Laila,Chikni Chameli,Munni,Sheila,Jalebi Bai item songs dominate our national consciousness. But have they taken away from the art of cinema and depiction of women? Two filmmakers debate.
When we say Bollywood makes arbitrary films and that,in the decades gone by,it has made a certain kind of cinema,its because this was the time when music companies came into being. There was a lot of money at filmmakers disposal so they started including songs.That was done purely for commercial reasons and became the structure of Bollywood.
So today,the item song is only because we are no longer in the film industry,but in the entertainment industry,which includes events,endorsements,TV and award shows,among others. Now why does an actress do an item song? She may theorise it and talk academically about it. But the truth is,she gets paid less in films but more for item songs. Farah Khan famously told Chitrangda Singh during Joker,that since youve done an item number and not Sudhir Mishras dialogue films,you can get shows.
So it is the commercialisation that affects the structure of films. Since the reason is not organic,the popular cinema at times is ridiculous and in reaction to it,another one based on entertainment comes into being. And there is an audience for this too.
But there is a negative aspect to item songs. Although having it in films does not mean they promote rape or humiliation,but they do corroborate that view. It validates a value system. Filmmakers cannot escape from the fact that such item songs corroborate negative,sometimes dangerous,point of views of people,especially in urban India. It corroborates a patriarchal point of view.
Its not fair to blame items songs for objectifying women. If you look around at forms of popular media such as billboards,hoardings,and TV and print commercials,you have women selling stuff in a suggestive manner. I detest the term item song and believe that they are a soft target because of popular perception. We should not look at things in isolation. The perspective that is lacking is that if these songs were not relevant in films,producers and directors would not create them. For instance,in my film, Shootout at Wadala, actor Sunny Leone depicts a character in the song, Laila, a nautch girl from south Mumbai. If I dont portray her that way,how do I justify her presence in my film?
Now just because the lyrics say Laila teri le legi,people are protesting the raunchiness of it. They dont see the song in the context of the film. On the other hand,they dont seem to complain about Babli Badmaash by Priyanka Chopra,which has no raunchiness. I was one of the people who created these kind of songs and my depiction has been clean and fun,with no intention of titillating. If that was my motive,I would have taken the liberty to include more love-making scenes. Some songs are done with the aim of spicing up a film,where the female actor in the song has no role in the film. But how you can label Sheila Ki Jawaani as an item number since it was picturised on the heroine. Calling a song an item number is in itself derogatory.
(The debate has been conducted by Debesh Banerjee)