’ society of the 1960s.
Bollywood movies now rake in Rupees 100+ crores within five days of release. The ‘item’ dance numbers have become ‘use a few times and discard’ entities. It is hardly surprising that these ‘items’, shot at staggering budgets of around two crores rupees each (perhaps the total cost of making three art films) are forgotten within a couple of months, replaced by new ‘item’ numbers - with new ‘dancer-heroines’ - that are being made in movie ‘factories’ every month. When the ‘over-exposed’ Mallika Sherawat performed a standalone belly dance number, ‘Mayya Mayya’ (Guru, 2007), it was perhaps forgotten on the day of its release only. Contrast that with ‘Piya tu’ and ‘Mehbooba’ – evergreen even today. Most of the ‘item numbers’ no longer guarantee box office success. The current Indian movie-goer who now pays for the producer’s supper is an urban globalite who wants to see movies that have proper storylines. He can easily get his ‘item fix’ at YouTube or elsewhere on the Net. A song and dance in any form is fine as long as it is integral to the plot. Even Indian Cinema can no longer be just about any song and dance….anywhere.
The writer is a renowned Kuchipudi danseuse and choreographer