Item numbers, do they still work?

Jalaibee screengrab
Zhalay Sarhadi, Jalaibee screengrab

Recently, the nation’s favourite controversial headline Hamza Ali Abbasi had some choice words for item numbers. In the now viral Facebook post, the actor lashed out against the industrywide phenomenon. Using women empowerment, religion and culture as his argument he called on PEMRA to act against item numbers.

Now, given that PEMRA has been on a bit of a banning spree, I don’t think we should be adding fuel to their fire. Also, in 2017 I think that most of us accept that item numbers appeal to misogyny. There has been a lot of talk about choice when it comes to such songs. And while I, of course, don’t think that women should be judged or shamed for choosing to be part of such songs. I also feel that justifying item numbers because the leading ladies in question don’t question the practice is a bit of a stretch. (Although, feminist literature on item numbers is incredibly varied, and really deserves its own post.)

But if we isolate filmmaker intent, let’s not pretend that a woman dancing in front of an army of drunk men is supposed to be a symbol of empowerment. Such acts are meant to appeal to the male audience. And they do.

But for far too long, they have also been relegated as ‘necessary’ for business. Many a filmmaker has said that item numbers are included in films because it is what the public wants to see.

And among the many problems I have with item numbers, this attitude is what irks me the most.


Item numbers and Pakistan: a history 

The most ardent social media junkie will know that this isn’t the first time Mr. Abbasi has addressed item numbers. In 2015, he called the phenomenon something that was a “borrowed trend from India.” And while there is a hint of truth in this, it’s not completely accurate.

The sequin studded item numbers that grace contemporary cinema screens were definitely perfected by Bollywood. No one (in their right mind at least) can deny that.

But item numbers do have a history in Pakistan that predates Mr. Abbasi and the rest of us.

While they didn’t look anything like the performances of today, yet early Pakistani cinema is riddled with would be item number. A prominent example of this is yesteryear legend Rani, who got her big break as a seductive gypsy girl in the film Behen Bhai. And I am not at all suggesting that she wasn’t a true talent. On the contrary, her performance in films like Umrao Jaan Ada were really powerful. But, she was also a beautiful woman whose dancing prowess was used in many films to excite the male audience.

She and her contemporaries were the centrepieces of early item numbers. And a reminder that the intent was always to showcase a beautiful woman as an ‘item’ to satisfy the fantasies of the masses.

The most telltale sign of this is that as Pakistani cinema began dwindling, local item songs became raunchier. As mentioned in the documentary The Forgotten Song by Adnan Malik, when commercial cinema began disappearing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, dance sequences became incredibly bawdy.

Filmmakers were desperate, and wanted to attract whatever audience they could get their hands on. To do this the exasperated the original intent of the item song.


Lessons from India

Of course the fact that item numbers have been part of our film heritage isn’t the only reason behind their persistence. As I mentioned before, it is a long standing belief that item numbers bring in box office numbers. But, I’m not buying this. Why? Well, let’s just look at the colossal film industry next door.

Bollywood’s sparkling item songs have become legendary. Not a year goes by without a Bollywood leading lady sashaying her way into our living rooms and wedding halls. But are item numbers needed for the success of a film?

Let’s look at recent statistics.

In 2015, Bajrangi Bhaijan and Tanu Weds Manu Returns lead Box office numbers. In 2016, the highest grossing Bollywood film was Sultan. For 2017, this title belongs to Dangal.

What do all of these films have in common? That they don’t have an item number? Well yes. But what else?

They all have compelling stories. And what’s more, they all have complex and important female characters.

Tanu Weds Manu, via Giphy

Tanu Weds Manu Returns relies solely on its female lead, Kangana Ranaut. While Dangal is based on the true story of two female wrestles from rural India.

Dangal via Giphy

The people have spoken

Don’t get me wrong, these films have many flaws. But they also prove that item numbers are not necessary. The audience has constantly indicated that they are more than willing to prioritize story over sultry songs. Individuals have also called out the inherent misogyny of item numbers. Vocal feminists have written about the problems that such performances pose. Also while people love disagreeing with Mr. Abbasi, notice that for the first time they don’t disagree with his sentiments entirely. Yes, he drew some flak. But this focused on his own hypocrisy rather then what he was saying.

In a nutshell then, item songs don’t work anymore. Films have done thunderous business without them. And given the recent trend, the audience seems to prioritize substance over style. Perhaps then, it is time that all of us move on.

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