Some reflections on the 'Item Number' and our popular culture

There have been many attempts to theorize the role of pleasure in culture, they vary immensely, but all share the desire to divide pleasure into two …one of which they applaud, and the other they deplore. – John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture

There was a time not long ago, when Malayali’s used to frown at the bared shoulders of ‘silk’ Smitha in billboards. Now we have native Nayanthara or imported Katrina gyrating and flexing in skimpy clothes just inside our living rooms. We even have our own ‘naadan’ versions of them cloned and re-presented in ‘little or junior’ dancers title to which we clap, sing, cry and also vote. The hue and cry that rose when Madhuri jutted her bosom to “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?” is erased even from our ‘collective unconscious’ and we tap our foot to “Zara Zara Touch Me Touch Me Touch Me”. Indigenous Malayalam versions, or rather ‘mallu’ versions are produced and we have “Chenthengil” and “Osama” with three of our male ‘super’ stars sharing screen space with ‘itemgirls’.

How much of a part of our popular culture is the “item number”? Are they really popular? This article tries to explore the so called ‘chartbusting’ capabilities of the “item numbers”, giving serious attention to “placing the subject under scrutiny within its multiple contexts, to the ‘text’ in all its permutations and complexities, …to the consumers’ readings and uses of the texts”1.

To quote from The Official Dictionary Of Unofficial English: “An item number is a musical performance that has little to do with the film in which it appears, but is presented to showcase beautiful dancing women, to lend support to the marketability of the film”2. Wikipedia provides more clarity; “Although, the origin of the term item number is obscure, it is likely that it derives its meaning from objectification of sexually attractive women. This is because item in filmy Mumbai slang is a sexy woman…The item number would feature an "item girl" who appears in the film as a dancer, usually in a bar or nightclub, and is only in the film for the length of that song. …Today, it is a commonly used term with hardly any negative connotations to it. The term item number has now been relaxed to include almost all upbeat dance numbers involving either a woman in very revealing clothes, or a cameo from a star who is only in the movie for the length of that song”. Lately we have also seen item numbers with male stars performing. It is common for such item numbers to occur in the opening or closing credits of the films. The sequence is seen as a promotional stunt for the film to lure in viewers and to keep the movie in media limelight and public discussions, so that the film becomes a piece of entertainment “[even] before we enter the cinema- in a kind of englobingly extensive prolongation”3. Thus in a sense, the songs constitute a film in advance4. The necessary features of the item number as listed by Sreya Basu, in the editorial of Glamsham is worthy of note: the item number should have the capacity to make people jump off their seats at theatres, blow whistles and do all sorts of mad things, the wordings have to be suggestive; subtly cheap as opposed to outright cheap and the choreography should have the ‘jhatkas’ and ‘matkas’, pelvic thrusts and seducing looks , with a sexy and sensuous costume and the perfect backdrop of unruly men.

Studies have already traced the lineage of item numbers to the 1960’s Bollywood vamp songs which have always been an “x-factor of Hindi films….Which guaranteed success at the Box Office”5. The trend spread to Tamil industry quite late in comparison, and even much later on in Malayalam films. Recent Tamil hits perfectly fit to the bill, a few examples would be “Daddy Mummy Veettil Illae” from Villu (2009)or “En Peru Meena Kumari” from Kandhaswamy (2009). The trend was subtle in Malayalam films in the beginning with numbers like “Dhank na dhillam dhillam” from Narasimham (2000) or such ones. It’s important to notice that these ‘mallu’ versions vary from the Bollywood and Tollywood versions on a few counts. There is almost no item number without the hero in it. In recent sleeker versions as ‘Chenthengil’ from the Mammotty, Prithviraj starrer Pokkiriraja (2010) or ‘Osama’ from the Mohanlal starrer Sagar Alias Jacky (2009), the heroes share much screen space with the item girls and they are in particular highlighted. The Malayalam industry has customized the item songs to the taste of the mallu palate where the hero rules the screen space even when it is just an item number.

The Malayali soaks up all that Bollywood and Tollywood has on offer, and wouldn’t feel disconcerted if it is Aishwarya Ray doing a “Kajrare” or Shriya Saran doing a “Meow meow” but they would never accept it if it were a Kavya Madhavan or Navya Nayar, who are mainstream Malayalam actresses.

Coming to the popularity of the item numbers, we will have to acknowledge that they are immensely popular, in the sense they are played at every other wedding, and associated ceremonies, at religious and cultural festivals, { I reside quite near to the Attukal Temple and the residents associations arrange music boxes to blare out such hit numbers for the entertainment of the pilgrims and residents during the pongal season…and with strong conviction I could say that it would be the same scenario during the Uroos festival at the Muslim’s shrine at Beemapally } they are repeatedly telecast over the umpteen cable channels, re-performed at every award ceremony and sung at almost every stage show and also imitated by contestants in dance reality shows, even in the ‘junior’ categories. They have also started to ‘spice up’ the prime time television soaps. They get added to You Tube playlists and get widely shared via Social Networking sites as well through F.M stations. The film which features the song might have flopped miserably at the Box-office but the case of the item number stands different. What is it that makes these songs popular...? Is it mindless consuming, or a more decided choice? Adorno and Hokheimer picture the audience of culture industry as the dupes of mass deception6. But John Fiske contends that “popular culture is made from within and below, not imposed from without or above as mass culture theorists would have it”.Elsewhere he justifies his stance by stating “if the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings …they will be rejected and will fail in the market place.”7

The popularity of Bollywood and Tollywood numbers in mallu land is immense which is evident from the way it gets appropriated in different forms here. The titillation it adds is welcomed, the subversive lyrics doesn’t raise brows, and the item numbers are gleefully consumed without a question. The fact to be noticed is that, it is not one of the mainstream Malayalam actresses performing the dance; if so the reception would have been different. The Malayali soaks up all that Bollywood and Tollywood has on offer, and wouldn’t feel disconcerted if it is Aishwarya Ray doing a “Kajrare” or Shriya Saran doing a “Meow meow” but they would never accept it if it were a Kavya Madhavan or Navya Nayar, who are mainstream Malayalam actresses. The Malayali actresses’, as well as any malayali womens’ persona and sexuality still remains circumscribed by the rigid morality code of Malayali culture. This double standard is what prominently reflects in the recent Thasni Banu assault issue: where a woman from Cochin, Kerala who was traveling to her workspace at night with a male friend had to face verbal abuse and blows. The Malayali machismo readily makes item numbers a part of its popular culture, but couldn’t accept the “transgression” of a Malayali woman {read transgression as -travelling on a bike with a male friend at 10.30 pm}, for the sake of not “having a Kochi culture”8. How far the culture industry has changed the sensibilities of the Malayali consumer when it comes to “pleasure” is evident, but alas double standards in real life still prevail.

  • This paper was presented at the National Seminar on ‘Charting New Territories: Cartographies of Popular Media and Culture’ held at All Saints' College, Trivandrum on August 18-19, 2011.
  • 1. Hinds, Harold. E, Jr. “A Holistic Approach to the Study of Popular Culture: Context, Text, Audience, and Recoding”. Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction. Ed. Harold E. Hinds, Jr., Marilyn F. Motz, and Angela M. S. Nelson. Madison:The Wisconsin UP, 2006.163-181. Print.
  • 2. “Item Number.” Def. The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English.2006. Print.
  • 3. Klinger, Barbara. “Digressions at the Cinema: Reception and Mass Culture”. Cinema Journal Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer, 1989), pp. 3-19. University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies. Web. 9 Aug 2011.
  • 4. Nayar, Pramod K. Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics. New Delhi: Sage Publishers, 2006. Print.
  • 5. Basu, Sreya. “The Success Formula of Item Numbers Revealed”. Editorial. Glamsham. March 7 2011. Web. 10 Aug. 2011.
  • 6. Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” 2010.
  • 7. Fiske, John. Reading the Popular. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
  • 8. Sruthi, J. S. “The Pathology of Culture.” Bodhi Commons: Liberating Thoughts reclaiming Commons. 28 June 2011. Web. 9 Aug 2011.