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The "Item" in Bollywood Dance Numbers



Recently, my friend and I happened to have a conversation on the trend of 'item numbers' in films, especially in the Bollywood context. Very casually, she remarked "why do we call these songs as item numbers?" This statement had quite a jolting effect on me. I hadn't paid much attention to the inclusion of the phrase "item" in these songs before. As per our understanding and what this term actually refers to in film slang, item is used to symbolise a sexy woman


Be it "Munni Badnaam Hui" or "Sheila ki Jawaani", majority of us have danced to these beats at some point in our lives. Yet, the one thing that both these songs have in common, besides keeping the audiences hooked is the presence of a woman mostly grooving to the songs with seductive dance moves, dressed in minimal clothing amongst a crowd of lusty men. The question that arises is that are these songs important to the plot of the film or are they just present to attract a larger audience, particularly males in this case and if it is the latter, do they then instead serve a larger purpose of objectifying women?


There is no doubt in the fact that the past decade has witnessed tremendous growth in the presence of item numbers in films so much so that they have become a norm. Yet, if observed, more often than not, these songs have no connection to the plot of the film at all. They are often placed when the hero is out on a quest and lands somewhere near the evil side or even just to please the villain sometimes. It is only rarely that they are vital to the plot for example, in "Khalnayank", Madhuri dances to 'Choli ke Peeche' to attract the villain. This idea makes sense but then again the question that arises here is that is it necessary to present this song in a manner that objectifies the woman, presents her as the ideal of the male gaze? Even if it is connected to the plot somehow, can the presentation be not something else, less derogatory to women? Clearly, item numbers here are a conscious choice to attract people and market the film well at the expense of massive objectification of women.


Item numbers are quite derogatory to women from the likes of it. It presents a woman succumbing to the male fantasy of how a female should look like and behave. For the most part, the dancer is seen grooving around to the pleasure of her male audience and tolerating their noises and whistles. Majorly, the "item girl" is seen as flattered by the attention the males award her and continues her performance, if not more vigourously. The entire problem lies here with reducing the item girl and largely women to a stereotypical representation of sex objects, where the woman is viewed completely in sexual terms and nothing else. It is her body that captivates the attention of a plethora of men and despite their hurling noises and insults, the dancer is made to be seen as enjoying them and welcoming them. This clearly erodes the idea of respect for the woman, for who she is as a person, as another gender, not merely an object subjected to male desires.


Even if item numbers are believed to add significant value to the momentum of the film, why is it that an overarching majority of women perform in them? Why not men? This certainly does not imply that men have not performed in a similar category of songs. Shahrukh Khan's "Dard-e-Disco" in "Om Shanti Om" is often cited as a male item number version yet why is it that even the word "item" symbolically translates to that of a sexy woman and not just any other gender? If it moves the plot and must be added, why does it follow the seductive pattern as it does now? Maybe it's just a commercial element then added to attract audiences , built on objectification of women.


Item numbers have been quite the norm in Bollywood for sometime now, yet an important question that must be asked is that whether they benefit the plot of the film or act as a bait for the audiences, objectifying women.



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14 Comments


Thank you for bringing this up! I think its really important to critically analyse the content we're consuming, and as someone that has always been obsessed with Bollywood (my anthem as a 12 year old was 'sheila ki jawaani', don't ask me why) but now whenever I watch Bollywood content, of any sort, I'm so tempted to analyse and critique the work, only because I hope that certain content remains off the market. One thing that I'm hoping that Bollywood gives up soon is the inclusion of item numbers in every movie, regardless of how awful it is. May God break Bollywood from the shackles of these terribly choreographed item numbers.

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Rania Bakhtiari
Rania Bakhtiari
Jun 22, 2023

This post was extremely insightful and instantly reminded me of the song "Tuitty Fruity hun me" from a Pakistani film, Karachi Se Lahore. That song shows Ayesha Omar to be doing an item number to serve as a distraction for her friend to escape, along with showing more than 20-30 men dancing and cheering her. Such songs present women as objects to satisfy the male gaze and also disrespect women.

The portrayal of women in item numbers through sexualized dressing and focusing the camera on their chest and waist reduce women to sexualized objects. A question regarding item numbers often comes to my mind, what is the purpose and intent of such content? If their inclusion is only to gain…

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This reminded me of the song "tu cheez bari hai mast" and made me realize how many times women are objectified in these item songs. So many people of different age groups hear these songs. By presenting women as objects of the male fantasy, item numbers reinforce the notion that a woman's worth lies primarily in her physical appearance and ability to cater to male desires. The dancers are often depicted as tolerating and even enjoying attention and objectification, perpetuating the harmful idea that women should seek validation through the male gaze. Questioning the purpose and impact of such songs in Bollywood films is essential. While they may be seen as commercial elements aimed at attracting audiences, it is crucial…

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Interesting read! so I have always viewed item number songs as being added to fit the male gaze. I did not know what it stood for. I think some item numbers sort of empower women but sometimes the society is so lusty that they just ignore empowerment and they just ignore the countless hours women must have spent practicing and mastering major stunts and focus on their body and the sexual lyrics of the song instead. This objectifies women and can limit their role to such songs. Such songs when added unnecessarily becomes a problem, the entire story of the film is then reduced to the famous item number song. This also reminded me of the song item number, where…

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Agreed!

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A very insightful analysis Sarwat, loved the post! Language wields a lot of social power and I never gave much thought to how the word item itself holds so much weight. The term essentially does refer to a commodity or an object and I think this is a direct reflection of how these songs objectify women and reduce them to mere objects of entertainment. To add onto your points about the consequences of this: I think the way that most of these songs present such problematic behaviour in an entertaining manner and their widespread popularity, can end up desensitising audiences to the seriousness of these issues.

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Thank you for your comment Alina. I agree with your insight, these songs have desensitised audiences to a great extent where often the objectification that accompanies these songs is not considered. There is no surprise then that they have become the norm tapping into almost every second film. Words themselves as you said have immense power. The word item constructs a meaning here of a woman who is just present to conform to the male fantasy. This woman is not even considered to be another individual of her own but rather an object present for male pleasure.

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