[Blog] Popular Culture : The proliferation of item numbers

The item song is a phenomenon that now dominates the Indian film industry. We seem to have them in all languages. It has replaced the bar song that was quite popular a while back, which has now returned after a hiatus in the form of the item number.

Typically an item song has a set of very predicable characteristics: it usually features a very popular, highly paid, good looking actress (and actor) or the occasional 'Western' model. The marvelously beautiful woman occupies centre screen and is usually surrounded by a host of men who appear, poor, uneducated, ill dressed and drunken. What makes the item song so remote from reality is the fact that the actress seems to be at ease dancing in their company in her skimpy costume while appealing all the time for them to love her. The song has a catchy tune and ingrains itself in the audience's imagination through its choice of words, facial expressions, dance moves, music and style of singing. Paradoxically, the song manages to attract all sections of society- prodding one to want to see and hear it innumerable times. The tune generates an upbeat mood which encourages one to see and hear it often.

 The very presence of a respected, sophisticated, popular, good looking and highly paid actor 'sanitizes' the song and its lewd picturization and surprisingly lends it an undeserved credence and credibility. This directly contributes to it a garb of 'decency.'  I never cease to marvel at the way the actors cleverly manage to portray facial expression and gestures that exude an air of 'innocence' and 'sweetness' in these songs -- be it  Katrina Kaif in Sheila ki Jawani or Kareena Kapoor in the recent Fevicol song.

 The life cycle of an item number: The song is released after much fanfare and publicity and is played over and over in the media, at every wedding, every party, every festival and every school annual event and if that isn't enough, some local groups even manage to make parodies replacing the theme with a religious one and playing it over loudspeakers at all festivals. This constant bombardment of the psyche with the tune feeds on itself and makes one want to hear it more often until saturation kicks in at which point the scales tip - paving the way for a new item number.

Now, unlike the bar song that used to have overweight 'vamps' ( at least in Tamizh) which only entertained a section of the male audience, these songs now feature fashionable, main stream actresses thereby attracting all sections of people including women. Interestingly, it is women who play these songs at home and dance to them at private parties and social gatherings.  Another surprising trend is that the presence of a lesser known (albeit more talented) woman in a song doesn't attract the same degree of popularity and public endorsement. An example I can think of is : En peru Meenakumari from the film Kandasami which might not be allowed into 'respectable middle class homes but  a song like Pottu thakku that features Ramya Krishnan may find better acceptance.

Sadly, the item song has a direct impact on the safety of women on the streets of India. I feel that they fuel the fallacy that urban, educated, fashionable women and western women are promiscuous and decadent and these songs might be the single unwitting cause for an incidence in rape.
All I can wish for is an increase in the maturity of the audiences to view them as mere entertainment which might take a while. A more realistic wish would be the 'death' of the item number and its replacement with a more sensible form of entertainment.


  1. Dear Madam,

    Yes, you are right. The item number is on the rise. We are facing a shift in what was acceptable yesterday and what is acceptable today. The defining factors of acceptability have changed. The directors and producers are focused on certain segments of the society who are in big number and could over flow their pockets with money. Their ultimate goal is money.

    However I feel satisfied that Indian cinema has not gone the way western cinema has and not dared to cross certain level of decency.


  2. Mr. Patel, thank you for the comment. I do accept that this is done for pecuniary gain. But there is a larger issue here- should or shouldn't the film world concern itself with social responsibility and concern itself with the outcomes of it's actions- but that is something that each film maker must decide on his/her own will and can't be dictated to. Also I have the greatest respect for Western Cinema- where films are made on different themes with a lot of research and excellent performances. At the risk of generalization, most Indian films are only based on the 'boy-meets-girl' theme. I do not understand what you mean by 'crossing the elvels of decency'


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