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THE CABARET EFFECT

POLITICAL, REBELLIOUS OR TITILLATING?

WORD-COUNT: 5473

Introduction


Around half the number of songs in mainstream Indian films are complemented, supported, enhanced and enriched with a dance performance, either as a solo number, or a duet, or with a main performer backed by a chorus. These dances are extremely varied in their manifestation, choreography, picturisation, style and presentation depending on the function and positioning they have within the narrative space of a given film. The dances range for simple to elaborate choreography with one or two cabaret or what is now termed ‘item’ numbers usually introduced as distinct unto itself and unrelated to the story of the film or its characters. These cabaret and item numbers are introduced as a vital element of visual pleasure cinema gives. If the music and the song are equally good, then the audiovisual value of the dance could become a point of attraction for drawing the audience to the film even if the rest of the film is not an enjoyable experience.
The entry of a cabaret item in Indian films can perhaps be traced back to rigid rules of censorship in the country that prohibited kissing scenes and scenes of physical intimacy necessary to pull the audience. Song sequences with the hero running around trees to catch the apparently coy heroine were intercut with two kissing roses or kissing birds that were extremely watered down versions of the real thing. So, producers, financiers and filmmakers fell back on dances with sensual body language, performed in skimpy costumes, garish make-up and weird wigs to do the needful never mind if these numbers had precious little to do with the rest of the story. Of the nine rasas contained in the fundamentals of Indian aesthetics, namely, the erotic, the pathetic, the heroic, serenity, repulsion and wonderment, the cabaret obviously appealed to the subjective state of the audience with the erotic. All pure forms of Indian classical dance forms like Kathak, Bharat Natyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, Odissi and Kuchipudi are infused with sensuality within their compositions and choreography. The stories in these dances in the abhinaya part basically derived from Indian mythology such as tales of love between Radha and Krishna. But none of these dance forms, or indigenous forms like Chhau, permitted any kind of exposure of the body unless the performer was male. The styles were liberated from any kind of open titillation or coarse seductive postures. So, choreographers fell back on the Western cabaret because unlike classical dance forms that appealed to a niche, urban audience, cinema is for the masses that need a kind of escapist entertainment their normal lifestyle does not leave room for.
When a dance scene was shot in a bar selling country liquor, the choreographer made use of folk costumes to give the dance number an ethnic touch. A case in point is Helen’s famous number mungda performed in a nine-yard Maharashtrian sari wrapped tightly around her shapely body and folded between the legs with ethnic jewellery to match. The dance was a bigger hit that the film, a thriller, Raj Sippy’s Inkaar, starring Amjad Khan as a maniac killer. The same rule applies to Aruna Irani’s dilbur dilbur number in Naseer Hussain’s Caravan discussed later in this paper. Caravan was a hit what with Asha Parekh lending her own brand of indigenous dance numbers blended into classical movements. But when one recalls this film, one at once remembers the dilbar dilbar number. How and when did the cabaret become an item number? These are questions this essay will deal with.

Background


Performing item numbers dates back to the times when yesteryear cabaret queen Helen left her fans gasping with number like Mungda and Piya tu, Mehbooba and so on. The only difference being she was never termed an item girl.  Helen changed the scenario of dance in Hindi cinema from the early Fifties to the late Seventies to emerge many years later as a character actress in few chosen films. From an item number, then known as a ‘cabaret’ dancer, Helen raised the standard of sizzling dance numbers performed in nightclubs or as the golden-hearted vamp in many Hindi films. She transformed this dance into an art statement and gave it a definite and respectable identity because, despite those scintillating gyrations in skimpy costumes, Helen exuded extreme sensuality and sex appeal without appearing either vulgar or obscene. She remained the queen of the cabaret in cinema for two decades. Neither Kareena Kapoor, who duplicated her famous yeh mera dil in The Don Returns, nor Urmila Matondkar, who did ditto with the mehbooba mehbooba number in RGK’s Aag, could hold a candle to the original Helen numbers in Don and Sholay. Helen Richardson presents a picture of grace, dignity and humility.

What is the cabaret?


The item number falls at the other end of the spectrum that began with the cabaret. Back in the 15h century, such cabarets were meeting places for artists where the enterprising host allowed his premises to be used by performing balladeers and jugglers. This sharing of ideas soon began to take potshots at bourgeois conventions and ideologies. Cabaret is a form of entertainment featuring comedy, song, dance, and theatre, distinguished mainly by the performance venue — a restaurant or nightclub with a stage for performances and the audience sitting at tables (often dining or drinking) watching the performance. The venue itself can also be called a "cabaret." The turn of the 20th century introduced a revolutionized cabaret culture. Performers included Josephine Baker and Brazilian drag performer João Francisco dos Santos (aka Madame Satã). Cabaret performances could range from political satire to light entertainment, each being introduced by a master of ceremonies, or MC. Cabaret also refers to a Mediterranean-style brothel — a bar with tables and women who mingle with and entertain the clientele. Traditionally these establishments can also feature some form of stage entertainment: often singers & dancers — the bawdiness of which varies with the quality of the establishment.

History


The Cabaret however, has a history that goes much deeper than its physical manifestations appear to give. Born in 1881 on the Monmartre district of Paris, the word is derived from the French term, which means 'wine cellar' or 'tavern.' It is also said to have been derived from any restaurant that served wine and liquor and offered entertainment. It first began with the opening of Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) in Paris, a place for poets, artists and composers who shared ideas and displayed their new compositions. The most significant exponent of the cabaret was the Moulin Rouge where the maiden appearance of the can-can experimented with a blend of sex and satire. By 1880s, the cabaret in France became a modern and very popular form of entertainment. It began with a series of amateur acts linked together by a master of ceremonies. It used a lot of coarse humour directed as barbs against bourgeoisie society.

Twenty years later, Ernst von Wolzogen founded the first German cabaret, later known as Buntes Theater (colourful theatre). All forms of public criticism were banned by a censor on theatres in the German Empire, however. This was lifted at the end of the First World War, allowing the cabaret artists to deal with social themes and political developments of the time. This meant that German cabaret really began to blossom in the 1920s and 1930s, bringing forth all kinds of new cabaret artists, such as Werner Finck at the Katakombe, Karl Valentin at the Wien-München, and Claire Waldoff. Some of their texts were written by great literary figures like Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, and Klaus Mann.

It slowly became both the centre and a façade for underground political and literary movements. Patronized by writers, artistes, political revolutionaries and intellectuals, the cabarets were usually located in cellars. When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, they started to repress this intellectual criticism of the times. The cabaret evolved into an expression of rebellion against the German Nazi Party and sometimes had to face the brunt of Nazi opposition for its barbed attacks against the fascist rule. But the cabaret in Germany was hit badly. Bob Fosse's film, Cabaret (1972), based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, Goodbye to Berlin, deals with this period. In 1935 nearly all German-speaking cabaret artists fled into exile toSwitzerland, France, Scandinavia, or the USA. What remained in Germany was a state-controlled, watered-down version of the original cabaret with the chutzpah and the sizzle missing.

In the United States, the cabaret diversified into distinct styles of performance mainly traced back to the influence of Jazz. Chicago cabaret focused intensely on the larger band ensembles and reached its zenith in the speakeasies, and steakhouses (like The Palm) of the Prohibition Era.


The cabaret in New York did not follow the dark, political lines of its European counterparts, but it was characterised nevertheless with social commentary. When New York cabarets featured jazz, they tended to focus on famous vocalists like Eartha Kitt and Hildegarde rather than on instrumental musicians. In the US, the cabaret began to fade iin the 1960s in inverse proportion to the rising popularity of rock concert shows and television variety shows. In some way or another, the cabaret survives in stand-up comedy and in dark comic perfrmances seen in drag shows, where men performers dress up as beautiful women and in camp performes. New Orleans and Portland are two US states that is witnessing a rennaissance of sorts of the cabaret. New generation of performers are reinterpretiing and reinventing the old forms in music, theatre and dance and cabaret falls within these entertainment forms.
The English cabaret has its roots in taproom concerts given in city taverns during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the USA, the cabaret is usually performed in nightclubs. These remain the only spaces where an entertainer, comedian or dancer can establish rapport with an audience in an intimate atmosphere that encourages improvisation and freedom of expression and material. The downswing began with the popularity of cinema in the US by 1980.
In the Netherlands cabaret is the name for a popular comedy-form that evolved out of the earlier traditional cabaret, much like the German-speaking cabaret. Whereas interest in the German form faded in the 1990s, the Dutch Cabaret stayed strong and actually grew explosively in those years. Unlike Stand-up comedy this Dutch form usually has more of a storyline or theme throughout the performance. Often it is a mixture of comedy with theater and can include songs, music and poetry other than purely stand-up comedy. Like German-speaking cabaret it can be politically engaged.

The Cabaret in Indian cinema


Sexuality has been an integral part of the process that defines the female identity. The mujra was an already popular art from mushrooming during the culture of the Nawabs of Lucknow. The mujra was performed against the backdrop of a palatial setting on the luxury boats the Nawabs sailed along on the Ganges off Varanasi or in suburban country houses owned by the Nawabs. The tawaifs on the other hand, were prostitutes who wore elaborate and heavily embroidered dance costumes and jewellery. The landed aristocracy and intellectuals alike met the cabaret's inroads into the Orient, thanks to countries under colonial British rule, with negative response. This reactionary response however, seems quite hypocritical in the face of entertainment like mujra performances, Devdasi dancing girls in the south and the erotic lavni in Maharashtra dished out both for the landed gentry, the feudal Nawabs. Even village peasants lusted for the lewd song and dance routine. It was left to mainstream Indian cinema to imbibe the cabaret within its multi-layered entertainment system that covered acting, dance, drama, music and song threaded together with a thin storyline.
Cabaret entered Indian bars and hotels with wary steps, in a few metros in Mumbai and Kolkata around the 1960s as a more sophisticated form of seduction often confused with the strip tease that used dance and song as a mere camouflage for stripping in front of a club-full of male customers who would walk in for a drink. The strip-tease artist did not necessarily have to be a dancer. The cabaret was a Westernised form of seduction already present within the cultural milieu in its own way both in Indian cities and villages. The villages had the nachni and khemta in Bengal, the nautanki in Bihar and U.P., the lavni in Maharashtra, etc. When cinema became a form of mass entertainment within the reach of the villagers, these folk art forms began to die a slow and painful death. With cinema, came new forms of song-and-dance numbers and one of these forms was the cabaret. Interestingly, cabaret in Indian hotels and restaurants faded away when it made its entry in cinema.
In the earliest days of the cabaret in mainstream Indian cinema, the actresses had definite roles to play as characters in the film, generally that of a vamp who fell in love with the hero but usually died in the climax while trying to save his life. The young actress who performed the cabaret in a given film would wear western dresses such as short skirts, micro-minis, bikinis, blonde wigs and don bizarre costumes for her dance number. In a series of films in the 1950s and 1960s that had Ajit as the hero, even had a definite name and an endearment used inseparably by the hero to address the vamp by – Mona Darling – a phrase that has become a popular joke to refer to vamps in Hindi films and as a direct link to Ajit, an action hero in B-Grade films. Many years later, Naseer Hussain in his box office hit Caravan, featured Helen in a single dance with the now-famous song number Monica, Oh My Darling, belted out as a refrain by music director R.D. Burman in the main song duniya mein logon ko sung by Asha Bhonsale. Burman made sensual use of the sound of heavy breathing as the beat for the song after each line, investing it with a sense of the sensuous and Helen did the rest. It remains one of the most unforgettable cabaret numbers in the history of Indian mainstream cinema. Inspite of all her sizzling numbers picturised with the most bizarre of props in incredible backdrops, Helen lent respect to the cabaret because she wore a skin-coloured body stocking under her garish costume and carried off the costume as well as she did her dance number.
Picturisation, orchestration and choreography of these cabaret numbers were done with a great deal of imagination and at times, they added to the aesthetics of Hindi cinema. The cinematography, the light effects, the sound and music effects, the editing of these cabaret numbers created a different school of expertise that has been honed to such an extent that today, technically, Bollywood films can easily compare with the best production banners in Hollywood.

Imaginative choreography and seductive rhythms would keep the audience glued to the screen till the late 1960s. Things began to change, mainly marked by the slow and steady exit of the vamp from the Indian screen. “Her natural habitat, the dance hall or cabaret show, has been eroded and replaced by far less environmentally friendly locations like the discotheque, the college canteen, the streets of Zurich and Geneva or even the common bedroom. Naturally, cut off from her life-sustaining ambience, the vamp has exited. Very soon, the only time we will see her in Hindi cinema will be in the cloistered environment of the National Film Archive, Pune.” This is how journalist Ajit Duara describes the exit of the vamp from the Hindi screen in an article, No Vamps Please We are Leading Ladies in The Hindu. “Just as smaller advertising agencies have been taken over by the larger sharks, the heroine has taken over the vamp's job. It makes more economic sense — the producer has a single mainstream heroine who can worship, dress up or dress down, dance, be moral, altruistic and occasionally sleazy as well. The package deal is easier to market — the actress becomes a product with a specific image or `brand',” he adds.



Helen’s mera naam chin chin choo in Howrah Bridge in 1958 was the turning point. Padma Khanna, Bindu and Madhumati followed in her footsteps with great success till a funny thing happened – leading ladies merrily joined the picnic to do raunchy numbers beginning with Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, etc. Regular dance numbers too, began to be choreographed like item numbers. Madhuri Dixit turned such numbers into a fine art form with her ek do teen in Tezaab followed by the extremely popular dhak dhak karne lagaa in Beta and then the choli ke peechhey kya hai in Khalnayak. Urmila Matondkar is another excellent dancer who has now shifted to diverse roles. Raveena Tandon did better as an item number dancer in films than as an actress. Her sheher ki ladki and ore ore catapulted her to heights where she could pick and choose her films and her roles. Sushmita Sen with her sizzling mehboob mere number in Fiza finally caught the attention of filmmakers and did a jig in sensuous saree-blouse outfits in Main Hoon Na. Shilpa Shetty has also done quite a few item numbers in her career. One of the most popular ones is Main Aayi Hoon U.P. Bihar Lootne in Shool starring Manoj Bajpai and Raveena Tandon and directed by E. Niwas.
When dancing heroines had to perform their own numbers, but not cabaret, such as Vyjayantimala and Hema Malini, they followed the practice of wearing body stocking under body-revealing costumes. Then slowly, the line between the heroine and the vamp became a diffused blur, because the heroines began to do sensual dance numbers till the vamp’s character faded away, leading to the unwitting entry of the item number that replaced the cabaret.
In league with Helen were dancing stars who created their own niche within the films they worked in. Among them are Padma Khanna, Bindu and Aruna Irani. They began by following Helen but soon struck out on their own and created their audience. Aruna Irani’s dilbur aa aa aa dilbur as the gypsy girl in Caravan is unforgettable because of the unusual ambience of the wide open fields where she performed the dance as her own way of expressing her desperate longing for the hero. Her other famous number Panditji mere marne ke baad in Manoj Kumar’s Roti Kapda Aur Makaan was also picturised in an unusual backdrop but it was no less sensuous for the change in the ambience. This points out that the cabaret slowly moved out of its closed field of bars and nightclubs in Hindi films to step into other areas of life, leading to the Indianization of the cabaret. The nightclubs and bars were still there to entertain the audience with titillating dance numbers. But cabaret-kind of dances lost their specific spatial niche and created a broader map for themselves. Bindu has made her mera naam hai shabnam number in Kati Patang a historic statement in cabaret performed in Hindi films.
Item Numbers in Indian Cinema

An ‘item’ number is exactly what its name suggests – an ‘item’ added to a film to add to its box office value for purely commercial reasons. The item number began to gain a foothold when leading ladies wiped out the difference between the vamp and the vamp became a part of Indian cinema’s historical past. Mostly, the ‘item’ number does not belong to the story of the film and the person performing an item number who does his/her number and departs from the film unless he/she has to do another number later on. In short, an item number is a raunchy music video embedded in a film and is used as a diabolic commercial strategy to attract the viewing public.


The term ‘item number’ probably derives from ‘bomb’ often used as a euphemism for a sexy woman with a luscious body and ‘item’ links generally to the items included in the menu card of a restaurant. Put the two words together and you have a ‘sexy dish’ among the many a feature film offers in exchange for the gate money you are willing to pay for the fare it offers. It is one more item among the many the film dots the story with – actors, music, songs, story, foreign locations, fight sequences shot imaginatively, scenes of family melodrama, romantic escapades, rape scenes, molestation and so on. The item number is one of the items in this ever-expanding menu of entertainment. One critic once pointed out the phrase ‘item number’ became a popular term with Shilpa Shetty’s main aiyee hoon UP, Bihar Lootne in the film Shool a decade ago. But one does not know for sure.
The major difference between a cabaret and an item number is that the latter is distinctly and brazenly sexual while the former resorts more to suggestion and innuendo. The music and song backing a cabaret is comparatively low-key and controlled than an item number where the lyrics are seductive and filled with ‘invitations’ such as the khallas number performed by Eesha Koppikar in Company. The music is always up-tempo and the dance routine is high-octave shot with the most sophisticated technology available for the cinematographer, the set designer and the rest. The cabaret actress sometimes has an extended role within the film. The item girl is restricted only to the item and no more. Leading ladies willingly agree to do item numbers because the number expresses their versatility, gives them a lot of media mileage and last but never the least, bring them astronomical sums in terms of payment. The story goes that Bunty aur Bubbly was not doing too well at the box office. But when some parts of the Indian audience woke up to the kajara re number performed with an optimum degree of titillation by Aishwarya Rai joined later by Abhishek and his father Amitabh Bachchan, the pickings began to rise and the film became a big hit. Aishwarya Rai reportedly picked up a packet of Re.1 crore for the dance number!
Sexual Innuendo

The sexual content of an item number is enhanced with suggestive lyrics bordering on the bawdy such as choli ke peechey kya hai performed by Madhuri Dixit and Neena Gupta in Khalnayak juxtaposed against Madhuri’s ek do teen number in Tezaab that appears like kindergarten stuff looked at in perspective. The actual dance is packed with racy movements, heaving cleavages, pelvic thrusts and suggestive swaying of hips. The dosage of CNT (cleavage, navel and thighs) in these item numbers goes unquestioned by the Central Board of Film Certification. The strange irony is that the CBFC comes down with hammer and tongs on lyrics they consider bawdy but not on the dance item performed to the same lyrics. The choli ke peechey kya hai number is a case in point. It created a string of probing articles raising questions on the decency and propriety of lyrics that go with such dance numbers. Though most item number use the familiar backdrop of a discotheque, a bar or a nightclub, the look could be ethnic without affecting the visual and saleable quality of the number in any way. Very often, the item number is so distanced from the film per se that the filmmaker introduces the number either in the beginning or at the end of the film. Examples are Mallika Sherawat’s item number in RGK’s Guru and the number performed in duet by Shahrukh Khan and Malalika Arora against the credits in Kaal. Hrithik Roshan and Shahrukh Khan right at the end of the film performed the title song of Krazzy Four because it simply did not belong to the film in any way. The item number did nothing to raise the box office prospects of the film.


Even Prakash Jha could not resist item numbers. In Mrityudand, Gangajal and Apaharan he added sizzling and no-holds-barred item numbers that left little to the audience’s fanciful imagination. Every Bollywood hero and heroine is game to perform item numbers as these help showcase the widening horizons of their talent. Kareena Kapoor is the new item girl. After pulling out a hot sizzling number in The Don Returns, she is flooded with similar offers. Some unforgettable item numbers are Malaika Arora’s chhaiyan chhaiyan number shot on top of a moving train and choreographed beautifully by Farah Khan for RGK.s Dil Se with foot-tapping music by A.R. Rahman to some of the loveliest lyrics ever, composed by Gulzar. Koena Mitra’s saaki saaki number in Musafir is another sizzling item number performance. Urmila Matondkar’s chamma chamma number in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s China Gate is a classic not only because of the performance, but also for its total picturisation in the browns of what appears to be some sandy area in Rajasthan and the lady decked to her teeth in ethnic costume and jewellery. Susmita Sen’s mehboob mere number in Fiza and shaka laka baby in Nayak rise above the rest of the film because of the way she invested the number with zest and vibrancy and also because of the way it was picturised though the placing and positioning of the number in Fiza was unreal and did not go with the rest of the film in theme, spirit or story.
Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan have changed the definition and market value of the item number. The reference is to the raunchy song-and-dance kajara re, kajara re, tere kale kale naina in Bunty Aur Bubbly. The song has turned the traditional quawalli on its head and has offered a challenge to the growing number of choreographers in Bollywood. Aishwarya set the screen on fire with her Ishq Kameena number in Shakti starring Karishma Kapoor in the female lead. From cha cha cha to the vigorous ga-ga to hip-hop or salsa, from Helen through Mumtaz to Bipasha Basu to Koena Mitra to Tanushree Dutta and Raakhee Sawant, dance in cinema has had a rocky journey from slight matka-jhatkas to zordar lachak-machaks. No film, with rare exceptions like Black or Viruddh seems to be able to survive minus a sizzling hot and sexy item number.
The Helens and the Bindus of yesterday have moved over to make place for Eesha Koppikar, Mallika Sherawat, Rakhee Sawant and Malaika Arora. In terms of sheer titillation and skin-show, they make Helen’s 'hot' numbers seem as lukewarm as yesterday's omelette. Gone are the days when dance in mainstream Indian cinema was the kind you watched Vyjantimala perform in Jewel Thief or much later, Hema Malini’s sensual number in Sholay. Helen’s dance was a direct import from the cabaret in a much-diluted, Indianised version. Eesha Koppikar’s khallaas number in Company and ishq samandar in Kaante has created a completely new genre of music, perhaps triggered off by Malaika Arora’s chhaiyan chhaiyan number in Dil Se. “Item Number” is a new genre that has also created a niche for nubile stars who do not blink when asked to gyrate in front of the camera stripped down to bare essentials.
Asked to comment on today’s item girls, Helen says, “Today’s young girls are doing a brilliant job not only as actresses but also as dancers. Aishwarya and Karishma are talented actresses who also are brilliant dancers. Madhuri Dixit was equally good in dance numbers. I cannot dance like them anymore. I have no problems with item numbers because it is necessary for everyone in the entertainment industry to keep pace with time.” Having established her credentials over a span of 25 years, Helen remains the unanimous choice among the ten best dancers Indian cinema ever saw. She has the honour of having a complete book on her written by Jerry Pinto. A young NRI has made a documentary on Helen. She has given us pulsating numbers like aaya ya karu main kya suku suku, yeh mera dil pyar ka diwana, and so on.
Ganesh Hegde, noted choreographer of item numbers such as khallas, kambakht ishq, mehboob mere, tere bina and babuji sara dheery chalo says, “I would define an item number as something senseless that is not related to the film. It is like a break in the strenuous activity of watching a Bollywood film. People can enjoy the naach-gana, clap, throw money and then get back to the tension of the actual film. Pyar Tune Kiya became a big hit only because of the kambakht ishq number.” Ganesh adds that top heroines today are vying for item numbers because “it increases their song bank. It gives them more money within limited time; there are no dubbing work, no shifts and sometimes is shot within four or five days. But the biggest factor is the popularity it brings them. It gives them more recognition than ten films put together. No one noticed Isha till she drew the audience like a magnet with khallas.” Malaika butts in to say, “A large section of the audience today goes to the theatre just out of curiosity that an item number has generated. I love to dance. It is a passion with me. I am not really interested in an acting career right now. I would rather see Arbaaz Khan's career as an actor blossom further than jump into the fray of acting in films. I am game doing item numbers because they do not bind me or demand much commitment. They also spare me the time I need to be a wife and mother.”

Conclusion


The item number has come to stay. Trade analyst Komal Nahata says Aishwarya Rai charged Rs.75 lakh for the ishq kameena number in Shakti. Madhuri Dixit wore a short skirt for her makda number in Bade Miya Chhote Miya. It drew attention though it was not exactly an item number. “Item numbers are used to improve the commercial prospects of a film in the market and break the monotony in the narration. When producers spend so much to market the film, the next best thing they can do is to rope in a big star for an item number,” says Nahata. Ram Gopal Verma, who turned sizzling dancers into an aesthetic creation with Rangeela, has since shifted focus on more dramatic matter. “My films attract audiences because of the scripts and performances, not because of the songs. In fact, Road lost out because the songs diluted the tense storyline,” says Verma.
The item number basically, has little aesthetic and content value. It has some value in terms of form and technique because it almost forces everyone in a film unit from director to actor to choreographer to cinematographer, music director and lyric writer, make-up man, costume designer, light-boys and production designer to keep their imaginative juices flowing because every item number calls for its own unique slot, style, treatment and approach. Some numbers such as the one performed in Gangajal appear vulgar, bordering on the obscene, while Aishwarya delivers a kajara re with intense seduction and invitation but completely shorn of vulgarity. Both Helen in the original version of Don and Kareena in its new version did their seduction act but neither appeared to cross the borders of decency. Helen’s version remains the better one. Rakhee Sawant capitalizes on her crude behaviour she invests her item numbers with. Her numbers are by no means an aesthetic delight or an excellence defined in terms of performance. But she has made her crude persona her brand identity and believe it or not, it works!
The cabaret has journeyed a long way. But the item number is totally devoid of the ideological associations of its predecessor. Like it or not, Yana Gupta’s raunchy number babuji zara dheerey chalo in Dum is an example of how Bollywood has transcended borders to bring in girls from yonder who cannot speak Hindi and do not intend to learn it because they are satisfied with an item number. In fact, the Yana Gupta number is the only thing one remembers about Dum. “To those who say my dance was vulgar, I can only say that people here like to pretend that sex does not exist. Even my husband did not have a problem with the song,” says Yana. Item numbers lack the magic of the cabaret that is still alive and kicking in many cities of the world because it keeps dreams alive. In this part of the world, item numbers are now roping in the men. With the craze for a six-abs body showing off a bare torso, glossy chest and rippling muscles shining with generous doses of body cream, complemented with their wet-look hair-dos, the men are desperate to prove to the world out there if women can be seductive, so can the men, forgetting along the way, that in so doing, they are lending themselves to the same kind of objectification and audience-titillation women constantly accuse filmmakers of doing to them through their item numbers.
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Friday, September 19, 2008


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