There was a time in Hindi cinema when only the bad girl crooned sensuous numbers. Who can forget Padma Khanna in Johnny Mera Naam (1971), heaving in Husn ke laakhon rang kaun sa rang dekhoge?
While the male gaze in films has been falling on women for long, the objectification of the female form began with the vamp’s voluptuous frame in the 1970s. In recent times however, the gyrations of the average Hindi film heroine threaten to shake up even Parliament, with the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) planning radical changes in the way women are perceived, especially in item songs.
Shabana Azmi feels radical changes are needed, especially with regard to item songs. Says the activist-actress, “Today’s so-called item numbers are downright crass. Fragmented images of a woman’s heaving bosom, swivelling navel and swinging hips make her an object of male lust. Voyeuristic camera angles and vulgar lyrics further demean her. When women are commodified in films and advertisements, they do not get empowered; they debase themselves and counter the work that the women’s movement has been doing over the decades.
It’s time our heroines exercised some discretion in the choices they make.” But Shabana is against painting all item numbers with the same brush. “All item numbers are not bad. Celebrating a woman’s sexuality in a robust way such as Beedi jalaye le jigar se piya in the film Omkara is liberating and shows the woman in control,” she says.
Actress-filmmaker Soni Razdan says, “Women as objects of desire have been around for decades and the celebration of sexuality is a natural impulse. To ban or suppress it would have even more damaging consequences. What is required is a more liberal attitude, better sex education, and less secrecy around the topic of sex.”
Ila Bedi, daughter of the prolific 1970s’ director Narender Bedi feels item songs are a definite provocation. Says Ila, “Chikni chameli, Sheila ki jawani and Ooh la la provide cheap thrills. When women call themselves tandoori chicken, fish fry and other edibles, why should men respect them? With their raunchy pelvic thrusts, item songs definitely commodify women.”
Filmmaker Reema Kagti, who portrayed Rani Mukerjee and Kareena Kapoor as strong assertive women in Talaash, admits, “Songs definitely do their bit, but the overall misrepresentation of women in our films is a bigger problem. Writers and directors need to get more sensitive, and understand women better before portraying them.”
However, lyricist Prasoon Joshi feels that Hindi films and songs are not entirely to blame. “Yes, there are some songs and scenes where restraint could have been exercised. But if the intent of the filmmaker/writer isn’t titillation, then it cannot be considered wrong.”
Kabir Bedi feels that women’s sex appeal has always been a staple diet for films, fashion, television and advertising. “Men are also commodified. Handsome hunks are taking off their shirts all the time. Bollywood has its own style of entertainment. Too much censure is not good,” says the actor.
Meanwhile, Sharmila Tagore feels that sexy song sequences are not the only problem. “Many sexist dialogues are delivered by men in our films. And both men and women are being commodified. While men sell motorcycles and cars, sari-clad women sell washing machines and Aquaguards. Sometimes, girls are just too young and naïve to know where the camera is placed and how they’re being captured,” she says.
Sharmila reminds us that we have a tradition of raunchy songs. “Those ched-chad numbers are an integral part of Indian weddings where women sing naughty lines, like in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parineeta. So why pick only at item numbers? They are part of a larger picture. Every item song is not vulgar,” Sharmila adds.
As for the women who are being commodified, Sharmila says, “If a woman enjoys doing a certain thing on screen, it’s her prerogative. Men do a lot of vulgar dances too, but they are not condemned. Why do we expect women’s morals to be on a higher plane than the men? They do not resonate with today’s times. I am not exonerating sexism, but we need to revisit these values and not pass judgement on an ad-hoc basis.”