|Cultural origins||Bollywood music videos|
|Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu cinema|
|List of item numbers in Indian cinema|
An item number or an item song, in Indian cinema, is a musical performance that is often shown as a part of the movie but most of the times without any importance to the plot of the movie. The term is commonly used in connection with Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu cinema, to describe a catchy, upbeat, often sexually provocative dance sequence for a song in a movie. The main aim of an item number is to entertain and also to lend support to the marketability of the film. However, the term as understood in Bollywood parlance has entered the Kathmandu entertainment industry scenario as well. Item numbers are usually added to Indian movies to generate publicity by featuring them in the trailers. Item numbers are favoured by filmmakers for the reason that since they do not add to the plot, they afford the filmmakers with the opportunity to pick potential hit songs from the stocks. It is thus a vehicle for commercial success which ensures repeat viewing.
A female actor, singer or dancer, especially someone who is poised to become a star, who appears in an item number is known as an item girl. There are item boys as well. However, second generation South Asian females are more commonly featured in item numbers than males. Item numbers usually feature one or more persons other than the lead actors. Sometimes established female and male actors will lend a "special appearance" to an item number.
Although, the origin of the term "item number" is obscure, it is likely that it derives its meaning from objectification of women. This is because item in filmy Mumbai slang is used by Indian men to objectify women. The classic meaning of item number refers to highly sexualized songs with racy imagery and suggestive lyrics. The item number would feature an item girl who appeared in the film as a dancer, usually in a bar or nightclub, and was only in the film for the length of that song.
Up to the 1970s, Bollywood often relied on the figure of the "vamp", usually a cabaret dancer, or a tawaif (prostitute or a courtesan) or a male gangster's moll, to provide sexually explicit or demeaning musical entertainment. While the heroine too did sing and dance, it was the vamp who wore more revealing clothes, smoked, drank and sang in bold terms of sex. She was portrayed not as being wicked but as immodest, and her dance performances were sexualized by male producers. The trend was started by Cuckoo in films like Awaara (1951), Aan (1952) and Shabistan (1951).
Item numbers had been featured in Bollywood from as early as the 30s. Azoorie in the 1930s often performed item numbers; Cuckoo was the next popular item dancer in the late 40s. Her banner year was 1949 when she was featured in over 17 films performing dances. Actress and classical dancer Vyjayanthimala was the one that introduced the classical dance number in Hindi films with her debut film Bahar (1951). The mixture of classical plus contemporary was popularized by Vyjayanthimala in films such as Devdas (1955), Amrapali (1966), Madhumati (1958), Sadhna (1958), Sunghursh (1968) etc.
In the early 50s, Cuckoo introduced the Burmese-Anglo Helen as a chorus girl. In time Helen would come to be the most popular vamp of the late-50s, 60s and 70s, having had performed in scores of item numbers including such popular songs as "Mera Naam Chin-Chin Choo" from the film Howrah Bridge (1958), "Piya Tu Ab To Aaja" from Caravan (1971), "Mehbooba Mehbooba" from Sholay (1975) and "Yeh Mera Dil" from Don (1978)The song's tune was also used in Don't Phunk With My Heart, "O Haseena Zulfon Wali" from Teesri Manzil and "Aa Jaane Jaan". In films like Gunga Jumna and Zindagi the actor performed semi-classical Indian dances in songs like "Tora man bada paapi" and "Ghungarwa mora chham chham baaje". A desi bar number, "Mungra Mungra" from Inkaar was also immensely popular. In addition to her skillful dancing, her anglicised looks too helped further the vamp image. Helen's dominance pushed other vying item number dancers like Madhumati, Bela Bose, Laxmi Chhaya, Jeevankala, Aruna, Sheela R. and Sujata Bakshi into the background and less prestigious and low budget b-movies.
In the early part of the 1970s actresses Jayshree T., Bindu, Aruna Irani and Padma Khanna entered into what was Helen's monopoly. Another noted feature of this era was the "tribal and banjara" item numbers such as the one in the Dharmendra, Zeenat Aman and Rex Harrison starer Shalimar. Such songs provided the necessary settings for the lead couple's love to bloom.
Around the 1980s the vamp and the heroine merged into one figure and the lead actress had begun to perform the bolder numbers. The craze for "tribal and banjara" item numbers were soon gave way to slick choreography. In the late 1990s, with the proliferation of film songs based television shows, film producers had come to realise that an exceptional way to entice audiences into theaters was by spending excessively on the visualization of songs. Hence regardless of the theme and plot, an elaborate song and dance routine involving spectacularly lavish sets, costumes, special effects, extras and dancers would invariably be featured in a film. It was asserted that this contributed highly to the film's "repeat value".
Madhuri Dixit is often considered to be the pioneer of the modern trend. In the late 1980s, the song "Ek Do Teen" was added to the movie Tezaab as an afterthought, but it transformed Dixit and made her a superstar. Her partnership with choreographer Saroj Khan has resulted in numerous hits including the controversial "Choli ke peeche kya hai" and "Dhak Dhak" (Beta). Soon after the release of the film Khalnayak, there were press reports stating that people were seeing the film again and again but only for the song "Choli ke peeche kya hai" that featured Dixit.
Although there have been many songs that fit the descriptions of item numbers in the early and mid-1990s, the term itself was coined when Shilpa Shetty danced for "Main Aai Hoon UP Bihar Lootne" in the movie Shool. This is perhaps the first time the media actually referred to Shetty as an "item girl" and the scene as an "item number".
Many top stars in Bollywood now do item numbers, and many new women entering Bollywood find item numbers a more amenable shortcut to success, as opposed to more traditional roles with no guarantee of eventual stardom. Former item girls in pop songs outside films, Rakhi Sawant and Meghna Naidu, for example, are now in demand and very popular. Today, they are even being given lead roles in commercially successful movies.[when?] As of 2007, Mallika Sherawat has become the most expensive Item Girl, as she charged Rs.15 million (roughly US$375,000) for the song "Mehbooba Mehbooba" in Aap Ka Suroor - The Real Love Story. Another example is actress Urmila Matondkar, one of the most successful item girls today.[original research?] She was featured in "Chamma Chamma" in the 1998 film China Gate. Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film musical, Moulin Rouge! used a westernized version of this song.
Malaika Arora and Yana Gupta are "official" item number dancers and have said in interviews that they don't want to act in movies since they already earn more than enough money just by doing one item number as opposed to full-on roles.
Abhishek Bachchan became the first "item boy" with his performance in Rakht; Shahrukh Khan performed an item number of sorts during the opening credits of Kaal but later had an item number in a truer sense of the word with "Dard-e-Disco" in Om Shanti Om, where he was shot in a more typical "item girl" manner, with Shakruth wearing minimal clothing (though this number did have a connection, albeit tenuous, with the plot of the film). In Krazzy 4, Hrithik Roshan has an item number during the end credits. Ranbir Kapoor made his debut in an item number in Chillar Party (2011); drawing inspiration from Rishi Kapoor's Qawwali song "Parda" from Amar Akbar Anthony.
In the 2007 Telugu film Desamuduru, the song "Attaantode Ittaantode" featuring Allu Arjun and Rambha became a chartbuster. In the 2007 film Om Shanti Om, the song "Deewangi Deewangi" had guest appearances by over 30 Bollywood stars. In 2008, the makers of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi featured Kajol, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta, Priety Zinta, and Rani Mukerji playing as five leading ladies opposite Shahrukh Khan on the song "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte".
In 2010, Katrina Kaif featured in "Sheila Ki Jawani" from Tees Maar Khan, and Malaika Arora featured in "Munni Badnaam Hui" from Dabangg. Parallels were drawn between Katrina and Malaika, as well as between the item numbers, in what was popularly known as the "Munni vs Sheila" debate. The songs became so popular, that, soon, more films began incorporating item numbers, and with more top stars now wanting to do them.
In 2012, Katrina Kaif again featured in an item number "Chikni Chameli" sung by Shreya Ghoshal which became a huge hit. In 2013, Deepika Padukone had some success item dancing, performing songs like "Party On My Mind" and "Dilliwaali Girlfriend". Priyanka Chopra did many songs such as "Babli Badamash", "Pinky", and an appearance in Ranveer Singh's film Ram Leela song "Ram Chahe Leela", of which became a blockbuster upon release. Mahi Gill, Sonakshi Sinha, Hina Khan, and Jacqueline Fernandez made their debut with "Don't Touch My Body", "Thank God It's Friday", "Roshni Jawani" and "Jadu Ki Jappi" respectively.
Sunny Leone performed her first item dance with "Shootout At Wadala" from the 2013 movie "Laila", followed up with Baby Doll from Ragini MMS 2. Varun Dhawan made his debut with Palat Tera Hero Idhar Hai from the movie Main Tera Hero.
Criticism and controversies
Item numbers have been criticized for their gratuitous objectification of women. Item numbers have also been imitated in Mumbai's bar dancers. In respect of the ban on bar dancers in Mumbai, it has even been argued[weasel words] that the morality of bar dancer's imitation of item numbers cannot be questioned without questioning the morality of screening of item numbers in a film in public theatres. It has also been argued[weasel words] that the two are equally amoral as both objectify women for commercial gain, with likely negative effects on the male population. 
In 1993, the Bollywood action thriller Khalnayak was instantly controversial for its item numbers and risqué song lyrics. While the lyrics of "Choli Ke Peechhe?" ("What's behind the blouse?") were considered vulgar by some, others defended the song on the ground that it was based on folk traditions. The song eventually set off protests all over the country and a potential ban on the song was debated in the Indian Parliament. The anger and commotion, however, only helped the song and the film become more popular, as many came to the movie to curiously see Madhuri Dixit perform the song.
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