The girl of your dreams, but “tere haath kabhi na aani.”
The lights dim. The music blares. You can almost smell the ‘nasha’ in the air. The hero and heroine disappear and, for just five minutes, a girl with an hourglass figure has the screen. She’s sexy and she knows it, and knows that you know it, too. You’re cursing your fate for sitting smack in between your parents for this film, and you keep your hands on the seat—making sure they’re in sight. Who is this girl? It’s like she came from a dream, the dance is like a dream, and once it’s over, you’ll wake up to the boring hero and heroine with their I-love-yous and I-hate-yous.
What, or Who, is the Item Number?
The Item Number, Promotional Video, Sexist Representation of Women Subjected to the Male Gaze—call it what you want—is a sensation in itself. The girl is literally the ‘item,’ openly objectified by men whom she entertains, but only from afar. None of them can actually have her. In Sheila’s words, “I know you want it, but you’re never gonna get it”. What started in the ‘50s as dance videos in the middle of the movie, where an outside girl steals the spotlight by dancing solo for a male audience, has grown into a full-fledged profession. The ‘item girl’ is the opposite of the female heroine; she entertains men in bars while the heroine would never step into one, she dresses skimpily while the heroine dresses ‘sanskari’, she belongs to nobody while the heroine belongs to the hero. She looks straight into the camera, pitying the men who throng behind her, for she is not theirs.Neither is she ours, or the hero’s. She belongs to herself, dances to entertain. And the ‘musical number’ is upbeat, made for dance, wild enough for all inhibitions to break free.
To fully understand the role of the ‘item girl’ or ‘dancer’ in Bollywood, it is imperative that we start with her birth. She was a beautiful Anglo-Indian young girl named Cuckoo Moray, who had the charisma and brought cabaret dancing to Bollywood in the 40s. Cuckoo provided relief in drama-heavy films, breaking the monotony of the stereotypical bahu in the ghoonghat. She was feisty, bold, sexy, and one hell of a dancer, unafraid of men attached to their cigarettes and whiskey. She’d show up for one song only, dance for a room filled with men, her ‘patli kamar’ venerated by them, and then disappear for the rest of the film.
Patli Kamar from Barsaat, 1949
Ek Do Teen from Awaara (1951)
Cuckoo brought the dynamic Helen into Bollywood, and she reigned the item number from the ‘50s, for nearly four decades. First performing duets with Cuckoo, Helen’s Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu from Howrah Bridge (1958) is what propelled her to stardom. Her expressions were as lively as her dance, and her vivacious characters quickly became fan-favourites.
Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu from Howrah Bridge, 1958
With Helen came a fresh batch of talented dancer-actresses, and Vyjayanthimala was one of them. She stepped away from earlier western dance styles, and brought a classical edge to the female-centric dances, earning the nickname “twinkle toes”. The sixties are marked by coloured films, storylines pushing boundaries, and female characters who were as graceful AF. Though Vyjayanthimala’s dance numbers predate the concept of the ‘item number,’ she is powerful and confident in herself, as you can see through her graceful moves:
Main Kaa Karoon Ram from Sangam, 1964
Vyajayanthimala’s Dance Face-Off from Amrapali, 1966
The seventies came crashing in with films like “Sholay” and “Deewar”. It’s funny; even among all these male-centric films, the one thing we remember is Helen’s killer dance to Mehbooba and Yeh Mera Dil. Her seductive expressions were mesmerising, and the way she made belly dancing a classy affair conversely made her THE item girl to look up to. Everybody wanted to dance like Helen, to be as elegant and sexy as she so effortlessly was.
Mehbooba from Sholay, 1978
Raqqasa Mera Naam from The Great Gambler, 1979
The two reigning queens of the ‘80s—Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit—also rocked dance songs. By the 80s, the line between the heroine and the villain began blurring, with female leads dancing boldly and fearlessly. Madhuri Dixit, well, she needs no words. She stole the spotlight with Ek Do Teen, which firmly placed her feet as the Dancing Queen of Bollywood. Item numbers or classical dances, she did both with incredible skill and ease.
Ek Do Teen from Tezaab, 1988
The nineties, interestingly, made the folk tradition popular again, and Madhuri Dixit and Malaika Arora were at the forefront. Of course, the song still had to be sexy, so the ‘item girls’ wore folk apparel, with the Ghaghara choli, bangles, ghoonghat, whatnot. The music used tablas and Indian instruments again, and the dances were flirtatiously straddling the line between traditional and bold. Some of our faves from that decade are Chaiyya Chaiyya and Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?
Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai from Khalnayak, 1993
Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se, 1998
As soon as the 2000s began, outsiders like Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherawat dominated the ‘item number’. Their voluptuous figures, sensual expressions, and killer dance moves skyrocketed them to fame. Sherawat made the headlines when she revealed how much one song alone earns her (around $15 million).
Beedi from Omkara, 2006
Dekhta Hai Tu Kya from Krrazy 4, 2008
With 2010 came The Battle of the Babes: Munni v/s Sheila, Fevicol v/s Jhandu Baam, Baby Doll v/s Laila. ‘item numbers’ officially became mainstream, and everyone from Katrina to Malaika, Priyanka to Deepika, Sunny Leone to Nora Fatehi have been featured in them. Not just that—the entire game rose three levels higher. Item songs have upped their game; the dancers perform more acrobatics than sweet, sultry moves. We watch item songs now for Katrina’s abs, Nora’s INSANE dancing, and Priyanka’s seamless sensuality. These girls got game!
Ram Chahe Leela from Ram-Leela, 2013
O Saki Saki from Batla House, 2019
Rethinking the Item Number
With time, the ‘dancing girl’ has gained popularity for many reasons. Men want her, women want her, kids want to dance like her, and every singer wants to sing her songs. As the Indian film industry progressed, the ‘item girl’ grew a personality; a role to play in movies. Sure, she’d dance for the dons and the dacoits, drunks and horny men, but she was there to distract them, to use her seductive skills for the greater good of the plot. Female sexuality started gaining credibility—that too through item numbers!
What’s incredible is how the ‘item girl’ took all the objectification that came her way, only to subvert the very idea itself and gain agency over her own sexuality. The men around are drooling over her, and she laughs at their futile methods of getting to her. She isn’t really dancing for the hero, or the villain, but for the camera. She belongs to everyone, yet not any one in particular. She is everyone’s dream, everyone’s desire, and therefore can become nobody’s reality. She is the ‘item girl’ and she can do it all—sing, dance, crazy gymnastics, seduce everybody—before walking away by herself.
Now having crossed over to an entirely new decade—2020—the ‘item song’ is at a higher standard. With Garmi releasing in January of this year, Nora Fatehi established that you need to create steps that nobody else has done, and that nobody else can do; you need to be sexy and one hell of a dancer, you need to combine Indian moves with contemporary styles to be a star. Which is what these girls are, today.
Item Songs Off Screen
You’re at a party, everyone’s had a bit of Old Monk, and you find yourself yelling at the DJ to play Kajra Re. You begin your mujra because in your head you feel like Aishwarya Rai, while in reality you look more like an awkward Abhishek Bachchan. The scene is familiar, isn’t it? Perhaps because it happens every time you and your friends get together Saturday night, or at some Bollywood Night at some random club. The ‘item songs’ are a big hit. The dance steps are fun to imitate, the lyrics are raunchy and hilarious, and the music is loud and banging. Item songs aren’t just played in cinema halls and clubs. They are constantly echoing off the walls of dance bars—the very spaces that inspired the songs in Bollywood movies. The dimly lit, intoxicating “item number” scenes from Bollywood films are spaces where inhibitions are set free and fantasies are obliged.
And the dancing girl? Well, tere haath kabhi na aani.
Special Mention: The Male Item Numbers
Bollywood has definitely evolved, with the men ripping their shirts off to reveal rock-hard abs, and dance moves that are to die for. Some popular tracks include the King Khan’s Dard-e-Disco (2007), and the very hot, very talented Desi BoyZ.
Dard e Disco from Om Shanti Om, 2007
Make Some Noise for the Desi Boyz from Desi Boyz, 2011