'Item' Numbers, Censor Board and us

The energy around women's issues in India is heartening and it makes me very happy. Of the many things that I adore about feminism, one of my favorite, is its ability to allow many feminisms to co-exist. That it does recognize that there is no one universal woman and that this world is large enough to accommodate our different needs.

Now that I have stated my disclaimer, let me get to the news item that made me think about this post .

The article targets "item" numbers in Indian cinema. Item numbers are songs in Indian movies which add very little to the plot of the movie. They typically have a woman dance in a very sexually expressive manner. The primary purpose of this song and dance sequence, is to provide the viewer a break, from the heavy plot. The Times of India article says, "Post the shameful Nirbhaya gangrape and murder case, the Censor Board is taking up the dual role of the nation's conscience keeper and the body that certifies films. New guidelines are being drawn up on how women will be treated on-screen. The idea is to ensure that 'women are not objectified'." Now that makes me uneasy. I do agree that these songs objectify women on screen.

But aren't there two sides to this story? In fact three.

One, that they objectify women.

Two, these women who dance on screen, are they helpless, passive actors with no choice? This is actually an old argument. The argument that Madonna made, when she was criticized by feminists. That she was in charge of her sexuality. She was consciously being "sexy" because she liked it. Isn't that freedom? Isn't that choice?

Three, what about us, the women who watch and dance to these numbers off-screen?


I am not sure about others, but every time I have danced to the tune of Beedi Jalaile, I have felt empowered. I have felt the freedom to be my sensual self, which is normally not allowed. These songs recognized that women were sensual beings too. And when we danced to them off-screen, we were embracing our own sensual self.

So, when the government says that it will take the role of the conscious keeper, I get worried. This body apparently will decide how women will be treated on screen. What would be the basis of this decision? Will the "family cinema" then show only the 'lady', on screen? Will it then reinforce the notion that "women from good families" don't dance sensually? I am not even going into the caste notions of how a "good woman" should look and dance!

This article and several people lament the fact that mainstream heroines are doing item numbers. I see it as a very healthy trend. Earlier, we had separate groups of women(the vamps and the dirty women) to do the item numbers. After all, it is only the dirty women who would choose to be expressive with their sensuality. With mainstream heroines doing these numbers, the distinction has reduced a lot. We, as the audience are absolutely fine seeing Kareena as the "item" girl and as the wife or girlfriend in real life. That says a lot. It would mean that every wife and girlfriend who shakes her body sexily will not be seen as an anomaly.It means, normal women need not suppress their sensuality.

Having said that, I do understand the concern about the term "item" number and the discomfort with the misogyny in these lyrics. I also agree that these songs were created for the male gaze.

So, how do we negotiate women's sexual agency in a market that objectifies women?

Perhaps, we could imagine a new genre of songs and dances. Dances which do not suppress women's sexuality. Neither should they celebrate misogyny. I do not know how those songs and dances will look like. Maybe that is also part of the problem. That, most of our directors are men. Maybe we need some new imaginations. As always, I hope art will find a way out.

But for now, I still want to see Bipasha dance the way she did. Because when I watched her dance, I felt I could do it too. And I would dance just like her. A million times over. Would you?