Every other film now comes armed with an item girl. Get ready for more of the shimmy-shake.
In Bollywood, where words gather meaning and momentum of their own, an item is not any one thing. It’s everything rolled into one. See, see, there’s Mallika Sherawat proving the adage all over again, in a film that releases soon, fittingly called Thank You. Ms S is wearing bits of nothing. She’s got the hero boogying to her left and rows of extras to her right. She’s at the centre. All hail, The Item Girl. Time was when items were rendered by girls who were strictly at the periphery of the film bazaar. The naach (or ‘nautch’) would happen because the narrative demanded it, in which the hero would be at safe distance from the temptress emotionally, even if she was draping herself all over him. He would remain unmoved, though to stay stoic in the face of, say, the sublimely jiggly Helen, must have been an act of supreme sacrifice. There was Cuckoo just before her, who also danced beautifully, but it was Helen who became the Once and Forever Item Girl much before the term was invented. It didn’t have to be a cabaret (Oh, the frisson that word induced, sadly lost now). It could be a classical mujra (another word that conjured up visions of available women underneath the ghoonghat), which served the purpose just as well.
Saaqiya, aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi, suna hai teri mehfil mein rat-jagaa hai. This evergreen song-and-dance from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, created in the days when Hindi cinema understood the art of mixing lyricism and sensuality, is a classic old-style item number. All the key words that connote longing, lust, and illicit passion are in here. These were not feelings a heroine could safely express without being stoned. They needed an item girl.
Now though, all leading ladies are Item Girls. It’s a job requirement even of the A-lister who has walked past the demands a newbie has to accede to to get where she has: major amounts of skin show, being pummelled by the hero and assorted others, and ‘the travails she may have had to undergo’ in the very murky world of casting and couches. The heroine is now a dab hand at shaking it, shaking it, shaking it, especially if it will give her, and the producer, the oodles of money a hit item number can fetch. Bottomline, ha ha, it sells the film. Both Munni’s pert posterior, and Sheila’s wiggly butt delivered huge advance buzz to Dabangg and Tees Maar Khan. But Dabangg did well, and Tees Maar Khan did not. Ponder the point. Was one bottom superior to another? No, clearly not. Both the lovelies, Malaika Arora Khan and Katrina Kaif, have their adherents, and both are skilled practitioners of booty-jiggling. It wasn’t them. It was the films they were in. One was a smart film that catered to the masses in a way Bollywood had forgotten; the other was a pastiche that purported to target those self-same masses without the art or the craft. If Katrina’s sizzling number had been situated safely in the second half (the way old Hindi movie warhorses knew how), the audiences would have stayed back for the film. But no, Sheila’s jawani was on resplendent display almost as soon as the film opened: they came, they saw, and they left.
It just proves another old adage. No matter how scintillating an item number is, if the film is a dud, it will not run. The film that got Malaika the top spot in the Item Girl totem pole was Dil Se… . Despite its flaws, it’s one of my favourite Mani Ratnam films. But the audiences voted with their feet. Chhaiyan Chhaiyan still plays in a loop in collective memory; the film has largely been forgotten. Sometimes even the spunkiest Item Girls are forgotten: where is Yana Gupta, responsible for Babuji zara dheere chalo? Or for that matter, Eesha Koppikhar, who tried that old trick of changing the way her name was spelt after she went nowhere, post-Khallas. She’s dropped off the radar, almost completely.
After Mallika Sherawat in Thank You, there will be Deepika Padukone in Dum Maaro Dum. We are in, let me warn you, for a glut, now that every other film comes armed with an item girl, all set to dare and bare a little more. I am proposing a switch, to the Item Boy. Just to give us a break. A beginning has been made by a couple of top male stars: Shah Rukh has gyrated in a couple of films. Hrithik, too. Come on boys, have at ’em.