Aparita Bhandari is a journalist based in Toronto. Bhandari spent her formative years in New Delhi, India, where she began her career. She is published by major Canadian newspapers and is a regular contributor to CBC Radio. Bhandari wrote "10 sexiest Bollywood show stoppers" for CBC Music during the year that marks a century of Bollywood cinema.
Although Bollywood's detractors roll their eyes whenever the plot pauses for the actors to break out into a glitzy musical production, what’s known as the "item number" is truly the one song in a film that has nothing to do with advancing the narrative. It typically features a starlet dressed in a skimpy outfit, performing an assortment of gyrations to somewhat provocative lyrics.
The item number's main purpose is to get bums in the movie theatre seats and titillate its mostly male audience, says Shubhra Gupta, a film critic and columnist for India's national daily, The Indian Express. These songs are used to promote and market the movie before its release.
“Filmmakers get to carpet bomb these songs on the 24-hour entertainment channels,” Gupta tells me in an interview. “It's a two-minute experiential thing [featuring] a half-dressed woman, saying, 'Come to my movie, spend Rs. 200 [$4 Cdn.] and have a good time.'
Here's a selection of some of Bollywood's best item numbers over the decades, from the relatively modest to the decidedly not.
Song: "Aaiye Meherbaan"
Film: Howrah Bridge (1958)
Before there were item numbers, there were cabaret songs, which also catered to the male gaze. Unlike the item numbers, however, such songs had some sort of narrative relevance. Take for instance the crime thriller Howrah Bridge. In it, Ashok Kumar plays Rakesh, who is trying to unravel the mystery behind his brother's death and recover a family heirloom. His quest leads him to a nightclub, where he meets Edna, a performer, played by the luminous Madhubala, who decides to help him.
Compared to item numbers of today, Madhubala is a picture of modesty in this number. Nevertheless, there's a certain sensuality in her movement, highlighted by her gauzy dress and, of course, that smile that she was famous for.
Song: "Mehbooba, Mehbooba"
Film: Sholay (1975)
Helen has to be one of Bollywood's most revered item girls. The daughter of an Anglo-Indian father and Burmese mother, her exotic looks and ability to perform the most outrageous choreography with elan, made her a favourite of Bollywood filmmakers. Helen started out as a chorus dancer before catching a break in Howrah Bridge, where she performed a solo song, and eventually started getting small speaking roles while also showcasing her dancing skills.
Like many movies of the times, the "curry-western" Sholay uses the flimsiest of excuses to showcase Helen's talent. Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra) are two petty criminals hired to capture a notorious dacoit, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Jai and Veeru decide to ambush Gabbar Singh as he visits a gypsy troupe to buy ammunition and indulge in some much needed r'n'r featuring a sultry desert dance. Unlike most of her other songs, Helen is completely silent in this song and lets her hips do the talking.
Song: "Mera Naam Hai Shabnam"
Film: Kati Patang (1970)
Bindu was one of Helen's contemporaries, and often played the vamp role. In Bollywood movies of '70s vintage, the plot often called for a vamp whose purpose was to lie around decoratively and get manhandled by the villain, explains Gupta. Wearing slinky dresses, the vamps were the antithesis to the purer-than-white heroines, and often took a bullet — quite literally — for the hero or heroine.
Kati Patang is based on the novel I Married a Dead Man, which was also made into the Hollywood movie No Man of Her Own (1950), starring Barbara Stanwyck. In it, Asha Parekh plays Madhavi, who runs away from an arranged marriage only to find her boyfriend with another woman, Shabnam (Bindu). A train accident gives Madhavi an opportunity to take on another identity, until she goes to a club and is found out by Shabnam in this song.
Song: "Jawani Janeman"
Film: Namak Halaal (1982)
After decades of black-and-white themes and characters, shades of grey started to appear in Bollywood movies in the '70s. Sari-clad heroines also gave way to actresses such as Zeenat Aman andParveen Babi, who were proud to flaunt their catwalk-ready figures, says Gupta. There was a gap in the market after the vamp character died out, and it was filled by actresses such as Aman and Babi. They not only starred in the movies as lead heroines, but also performed the sexy numbers.
In Namak Halaal, Babi plays Nisha, who is sent as bait to ensnare hotelier/scion Raja (Shashi Kapoor). She does so wearing a Bond girl-worthy, body-hugging, cleavage-baring gold outfit, and promptly catches Raja's attention, despite the attempts of Arjun, Raja's "Man Friday" (played by Amitabh Bachchan) to distract him.
Song: "Ek, Do, Teen"
Film: Tezaab (1988)
Madhuri Dixit burst onto India's consciousness with Tezaab, and continued to reign its box office for most of the '90s. Tezaab was typical of the revenge dramas of its time. It starred Anil Kapoor as Munna, who wants to rescue his girlfriend Mohini (Dixit) from her life as a dancer who's trying to pay off her father's debt to a gangster.
The movie was a huge hit, and many attribute its success to the song "Ek, Do, Teen." There are many stories of people going to watch the movie repeatedly for the song alone, and exiting the theatre when it ended.
Song: "Main Aayi Hoon UP Bihar Lootne"
Film: Shool (1999)
Until Shilpa Shetty shimmied onto the screens in this song, the item number wasn't really an established trend. Of course, Bollywood has a long tradition of sexually suggestive, rain-soaked sari songs. But a song that serves no other purpose but to titillate, with the actress dancing in the middle of a horde of men to lyrics rife with aggressive double entendres, came about in the late '90s.
In Shool's convoluted plot of an honest police officer taking on the system, Shetty has a special appearance as a nameless dancer called to perform at a wedding.
Film: Om Shanti Om (2007)
While the movie revived the tried-and-tested Bollywood formula of the reincarnation story, it presented an interesting twist on the traditional item number. "Dard-E-Disco" featured the movie's lead actor,Shahrukh Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest icons, as the star of the item number. While Khan won't be giving any item girl a run for her money with his limited dancing skills, he displayed just as much skin. He highlighted his well oiled body wearing an assortment of shirts with buttons undone and jeans barely hanging onto his butt.
One particular scene has Khan rising out of water Baywatch-style, in slow motion, while the camera lingers on each piece of his six-pack. In fact, press conferences for the film often focused on Khan's diet and regimen to achieve his look.
Song: "Munni Badnaam Hui"
Film: Dabbangg (2010)
Everything about Dabbangg was larger than life. The movie starred Salman Khan as a Robin Hood cop — corrupt, but helpful for those in need — who fought off a horde of henchmen while cracking one-liners. It was one of the year's most anticipated movies, thanks in part to the item number "Munni Badnaam Hui," starring Khan's sister-in-law Malaika Arora Khan.
Set in a small-town village, the song showcased both Malaika's booty-shaking moves and Khan's manic man-child antics. The infectious beat and semi-nonsensical chorus helped make it a chart-topping success.
Song: "Sheila Ki Jawaani"
Film: Tees Maar Khan (2010)
This song helped Katrina Kaif to cement her place as one of Bollywood's most bankable actresses. Born to an English mother and Kashmiri father, Kaif had struggled in the industry because of her inability to speak Hindi. While she still speaks Hindi with a lisping accent, her dancing skills have vastly improved, as seen in this item number. In the movie, Kaif plays Anya, a wannabe starlet and girlfriend to the conman Tabrez Mirza Khan, played by Akshay Kumar. Back home after making another escape from the police, Tabrez discovers that Anya is doing an item number in a movie called Sheila Ki Jawaani, and decides to intervene the shoot.
In a making-of video, choreographer and director Farah Khan explains that Kaif was put on a strict diet and given a crash course in belly dancing. It all paid off in the end, when the song became one of Bollywood's best known item numbers.
Film: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)
In a movie starring the current crop of Bollywood stars, Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, a number featuring veteran dancing queenMadhuri Dixit was big news. Teasers released in anticipation of the film's debut showed Dixit flashing her characteristic smile, even if her dance moves were subdued compared to her "Ek, Do, Teen" debut.
“This is one of the most pointless item numbers,” says Gupta. “The song occurs within the first five minutes of the film. There's no lead in to it, no explanation. All we know is that Ranbir Kapoor wants to become a cinematographer, and he happens to come upon this nautch girl [courtesan]. It's a forced play ... clearly even the filmmakers didn't know where to put the song.”