More than an item

More than an item

Malaika Arora

They have been around since dances became one of the key ‘items’ in a Hindi film. Cuckoo was probably the first, and her successor Helen the most famous. They gyrated to heady folk or Western songs, appropriately costumed, and sometimes had no role other than a dancing in single song in the film. From the ‘50s, such dances were often assigned to the actresses who essayed roles of molls or vamps, and the first instance this was when Waheeda Rehman debuted in a negative role in the Guru Dutt-Raj Khosla blockbuster CID. Soon, especially from the peak-time phase of Helen in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such songs boosted the appeal and repeat-viewing value of a film. Bindu (Kati Patang, Anhonee), Aruna Irani (Caravan, Bobby), Padma Khanna (Johny Mera Naam) and Jayashree T (Jwar Bhata)  et al,  added to the innumerable humdingers.

Soon, a contemporary tweaking had to happen. The ‘80s saw the arrival of the disco, with its psychedelic lights and other trappings. True, this scene was ruled by Mithun Chakraborty and other movie-specific males like’ Rishi Kapoor (Karz), but Kalpana Iyer (Hari om Hari/Pyaara Dushman, Rambha ho/Armaan) and after the trend fizzled out, Leena Das (Aitbaar, Insaaf) and others were a big hit.

Evolution of the item number

All along, we had the occasional heroine stepping in, whether for a song cameo (Mumtaz in Tik tik tik/Humjoli, Neetu Singh in Lekar hum diwana dil/Yaadon Ki Baraat) or as part of the narrative (Zeenat Aman’s Dum maro dum/Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Saira Banu’s Thoda sa tehero/Victoria No. 203). From the late ‘80s, the heroine largely took over and Sridevi’s Hawa Hawaii and Kaate nahin kat-te yeh din yeh raat/ Mr India) and Madhuri Dixit (Ek do teen char..) pioneered the trend.

In the mid-‘90s, Ram Gopal Varma split the song from the script with Rangeela. Exposure to Western music channels had brought in the music video concept, and soon songs, whether they featured the film’s artistes, guest top actresses or new or known faces brought in just to gyrate, became independent music videos, often with only a tenuous link with the film.

Simultaneously, non-film albums also got such promotions, especially in the burgeoning Indipop and remix arenas, and the era threw up assorted names who made their fames and fortunes with such songs, often generating controversy and flak over the music content (lyrics, vocals) or the visuals (costumes, choreography and camera angles). Anyone who wanted a shortcut to fame and moolah, this was it. For others, it was about making identities and hay while the sun shined in order and move up to more fruitful acting careers.

Of course, success in the latter was on the usual combination of merit, application and opportunities,  which can be collectively termed destiny or luck. Invariably, the few who made it big later had done the classier kind of music videos, be it Bipasha Basu in Sukhbir’s Sauda khara khara, Vidya Balan in her three videos for Euphoria, Shubha Mudgal and Pankaj Udhas and Deepika Padukone for Naam hai tera for Himesh Reshammiya. Among the saucier ones were Mallika Sherawat’s 1999 video Lakh tunnu for Surjit Bindrakhia. And then there were the actresses who did such songs — from Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (Kajrare from Bunty Aur Babli to others like Kashmera Shah (after acting in Yes Boss).

Kashmera Shah is an unusual case, though. She had no issues with being labelled as an “item” girl. “In Vaastav, they wanted someone without the image of a dancer, but when people loved me so much that they went to watch the film again for my song, my demand spiralled!. In Jungle I had a role as well as the song Patli kamar, and then came Chhalka from Aankhen and Dil ko hazaar baar from Murder. It was afterwards that I did the Mungda remix, my first non-film album.”

Shah insists that no one can be called an ‘item’ girl unless she has at least three consecutive hits “like Malaika Arora-Khan and me! The songs have to be played at festivals and parties. Though I am an actor first, I stopped getting roles for a while and got only songs, but that was fine. Even Shilpa Shetty went through that phase,” she says.

Derogatory or celebratory?

But others strongly object to the term “item” girl, even if it is a convenient term like the word Bollywood. Says Shefali Jariwala, who zoomed in her video career with the remix of Kaanta lagaa, “We should call them ‘special songs’,” she says.

 “These songs are often the biggest USPs of the films and sell albums. For us, they are great opportunities to hit the jackpot if they work. Where our careers go later depends on our talent. I did my first video for fun while training to be a computer engineer. I had limitations because I have a conservative family and they were unhappy about my decision, but then there was no looking back after Kaanta lagaa became a huge hit.”

But if Shefali merely protests at the term and suggests an alternative, Deepal Shaw, who moved to acting (A Wednesday!, Chamku) after she shot to fame with Kabhi aar kabhi paar et al, refuses to talk as an afterthought despite a late night phone appointment. “She does not consider herself an ‘item’ girl” her manager messaged. Malaika Arora-Khan, who is probably the queen of such cameos in films from Dil Se… to Kaante, Kaal and now Dabangg picks up the phone and disconnects when we tell her what we are calling her for. A second call elicits her own response, “Wrong number!” and it is left to hubby Arbaaz Khan to explain that she is against the term and its usage on her.

Sums up Kashmera, “India is the only country where an asset is considered a curse! What is wrong with anything that gets you fame and money in the right way?”
So is there a flipside to being known in this capacity? It is common knowledge that Helen, in the early stages of her career, was financially exploited by mentor filmmaker PN Arora. The casting- couch too might exist too.

Says Kashmera, “If there are uneducated girls coming in or those desperate to make a quick buck, such things may happen. But the days are gone when such songs are done by illiterate girls or the bar dancer types. Today we all hail from classy family backgrounds and are well-educated.” Seconds Shefali, “In my case, even my costumes and camera angles were clarified before the shoots. My parents were always present too, watching the monitor.”

But Shefali admits that the special song career is a short one, and that it is better to quit or move on before one if forced out. “Retire when people ask ‘Why?’ rather than ‘Why doesn’t she?’” she reasons. And Kashmera is irked seeing the current trend of using foreign girls, “Thanks to our permanent gora (white skin) complex, these girls rob our people of opportunities. And they even get paid better than us!” And that’s probably the only dark patch in the saga of the great gyrators.

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