Bollywood item numbers: from Monica to Munni
If the term item number was a fashion label, it would have been the one whose distinction has moved from haute couture to prêt-à-porter. What began and remained the exclusive domain of a select few for years has now turned into a regular fare for every Bolly babe — stars and starlets alike.
Making a gradual progression from cabarets, kothaas, discos and now almost everywhere — even a train top — item numbers have become an essential part of Bollywood.
An item number, in its earliest avatar, wasn’t endorsed by leading ladies. Only vamps or dancers making special appearances graced these tracks until a decade or two ago. The first major dancing star was Cuckoo who ruled the cabaret scene in the Forties and Fifties.
Maybe because of the era’s social dynamics — or perhaps it was a novelty that filmmakers introduced an unconventional face —this petite Anglo-Indian danced her way into Bombay filmdom. Cuckoo’s vivacious demeanour and lusty moves were completely in sync with the playful dance numbers she starred in — cabaret, club and party. Be it enticing a sloshed Prem Nath in that mesmeric dance sequence in Aan (1952) or prettily pirouetting to Kabhi Haar Kabhi Jeet in Shabistan (1951), she had her moves for all occasions.
Cuckoo’s mantle was taken up by her protégé, Helen, who went on to become the undisputed tsarina of cabaret. The very affable Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu (Howrah Bridge, 1958) was Helen’s highroad to Bollywood. An instant crowd puller, a Helen sequence in a movie guaranteed full house – a phenomenon unseen for any vamp preceding or succeeding her.
And then came Helen
If transformation was an art, Helen perfected it. She could be the sexy siren calling for her lover in Piya Tu Ab Toh aaja (Caravan, 1971), the avenging angel in Yeh Mera Dil (Don, 1978) or the gorgeous gypsy queen shimmying unabashedly to Mehbooba in Sholay (1975) — all with equal ease.
With her seductive semblance and alluring adaa, Helen played high on male fancy. Her performances filled the fantasy void that the pristine leading ladies of that era could have never attempted. Dressed in a deep-cut blouse and Koli fisherwoman-styled low waist sari, she enticed men sitting in a ratty bar (Mungda, in Inkaar, 1977) with as much élan as she did the cigar smoking firangs with her embellished eyes, fanciful feathers and sequined skin-tight dress in Aa Jaane Jaan in Intequam (1969). Never shy to experiment, Helen’s dramatic eye makeup, flashy ensembles and outlandish props accentuated the feel of her songs.
Helen’s songs gave Bollywood a real taste of hedonism, and Bindu and Aruna Irani’s tracks took it to the next level. With a shocking sartorial sense and candour to match, Bindu was the temptress waiting to unleash. Remember her tantalising act in Mera Naam Shabnam Hai (Kati Patang, 1970) where she teased and agonised the film’s heroine Asha Parekh? Or how she heaved, pouted and purred at a brooding Amitabh Bachchan in the riveting Dil Jalon Ka Dil Jalaa Ke (Zanjeer, 1973). Don’t forget the Arabian Nights style seduction song Aa Ke Dard Jawaan Hai (Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye). Mona Darling was indeed a tigress on the prowl.
Coming to Aruna Irani, her ivory skin and hourglass figure made her the fragile femme fatale of the Seventies. Gliding like a dream through the silky notes of Main Shayar Toh Nahin (Bobby, 1973), Aruna exuded elfin exuberance. Mujraa and qawaalli being her specialty, the action of these dance numbers soon shifted to kothaas. Kathak infused with Irani’s coquettish charm resulted in perfect recipes like Sham-e-furqat Ka Dhal Gayaa (Sanyasi), Kahin Se Koi (Bhoola Bhatka, 1976) and of course the all-time remix fav, Thoda Resham Lagtaa Hai (Jyoti, 1969).
Each of these dancing queens heightened the song n’ dance routine with their unique specialty so much so that it needed only them or their kind to achieve the desired result. So every time there was a Kaisey Kat’ti Hai Raat (Gaon Hamara Shaher Tumhara, 1972), there was a Padma Khanna to seduce; or a Kalpana Iyer — dressed in blinds styled poncho, shiny hot pants and high-heeled boots — and going jiggy to an Auva Auva (Disco Dancer, 1983) under the sparking disco lights a la Saturday Night Fever.
Long before India’s economic liberalisation, it hit the sensibilities of the Indian filmmakers, actors, and, in the process, the average cinegoer. With the Eighties arrived a new breed of sirens cavorting in their boldest best. Sexy, sassy and at par with the dancing divas, this brigade has been recruiting ever since.
When Heroines took over
The trend of heroines appearing in masaaledaar tracks that began with the likes of Zeenat Aman (Qurbani in 1980, Shalimar in 1978), Parveen Babi (Shaan in 1980, Namak Halaal in 1982) and Rekha (Jaanbaaz in 1986) was taken forward by Madhuri Dixit (Khalnayak in 1993, Shailaab in 1990), Urmila Matondkar (China Gate in 1998, Lajja in 2001), Raveena Tandon (Rakshak in 1996, Ghaath in 2000) and Sonali Bendre (Bombay, 1995) in the next generation.
In the new millennium, every major and minor actress gracing the silver screen has had a special performance — by now known as item number — in her kitty. Right from Koena Mitra to Katrina Kaif, Shilpa Shetty to Kareena Kapoor — each one of them has succumbed to the lure of an item number.
As for the performances, they come in all flavours: There’s a shocking Sexy Sexy rechristened Baby Baby, due to a controversy (Khuddar, 1994), a rustic UP Bihar Lootne (Shool, 1999), a smoky Mahi Ve (Kaante, 2002), a wild Khallas (Company, 2002), a flirty Kajraa Re (Bunty Aur Babli, 2005) and an exotic Maiyya Maiyya (Guru, 2007).
Hence one doesn’t need a Bindu to swing to Beedi (Omkara, 2006) as Bipasha is right here to take care of it. For every Aruna, there is an Aishwarya. For every Padma there is a Priyanka. And for every Helen there’s a Malaika, who incidentally is the former’s step-daughter-in-law. Sure, there are item number specialists like Malaika Arora-Khan herself, Yana Gupta and Rakhi Sawant, but they haven’t been able to hold the slot exclusively.
An item number, in its early form, began like a Gharana culture — reminiscent of a specific system and style. But now it has opened up to all and sundry with the resultant focus shifting to packaging. So there is an experimental Chaiyyan Chaiyyan (Dil Se, 1998) happening on the top of a train, or a Munni Badnaam (Dabangg, 2010) with the most outlandish lyrics, or even an item boy out to woo the female audience in Dard-e-disco (Om Shanti Om, 2007). If that isn’t all, global artistes like Samantha Fox, Tata Young and Kylie Minogue, too, make sporadic entry to add a ‘new’ dimension to an item number.
Sure, there’s loads of gloss being introduced but with the sheer number taking over, the one thing that has gone missing is soul. Most of these item songs and item girls enter into the picture for no rhyme and rhythm. Agreed the songs are peppy; the energy is infectious and the girls are fabulous to look at, but very few have a timeless feel to them.
Rarely does one find a theatrical Aaj Ki Raat Koi Aane Ko Hai (Anamika, 1973) with tales interwoven to it, or the mysterious undertones of Oh Haseena Zulfon Waali (Teesri Manzil, 1966), or the looming helplessness a Husn Ke Laakhon Rang (Johnny Mera Naam, 1970) displays, when Padma Khanna performs a striptease.
Each of these dance numbers were sizzlers of the top order with the most scintillating women appearing in them — yet with a sense of reason. And that, perhaps, made all the difference.