The dichotomy of item songs - understanding the complicated form!

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Sakshi Sharma
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Thumkeshwari


After its release, Thumkeshwari took everyone by storm but can the fact that it's inadvertently an item song be ignored? What is the dichotomy of items songs?

I still remember loving those times in my childhood when I danced to songs like Munni Badnam Hui, Sheila Ki Jawani, or Chikni Chameli without understanding the lyrics or being able to make sense of it even for a moment. I would just enjoy the music and copy Malaika Arora and Katrina Kaif's moves. And I'm sure that it wasn't just me who danced along to those songs; a lot of young girls grew up dancing to them too. Today, I still love to dance to item songs, ignoring for a moment what their lyrics actually mean.

Though it's definitely become harder to enjoy them because I can understand what they truly mean and cannot ignore the sexism and misogyny in them. And hence when Thumkeshwari was released, I was highly conflicted about it as I did enjoy the music but didn't like its representation of women or the lyrics. This made me wonder about the dichotomy of item songs in general!

The debate on item songs has been long drawn and quite a valid and valuable one. And inspite of being amazing dance numbers, these songs bring forth those arguments that cannot be ignored! And it seems like just to justify the objectification of women, songs like Munna Badnam Hua have been made. Even the quite recent, Oo Antava Oo Oo Antava item number, which opted for a smart way with satirical lyrics but ended up representing women in the same light. However, the justification for this song, that it is showing the true face of our society, works as it represented a reality that isn't too far-fetched and with the lyrics speaking the absolute believable truth.

But then here the most important yet polarising question comes into play - while item songs are a mirror to how society stereotypes women, doesn't glamorizing them with a beautiful actress while the camera only focuses on her body, makes this a sexist approach and replicates people's mentality? And if you look closely, everything from their costumes to typical dance moves, and make-up looks similar in item numbers like extremely low-cut blouses. Isn't that generalizing and stereotyping in the most sexist form? (Just look at the thumbnails of each song added here you'll get what I mean!)

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Look at the songs Bijli and Thumkeshwari and compare them to Kaja Re, and Munni Badnam Hui, you'll find similarities in the overall get-up. But on another front, there is a certain freedom of expression of female desires that such item songs represent which can't be ignored too. Like in Thumkeshwari when Shraddha Kapoor comes in, she turns the sexism of the song on its head as she becomes the one who teases Varun. Or the lyrics of Kaja Re speaks about a woman's desire to be with her old lover once again. Then such songs leave us feeling a bit conflicted about them and present the unspoken truth- that maybe item songs are more layered than we think!

For now, it's fairly established that all item songs cannot be looked at with the same lens! For instance, look at the way Jhallah Wallah has been shot; a young woman from a sophisticated house joins hands and dances with a bar dancer on the lyrics of a song that speaks about a woman's desire and dilemmas in bed. Even songs like Beedi Jalai Le, Namak Ishq Ka, or Awari, represent a sex worker or a bar dancer's life in such a poetic form, wherein they tease the men while talking about consent and lamenting about their situation. In this sense, the representation of women's desires is highlighted with poetry or speaks of reality while maintaining the fun element of such songs with a little teasing and banter.

And so that's why item songs like Ghagra, Billo Rani, Aira Gera, or Ram Chahe Leela work because they are about having fun though with due respect and ironically wanting to forget reality for a minute or so. But songs like Fevicol Se, Halkat Jawani, Munni Badnam Hui, Sheila Ki Jawani, Chikni Chameli, or even non-item songs like Afat, Gandi Baat, Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast, (just look at their names), and many more such songs are truly afat for women as they just don't stereotype women, instead, they romanticize harassment, makes a joke about consent, disrespect and objectify women by reducing them to mere objects who can be utilized by men in any way they'd like.

So it's true that item songs are more often a representation of male fantasy and cater to the male gaze than becoming a representation of women. But who says that they could not be both? And while we're not justifying item songs or their objectification and stereotyping of women, we're simply just pointing out their nature of dichotomy ie. sexualizing women for representing reality as well as championing their sexual desires. But keeping in mind that not every song can be justified in the name of dichotomy!

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