When wikipedia has a web page for a phrase that did not exist till about 5 years ago, you know it's an official trend. Considered an upbeat, catchy song with provocative lyrics and women dancing with revealing clothes, an"item" number has slowly become a mandatory part of any Bollywood masala film.
The trend of an item number started much before semi-naked women became an acceptable part of Hindi cinema. Some consider Helen, Bindu and Aruna Irani the true item girls, setting the bar, and pathway for other item songs to gain honorary status in the structure of a film.
In retrospect, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between today's item numbers and yesteryear's cabaret numbers. Why is it that we don't find 'Mehbooba' (Sholay )demeaning to women but most people would frown down on songs like 'Kuan Mein Doob Jaongi' (Page 3 )? Is it hypocrisy or is Helen just considered more graceful? Both have sexual undertones, both use women as props to put an exciting pit stop in the plot and in both songs the women have worn barely anything.
The reason is simple. Hype makes anything and everything flow into extremes. We have always had item songs in our movies, from 'Shaher Ki Ladki' (Rakshak ) to 'Chamma Chamma' (China Gate ) to 'Main Aayi hoon UP Bihar Lootne' (Shool) and 'Kajraa re' (Bunty aur Babli ).
Barring the fact that decency is relative depending on the type of film in question, some would argue that these songs serve a petty if not unnecessary role in the larger plot of the film. They mostly work as a publicity or attention-seeking gimmick, and the"item girls" have their claim to fame laid on a silver platter.
Alternatively, one can argue that an"item" song has been a bollywood tradition since the Helen days, and that entertainment can be a purpose enough to include anything in a film. The main problem arises in the word"item" song or girl. The minute we use the word we objectify the women who could potentially make a career out of dancing on 35 or 70 mm.
For whatever reason, Rakhi Sawant and Sheryln Chopra have become familiar names because of the songs they chose to be a part of. It becomes hypocritical for us to typecast these women as"loose" or"cheap". They are actually just doing their job. Judging them is like calling Shahid Kapoor a kamina in real life.
Item songs are (ideally) meant as a pleasant break from the movie, however most item songs we see involve women dancing around men, the sole purpose being to entice the men. Once these songs become a ploy to pull a particular crowd towards the movie, and serve no larger purpose, it becomes extremely demeaning to the women who are in the song.
While women like Rakhi Sawant and Sherlyn Chopra have earned fame for being a part of item songs, they also get type casted into very rigid categories. It’s a no-win situation for the"item" girls, who climb to fame, to but have their reputation at stake. Once branded an"item" girl, they either get only such songs, or raunchy roles in films made only for men or slapstick comedies with a multicast.
The politics surrounding an item song is of a dual fold. On one hand, as an audience we accept that item songs are a part of a masala film, and meant as a publicity gimmick. It’s a tradition in some ways and a trend that we have learnt to associate with. On the other hand, the complication arises when judgments are passed on the"item girls".
The hypocrisy can be done away with, admit it, we don’t take Koena Mitra or Isha Kopikkar seriously. The songs should be taken for what they are meant to be: entertainment and a means to get the audience into the theater.