Item numbers have become an indelible part of Indian cinema and some of the item girls in the past had even overshadowed the lead actors of their era in terms of popularity among the masses. Postnoon traces the journey so far
Desire is one of the most profound effects of films. From Vyjayanthimala to Mallika Sherawat, there have been umpteen actresses in the past who managed to become every man’s dream girl. To cash in on their popularity, filmmakers often included ‘item numbers’ in the film. Most of the times, these item numbers had no connection with the main story but that hardly seemed to matter to millions of moviegoers who couldn’t have enough of the divas gyrating to scintillating music.
The history of item songs dates back to early 50s, when the likes of Cuckoo, Vyjayanthimala and Padmini became a sensation in both Hindi and Tamil cinema with their dance recitals in films like Nagin, Devdas, Vanjikottai Valiban and Raj Tilak. The sleaze factor, which is often associated with item songs, hadn’t permeated into popular culture until the late 60s. In 1958, one of the songs in Sakthi Samanta’s Howrah Bridge, Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu became extremely popular and Helen, who performed in the song, became a big star overnight. For the next two decades, she was the most popular item girl in Hindi cinema and she went on to play noteworthy supporting roles in quite a few films. The popularity of cabarets in mid 20th century had had a huge influence on item numbers. No wonder, most of the songs featuring the likes of Helen and later Jayamalini, Jyothi Lakshmi and Silk Smitha were set in a cabaret and they often featured the hero and the villains enjoying the performance of the dancer. By the early 80s, the item numbers had become so popular in Telugu and Tamil, that distributors demanded the producers and directors to feature Jayamalini and Silk Smitha in an item
Item girls were often dressed to kill and their ability to provide an outlet to repressed sexuality made them an indelible part of cinema in the 80s. Silk Smitha had become an icon and some of her songs like Pon meni Uruguthey in Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai and Nethu rathiri yamma in SP Muthuraman’s Sakalakala Vallavan are popular to this day. Meanwhile, lead actresses in Hindi like Madhuri Dixit, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi had begun dancing in special songs in their respective films which made the concept of featuring item girls like Helen, Aruna Irani and others redundant. The enormous popularity of songs like Ek Do Theen from Tezaab, Choli Ke Peechey Kya Hai, Dhak Dhak and Dum Maro Dum from Hare Rama Hare Krishna is proof enough of this trend. Actresses like Tabu, Raveena Tandon, Shilpa Shetty, Ramya Krishna and even Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai did item numbers at several stages of their career.
In the early part of the 21st century, the item songs were back in vogue thanks to the rise of item girls like Malaika Arora, Rakhi Sawant, Yana Gupta, Mallika Sherawat and Mumaith Khan. Dressed more provocatively than ever before, they even sparked a debate whether item songs were crossing the line between sensuality and vulgarity. But that hardly seemed to have made a difference to the producers because these item songs caught more eyeballs than the actual film itself.
Of late, several foreign dancers like Maryam Zakaria, Nathali Kaur, Gabriela Bertante, Scarlett Wilson are giving the local talent a run for their money. But then, as long as they continue to set the screens on fire with their moves, no one’s complaining.
About the Author (Author Profile)
Hemanth writes primarily about Telugu cinema, although he finds inspiration from the works of filmmakers like Woody Allen. Apart from writing, he spends most of his time on Twitter discussing about cinema, travel and life in Hyderabad.