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Main Item Girl Hoon: The Commodification Of Chikni Chameli

Chikni Chameli
Chikni Chameli

There was a time when only the bad girl sang the bad song. Padma Khanna in Johnny Mera Naam (1971) could go heaving into ​that extra mile with Husn ke laakhon rang kaun sa rang dekhoge/ Aag hai yeh badan kaun sa ang dekhoge. It was the first acknowledged orgasmic number of Hindi cinema where post-pubescent youngsters got a free hand at eroticism.

The male gaze has been falling on women on the streets of Indian cities and villages ever since Adam spotted Eve in a crowded village mela, as she cavorted sexily with her sahelis in a skimpy ghagra-choli. The objectification of the female form began with the vamp’s voluptuous frame in the 1970s. The story of the male gaze in Hindi cinema, however, has gone horribly wrong in recent times. The gyrations of the average Hindi film heroine now threaten to shake up Parliament. One hears that the Censor Board Of Film Certification (CBFC) plans radical changes in the way women are perceived, especially in item songs.

Shabana Azmi, who has long since been vocal about the way in which women are portrayed in cinema, feels radical changes are needed in the portrayal of the female form in item songs. Says the activist-actress, “Today’s so-called ‘item numbers’ are downright crass. I am not talking about moral policing here. Cinema is about images. Fragmented images of a woman’s heaving bosom, swivelling navel and swinging hips rob her of all autonomy and make her an object of male lust. Voyeuristic camera angles and vulgar lyrics do not celebrate a woman’s sensuality, they demean her. When women are commodified and objectified in films and advertisements, they do not get empowered; they debase themselves and counter the work that the women’s movement has been doing over the decades in creating positive images of women. It’s time our heroines exercised some discretion in choices that they make in their desire for the hit item-number.” However, Shabana warns against tarnishing all specially constructed song-‘n’-dance numbers, with the same brush. “There are item numbers and item numbers and we must learn to differentiate between them. We can’t make sweeping generalisations that all item numbers are bad. Celebrating a woman’s sexuality in a robust way such as Beedi jalaye le jigar se piya (rooted in our folk tradition) in the film Omkara is liberating and has the woman in control.”

Actress-filmmaker Soni Razdan feels our films definitely play a part in the commodification of women in our society. “Women as objects of desire have been around for decades from Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe to Meena Kumari to Rekha. The celebration of sexuality is a natural impulse. To ban or suppress it would have even more damaging consequences. What is required is a more liberal attitude, better sex education, and less secrecy around the topic of sex. Sex is an essential part of life. The less hypocrisy surrounding this the more open and mature our society will eventually become.”

Ila Bedi, granddaughter of the legendary litterateur Rajinder Singh Bedi and daughter of the prolific 1970s’ director Narender Bedi (of Rafoo Chakkar and Jawani Diwani fame) feels item songs are a definite provocation. “Chikni chameli, Sheila kijawani and Ooh la la are aimed at providing cheap thrills. Gone are the days when heroines were described as chaudhvi ka chand and shabnam ka katra. They call themselves tandoori chicken, fish fry and other edibles, so why should men respect them? With their raunchy pelvic thrusts, item songs definitely commodify women.”

Internationally renowned actress Tannishtha Chatterjee feels that the crisis of feminine commodification has gone from bad to worse in recent years. “Bollywood doesn’t treat women with dignity. Having said that, I insist no moral policing should happen. But we as artistes should not carry on with the heaving and thrusting as things that audiences want.”

Filmmaker Reema Kagti who portrayed Rani Mukherjee and Kareena Kapoor as strong assertive women in Talaash, admits our films commodify women. “Songs definitely do their fair share of that, but to me, the overall misrepresentation of women in our films is a bigger problem. Writers and directors need to get more sensitive. They need to understand women better before portraying them.”
Tanuja Chandra, whose film Dushman starring Kajol deals with rape, feels cinema must take the blame for the way the country looks at women. “Art cannot really change society, but it plays a role in forming opinions, attitudes and perceptions. Even if films are just a reflection of society, they must question the prevalent perceptions in society. Entertainment can’t function in a vacuum.”

However, lyricist Prasoon Joshi feels it’s simplistic to blame Hindi films and songs for women in society being treated as sex objects. “I wouldn’t blame film songs. Yes, there are some songs and scenes where restraint could have been exercised. It all depends on the intention of the director and the choreographer. If the intent of the filmmaker/writer isn’t titillation but a certain portrayal of the character’s motivation, then it cannot be considered wrong.”

Added Divya Dutta, “I basically blame repressed societal mindsets for looking at women in a particular way. The lyrics in popular item numbers are a big turn-on. Ideally, they could be toned down to bring down the suggestive element. But even if item songs are titillating, we must not forget they are sheer entertainment and they should be treated as such. I certainly don’t think our item songs provoke people to commit ghastly crimes against women.”

However, Kabir Bedi feels women’s sex appeal has always been a staple diet for films, fashion, television and advertising. “Why point fingers now?” he asks, adding that men too are commodified. “Handsome hunks are taking off their shirts all the time. Bollywood has its own style of entertainment. It needs to do some rethinking on the question of molestation, or else in this climate of censure the CBFC may soon demand disclaimers saying, ‘Everything You See Is Entertainment. Do Not Imitate In Real Life.’”

Kabir’s daughter Pooja Bedi agrees. “Men are commodified as much as women. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either sex or being sexy and desirable! When a woman is in charge of her sexuality, it is a sign of a woman’s strength, not her weakness. However the message to all men is, look but don’t touch.” She believes the commodification of women goes way beyond cinema. “It starts with the education and upbringing of a male child in his home where he’s taught how to treat women. He watches how his mother and sister are treated. Don’t blame films. They are mere entertainment. And the men are flaunting their bodies more than women do in our films.”

Filmmaker and industry spokesperson Ashok Pandit objects to the word commodification. “Let’s stop using that word. If a heroine exposes her body, so does the hero in this era of six-packs. Film stars are in the business of physical beauty and entertainment. We showcase it. We don’t sell it. If a working woman wears makeup to office it doesn’t mean she is commodifying herself for the men at her workplace. The same goes for actresses. They have to look good. Whether an actor or an actress, it is the era of commodification, if that’s what you want to call it,” he says. Tamil actress Khushboo who has been in the eye of moralistic storms several times says cinema shouldn’t be blamed for the objectification of women. “We need some medium to pass on our failures and shortcomings. Why blame cinema? It is a medium of entertainment. Even smoking causes cancer. How many have stopped smoking because of the health hazard?”

Yet, it cannot be denied that some radical changes would have to be implemented in our cinema’s approach to and perception of woman. As Naseeruddin Shah states bluntly, “I’m afraid our population has become desensitized to rape because of cinema. In our movies it is an act that is either foiled or avenged by the hero. So I don’t think people have a realistic view of this ghastly crime.”

Sharmila Tagore feels ‘sexy song sequences are not the only problem. “Many sexist dialogues are delivered by men in our films. Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade is in my opinion a highly sexist film and no one spoke about that. Most certainly, we must criticize sexism. But we must look at in wider context and not just in the sexy song sequences.Women can be commodified even in a wedding sequence. And why single out women? Even men are being commodified.And women are commodified in endorsements and advertisements even when they are clothed from head to toe. In the ads we see men selling selling motorcycles and cars while sari-clad women sell washing machines and aqua guards. I think we need to judge commodification in the given context. The problem is of individual contexts.A woman is free to say yes or no to the way she’s projected.But we don’t know what the compulsions are for what girls do on screen. Sometimes they’re too young and naïve to know where the camera is placed and how they’re captured.”

Astutely Sharmila reminds us that we have a tradition of raunchy songs . “Those ched-chad numbers are an integral part of Indian weddings where women sing naughty lines. In Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parineeta there was one such song.And it was fun. There was nothing vulgar about it.In Vicky Donor the idea of an Aryan baby-boy through artificial insemination is enforced.Isn’t that very sexist? So why pick at item numbers for special censure?Item numbers are part of  a larger picture.We must focus on the entire issue rather than just one part of it.Every item song is not vulgar.A conclusive consensus on what is obscene and what is to not, is not possible.The women are not volunteering to do these songs. They are an indication of the patriarchal construction.If an actress says yes to an item song she doesn’t become unworthy of respect.I think we have to forget this ‘man can do anything and women cannot’ mindset.

Sharmilaji feels it’s wrong to focus on women alone for being objectified.  “If a woman enjoys doing a certain thing on screen it’s her prerogative. You don’t have to go and see her. Why be judgemental about it?Men do a lot of vulgar dances. I recall some of Govinda’s dance movements. But they were not condemned at all. But if a woman does it she is looked down upon.This is double standards.In Subhash Ghai’s Khalnaayak when Madhuri and Neena Gupta danced to Choli ke peeche they were censured. But later in the film when Sanjay Dutt and his friends are mimicking the dance movements nobody raised an eyebrow. Sanjay Dutt even put a knife on Madhuri Dixit’s throat and said, ‘Tujhe cheer ke rakh doonga’. In my opinion  that was deeply sexist.In Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara no one seemed to have a problem with Saif  using expletives. But when Konkona Sen-Sharma used the same words, people were shocked.Why do we expect women’s morals to be on higher plane than the men? Women have to wear overcoats and protect themselves from the male gaze while men can wear whatever they like. These moral values do not resonate with today’s times. I am not exonerating sexism , or the the songs of Yo Yo Honey Singh.All I am saying is, we need to revisit these values applied to men and women and not just pass on  judgement  an  adhoc basis.For example Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused had an explicit rape scene. But the film was not sexist. If  a woman is enjoying herself and her space on screen there is nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being an object of desire.You don’t have to live up to certain moral standards to get your right to security. To say prostitutes are not worthy of respect and can be raped is outrageous. That mindset has to be changed.Every individual has equal right to selfprojection.We must not blame media images for the way women are treated in society. There are deep socio-economic factors that are causing violence against women.We have to look not at the images but at society itself.Actually ,sexism cannot be related to sex-related crimes.”

​Shamilaji adds, “Women can be commodified even in a wedding sequence. And why single out women? Even men are being commodified.And women are commodified in endorsements and advertisements even when they are clothed from head to toe. In the ads we see men selling selling motorcyles and cars while sari-clad women sell washing machines and aqua guards. Isn’t that sexist?I think we need to judge commodification in the given context. The problem is of individual contexts.A woman is free to say yes or no to the way she’s projected.But we don’t know what the compulsions are for what girls do on screen. Sometimes they’re too young and naïve to know where the camera is placed and how they’re captured. These so-called offensive songs are in the public domain and are played openly and unabashedly  in weddings and other celebrations.Women are seen dancing to these songs. Then when the same songs are released on film then they become a problem …I think the same logistics should be applied both on and off screen.The women need not be the provocateur.

​ ​Look, we have a tradition of naughty songs.Those ched-chad numbers are an integral part of Indian weddings where women sing naughty lines. In Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parineeta there was one such song.And it was fun. There was nothing vulgar about it.In Vicky Donor the idea of an Aryan baby-boy through artificial insemination is enforced.Isn’t that very sexist? So why pick at item numbers for special censure?Item numbers are part of  a larger picture.We must focus on the entire issue rather than just one part of it.Every item song is not vulgar.A conclusive consensus on what is obscene and what is to not, is not possible.The women are not volunteering to do these songs. They are an indication of the patriarchal construction.If an actress says yes to an item song she doesn’t become unworthy of respect.I think we have to forget this ‘man can do anything and women cannot’ mindset.If a woman enjoys doing a certain thing on screen it’s her prerogative. You don’t have to go and see her. Why be judgmental about it?Men do a lot of vulgar dances. I recall some of Govinda’s dance movements. But they were not condemned at all. But if a woman does it she is looked down upon.This is double standards.You don’t have to live up to certain moral standards to get your right to security. To say prostitutes are not worthy of respect and can be raped is outrageous. That mindset has to be changed.Every individual has equal right to selfprojection.We must not blame media images for the way women are treated in society. There are deep socio-economic factors that are causing violence against women.We have to look not at the images but at society itself.Actually ,sexism cannot be related to sex-related crimes.I think the item song has been blown out of all proportions.It’s being unnecessarily hyped. Even if there’s nudity in a film and if it is essential to the theme, as it was in Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen then it’s permissible.Likewise if  the item songs are part of  a story then it’s okay. But I agree they’re just there for titillation most of the time.And that’s dangerous.We’ve been given the power in our hands to mould thoughts and influence mindsets. We shouldn’t become like monkeys with razorblades in our hands.

​”​​Amitabh  Bachchan  feels  we  must stop blaming the item song for sex crimes  in  society. “​

 If   as you say ,item songs incite and encourage hooliganism, eve teasing and rape, then we must all know that such horrific acts shall also incite sentences behind bars for years and at times for life. Which film has not depicted that ? You know and I know, that in reality and in life and everyday existence, not always has the process succeeded, or been exercised in its entirety !! But in cinema it does !!Sensuality does not only hibernate in ‘ film item numbers ‘  … Nature, climate, music, flowers, the classics in poetry and writing have the power to be sensuous too .. How will that be prevented or cured – if such a cure is being sought !!??I find the very act of social analysis, sensuous. Dare anyone stop me from feeling so !!Society, social and moral norms were and are made by humans. They did not fall from the skies. They went through centuries of change and are undergoing change as we talk and I pray that they do for our betterment !

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