A fellow Bollywood-buff relative of mine commented, “Katrina Kaif will never get respect.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“Because she does these cheap item songs!”
I wondered what was so wrong in dancing item songs. Why aren’t male lead actors accused of mouthing unmentionables and dancing to obscenity on screen? Why are they never called ‘cheap’ or ‘dirty’?
Why do we have a separate yardstick for male and female artistes?
Why cherry-pick female artistes for their choice?
A few months ago, I saw an online petition to ban item songs and girls in the industry. I know there are vehement objections against such songs, but a ban will not solve the root problem.
I am a feminist, and I support female artistes and their choice to do item songs with their consent. Here’s why!
We need to dispel our mental block
I thought we were past the ‘victim-blaming’ and ‘slut-shaming’ phase in the twenty-first century. But it looks like we haven’t progressed from our ancestors’ times in our mindset.
You know those days when there was the all-white goody ‘Miss. Goody Two-Shoes’ heroine and the all-black slutty vamp cabaret dancer. The one who commanded our respect was the former, and the latter deserved our eye-fuck.
Let’s take a case in point!
I thought Helen was just as phenomenal in her 4-minute appearance in the ‘Mehbooba’ song, as Hema Malini was, in her full-fledged role as Basanti. Both the roles they essayed are iconic, even today, and will continue to be so thanks to the veteran legends.
It’s just our mental block-skewed morality, or mindset, that prevents us from seeing two talented women in their own right, who entertain us in unique ways.
Let’s say we had a ban on item songs back then. We would never have Helen, Aruna Irani, Bindu, Jayshree T, and the likes in our industry?
There’s a veil of hypocrisy. Actresses with an Indian classical dance background commanded respect from the audience—Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, and Madhuri Dixit. Even if they gyrated to ‘Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hain,’ we didn’t flinch, because they were the honourable or ‘Sanskaari’ women. Not your bold, skimpily clad, Western-influenced cabaret dancers.
The lines became blurred when we had mainstream actresses wearing their sexuality on their sleeves and dancing sensuously on screen. Mumtaz, Padma Khanna, Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, and the trend continues to this day, with Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, and Katrina Kaif.
Calling for diversity and inclusiveness
Bollywood is primarily an entertainment industry. Acting is one form of entertainment apart from music, dance, direction, choreography, cinematography, etc.
There’s room for all artists. We know a Vidya Balan for her solid acting skills, a Jacqueline Fernandez for her gravity-defying dancing skills, and a Bipasha Basu who’s made a career based solely on her sex appeal, or anyone who can entertain like only they can.
It’s a democratic stage, where there’s enough place under the sun in the film industry for all kinds of entertainers.
Marilyn Monroe is as iconic as Julie Andrews. We would never have a Sophia Loren, Shakira, or Jennifer Lopez if we banned diverse female artists.
“We teach girls shame. “Close your legs. Cover yourself.” We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
The role of the agency
So, if a female artiste whose value offering is not acting primarily, but her physical attributes, or talent like dance, why shouldn’t she pursue a career in entertainment? Yes, I agree that item songs cater to the male gaze, but they have the consent of some female artists.
Sunny Leone is the perfect example of an agency. She had a choice between becoming a pediatric nurse for which she was studying, and pornographic actor. She made a conscious choice to make a career out of catering to the male gaze. It’s ironic when some hail her agency as feminism while demanding a ban on item girls, and songs, in the same breath.
Let’s not succumb to stereotypes
Call it intellectual pride, moral compass, or naivety; it’s time we stop stereotyping female artistes who dance to item-songs as ‘dumb,’ ‘bimbos,’ and ‘cheap.’
There are self-taught dance enthusiasts like Nora Fatehi, who I find intelligent, multifaceted, and confident. The lady can dance, sing, and act in comic roles.
Late Jayalalithaa is proof that there’s more to glamour girls than what meets the eye. Glamorous female artistes can have grey matter too—be an academic State topper and capable of administering an entire state.
Sunny Leone is more than a pornographic actor, or item girl. She’s a savvy entrepreneur and mother.
The road ahead
A mere ban on item-songs will not solve deep-rooted issues that exist in our society. Instead, let’s look at solutions that respect all women for their choices.
1. Ban the word ‘Item-Girl’
When there are no item-boys, there are no item-girls. We should ban the derogatory word. None of the women are items or girls. They are bonafide entertainers.
2. Normalise not shame female sexuality
It was hypocrisy when the Censor Board banned ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ initially for obscenity. But it had no objections to the unmentionable lyrics in the song, ‘Fevicol Se’ from Dabangg 2, which equates a woman to a ‘tandoori murgi’ that is best consumed with alcohol. I don’t know which woman would mouth the following words.
‘Main to tandoori haye
Main to tandoori murgi hu yaar
Gatka le saiyyan alcohol se ok!’
I blame the double standards of us, the audience, and the film industry, which thrives and feeds off these female artistes who do item songs. While we ogle and enjoy their on-screen antics, the producers make their profits but not before dismissing these dancing women as ‘items.’ It’s unfair to these entertainers.
The Censor Board should normalize not shame female sexuality. Songs like ‘Fevicol Se’ are a corrupted version of the feminine desire. Not movies like ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ which show the reality of the female sexual desire. Instead, let’s encourage movies like Manmarziyaan, that take into account the female perspective, and not shame movies like ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ or ‘Fire’ for telling stories of the female sexuality.
3. Implement #MeToo campaign
Consent is key. We should not tolerate coercion. We need movements like #MeToo so that every artiste is safe at their workplace.
The #MeToo accused male artists still find work within the industry after several narratives by the victims. It’s the female artistes who have braved all odds to speak about their #MeToo stories who find it hard to find work.
This needs to change if we want a safe, equal, and diverse work environment.
So, let’s stop slut-shaming our women in entertainment. Let them breathe, and be as they wish to be—whether it’s oozing sensuality, riding up the poles, or shaking their bellies. If it’s their choice, who are we to condemn them?
When we can award the best actress or female singer, then why not for the best female dancer? Someday.
“I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists