The objectification of women in Bollywood item songs

Are Bollywood item songs anti-feminist? This burning question came to me after watching Sunny Leone gyrate to Baby Doll Main Sone Ki from Ragini MMS 2 for the millionth time, whose lyrics so obviously objectify and de-humanise women.

This had to be a slam dunk – Surely the answer is staring us in the face (“item” song) and don’t we have our answer already when we consider “Is this something men are worried about?”, also discussed in my previous post.

But the more “performance numbers” (I am using the term as a substitute for item song) I watched on YouTube, the more convinced I was that the answer wasn’t as simple.

I wasn’t sure if my objections arose from the genuine objectification of women or my deep-seated patriarchal notions about how a “decent” woman should look and behave. Observing the near-violent female chest-and-hip thrusting on show, I was reminded of the toe-curling embarrassment we face when one of these sexy performance numbers comes on during family TV time. But why is it uncomfortable to watch these women? Does that scene in Dostana with John Abraham in swimming trunks make us cringe in the same way?

One of the reasons these performance numbers shock and ultimately titillate audiences is because they are a taboo. This taboo stems from a patriarchal society that says we should protect and cover up female sexuality. When something breaks this taboo, it grabs our attention. The more conservative-minded amongst us would dismiss these performance numbers as degrading to women. However, to apply a blanket rejection of every such performance numbers could also be sexist.

You see, some of these performances are considered “celebrations of female sensuality”. This argument was thrown up in the debate linking performance numbers to rape, following the Delhi gang rape incident in December 2012. While I agree with this, I have come to the conclusion that a performance number is degrading and regressive whenever the woman is presented as an object rather than a subject. This holds even if the woman has seemingly taken control and is voluntarily presenting herself as an object. This TED talk by Caroline Heldman (see 4:25) explains it well and helped form my view.

I attended this talk by Shabana Azmi last year, where she lauded Beedi Jalaile from Omkara as a “good” song and Fevicol Se from Dabangg 2 as a “bad” song. She said it came down to the lyrics. Beedi Jalaile was a poetic folk song while the other was about a woman likening herself to a chicken. This is no joke. The line goes, “Main toh tandoori murgi ho yaar, gathkale saiyaan alcohol se”, translated as: Darling, I am a tandoori chicken…Swallow me with the help of alcohol.

I feel like there is a grey area here and there are things about both performance numbers which make me uncomfortable. For starters, both songs featured a woman suggestively dancing to hundreds of seemingly drunk and lewd men. Why is this wrong?

Because we have no control over how these performance numbers are perceived by various factions of society, and most importantly, young impressionable girls, who may take these performance numbers as cues on how women “should” or “should not” behave. Also, these songs could (and probably do) desensitise men into thinking that a woman is dressed scantily because she wants to have sex with them.

This puts the blame in the viewers’ court because ultimately a performance number is what we make of it. Yes, there are lots of performances numbers that serve to titillate but what is considered titillating varies from society to society and viewer to viewer. The more prudishly we view these songs, the more scandalous they will seem to us. But again, it is difficult to control the messages they send out.

We can’t deny that these performance numbers can be lucrative for women trying to earn a living in an industry that is fiercely male-dominated and I reserve no judgement for them. Ultimately, it is depressing and unfortunate that this is an option made available to women. Knowing the conservative nature of our society, I doubt if these women would opt for performance numbers if they didn’t pay so well.

Going back to what makes a song good or bad, I think this depends on a number of factors. I considered a sample of performance numbers (which are listed at the end of this post) and considering the following:

1. Do the lyrics objectify women and show men as subjects? For example, Tu Cheez Badi Hain Mast Mast (Mohra), Chikni Chameli (Agneepath), Baby Doll Main Sone Di, Mere Photo Ko Seene Se (Dabanng 2), Isko bachalo babu from Choli Ke Peeche (Khal Nayak). In some cases, the women even self-objectify.

2. Do the lyrics focus on a few physical aspects of the woman? For example, Sheela ki jawani (Tees Maar Khan), Choli ke peeche, Munni ke gaal gulaabi, chaal sharabi (Dabangg).

3. Does the video feature a group of men (often drunk) gesturing lewdly towards the woman, with the woman displaying no objections? Several performance numbers in my sample had this. The ones that didn’t were Ek Do Teen (Tezaab) where Madhuri Dixit is genuinely performing on stage. Also, in Kajrare (Bunty aur Babli), Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan are dancing with Aishwarya Rai with relative respect. Others included Piya Tu (Caravan) and Chaiya Chaiya (Dil Se).

4. Do the lyrics and video desensitise the woman’s rejection of the man’s requests? For example, Jhumma chumma de de / Jhumma chumma na de (Hum), Sheela tere haath na aane wali.

5. Does the video ultimately shows the woman giving in to the man after her constant refusals? As above. I only realised this after I watched Jhumma Chumma with adult eyes. I saw a woman being hosed down and harassed by 500 men into kissing Amitabh Bachchan.

6. Would the performance number would hold its own even if the male and female roles were reversed? All the songs failed this test. For example, see this video of boys dancing to Baby Doll Main Sone Di which has gone viral because it is hilarious.

The only two songs that came out clean were Piya Tu and Chaiya Chaiya.

Widening the net, I feel that songs like Kajrare, Beedi Jalaile and Namak pass because it could be argued that the women in these songs are portrayed as subjects. For thoughtful interpretations, see this and this.

Over the years, these performance numbers have pervaded our everyday lives and we are a long way away from ridding ourselves from their evils. Banning them is certainly not the answer. All kinds of arguments about freedom of speech can be made here and moreover, it would be wrong to apply a blanket ban on something that is so subjective.

Interpretation will differ from person to person. At the least, we can refuse to be scandalised by skin shows. We can reconsider our passive consumption of these songs on the television, radio, night clubs and weddings. We can initiate a dialogue about the ones that repel us the most.

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10 comments

  1. Well written, simple,concise… Without any mysterious use of the English vocabulary.
    All points out on the table,thought provoking and not necessarily biased.

  2. But what do women do if they’re offended by such anti-feminist conent? There was a whole new wave of item songs with Munni Badnaam, but apart from the usual eyebrow raising and ‘haww’s that went with it, nothing definitive seems to have come out that experience. I also remember this happening with Kaanta Laga.

    1. A sad reality is that production studios will fund, and even mandate, dance performances as long as they generate ticket sales. We should vote with our feet and encourage others to do so. For example – We could stop our mindless dancing to Honey Singh’s songs and pay attention to the lyrics.

      A measure could be to stop dance performances from being shown during normal viewing hours, when they can be seen by children. This doesn’t change anything in the short run, as dance performances will continue to be shown, but it would take away the seal of approval that many such films enjoy.

      BTW, I do feel the tide is turning. The media picked up on the issue of dance performances last year and the issue is being discussed out there (http://www.storypick.com/damaging-truth-indian-entertainment-industry-doesnt-want-know/).

  3. Nice post! I myself have 2 item song rules to classify them as good/bad.
    1- Presence/absence of ‘lewd’ shots (only breasts/hips/cleavage in the frame, completely cutting out the rest of the body)
    2- Presence/absence of hordes men ‘pawing’ at the dancing woman.

    Any one of the two present makes a song ‘objectifying’ for me. I must confess, I hadn’t taken the lyrics and the ‘situation’ of the song into account. Your list is so much more comprehensive.
    Anyway, for a few ‘good’ ones I’d reccomend Aga Bai (Aiyya) and Vidya Balan’s number in Ferrari Ki Sawari

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