Nana Patekar’s alleged harassment of actress Tanushree Dutta in 2008 during the shoot of an item song for the unreleased movie Horn Ok Pleassss illustrates how attitudes towards women’s bodies percolate from screen to real life. The skewed gender politics of the average item song, in which a woman performs for a group of men, is a reflection of the Hindi film industry’s culture of normalising sexual abuse and the careless consumption of women’s bodies. Rarely essential to the narrative, the item song declares that it is permissible, and even natural, to cavalierly use women’s bodies for entertainment.

Songs in which women dance for men and sing about their bodies and clothes are just one form of the several problems in Hindi cinema’s depiction of women. Such songs have robust distribution networks that extend beyond the films in which they appear. These songs can cause more widespread harm to the performing woman as well as the woman in the audience than the film itself.

In 2017, director Karan Johar apologised for the item numbers in his films, stating that he would not include them in the future. “The moment you put a woman in the centre and a thousand men looking at her lustingly, it’s setting the wrong example,” he said. More recently, Vishal Bhardwaj dropped the song Hello Hello, featuring Malaika Arora, from the September release Pataakha.

Hello Hello, Pataakha (2018).

Not all filmmakers can resist the temptation to throw an item song into their movies. In the recently released Stree, a woman (Nora Fatehi) performs to a crowd of lustful men in Kamariya. The horror-comedy claims to unpack the social consequences of mistreating and oppressing women. But as the camera tarries on Fatehi’s waist, breasts or back, it dehumanises her and reduces her to a collection of body parts that is meant to titillate. The eye of the camera tells the audience that it is desirable for their eyes to lasciviously consume women’s bodies.

The motif of consumption finds resonance in the lyrics of several of these songs, with women comparing themselves to edible products and inviting men to gaze upon them. The trend can be traced from songs such as Mungra Mungra from Inkaar (1977), in which the performing woman compares herself to a lump of jaggery while equating men with ants, to item numbers such as Fevicol Se from Dabangg 2 (2012), and Haseeno Ka Deewana from Kaabil (2017), where women’s bodies are compared with tandoori chicken and wine respectively. As women employ their voice to describe their bodies or attire in an effort to entice men, it is implied that their voices are also meant to become and remain subservient.

Kamariya, Stree (2018).

Since the visuals in several item songs include men looking at the body of the performing woman with avarice, they instruct audiences about the kind of response that is expected from them. In Aa Re Pritam Pyaare from Rowdy Rathore (2012), a man is shown dancing with three women. He proceeds to touch their bodies, and at one point, even rests his head on one woman’s breasts. The manner in which he negotiates with the bodies of the women also raises questions about the conditions in which such songs are produced. In an interview with Zoom TV, Tanushree Dutta alleged that Patekar asked to be included as part of an “intimate step” in a solo number featuring her, and claimed that such songs function as “side routes” for powerful men in the industry to harass or abuse female actors.

The culture of item songs is sustained by the rhetoric of choice, with actresses claiming that they perform them out of their own free will. For instance, Malaika Arora, who has appeared in item songs such as Chaiyya Chaiyya in Dil Se (1998), Kaal Dhamaal from Kaal (2005), Hoth Rasiley in Welcome (2007) and Munni Badnaam Hui in Dabangg (2010), has said that she does not “feel objectified” while performing such songs. “Well, there’ll always be a certain amount of male gaze, male attention, that goes without saying,” she told The Hindu earlier this year. “Then again, I am capable of making those calls. I don’t regret any of the songs I’ve done.”

However, this argument elides the mechanisms of the pleasure of these songs, which are based on skewed gender politics, and the oppressive social structures within which women make this choice.

Munni Badnaam Hui, Dabangg (2010).

Speaking at FICCI Frames earlier this year, Shabana Azmi pointed out the problem with the idea that songs in which women perform their sexuality for men are a celebration of female sexuality. “When a girl or a leading lady says it’s alright, I want to celebrate my sensuality’ I have no problem with that. I think that’s wonderful. But under the pretense of ‘celebrating your sensuality’ what you are actually doing is surrendering to the male gaze and objectifying yourselves because the business of cinema is of images,” Azmi said. Dutta’s allegations against Patekar point to the imbalanced power dynamics in the conditions of the production of such images, but also hint at the many problems in the way they are received.