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Demystifying The Popular Item Number Trend: Indian Cinema

November 10, 2008 | By

Since about six years or so, there has been a flurry of ‘item numbers’ that are indoctrinated into films.

Cinema is founded on scopophilia or the pleasure of looking and therefore it constantly devises narrative strategies to solicit the ‘look’ and mobilize the scopic drive. In popular Hindi cinema, the film narrative is organized in such a manner that scopophilia, catered for through strategies of overt spectacle and display, takes priority over epistemophilia (the desire to know or to ‘find out’). Central to the pleasures of heterosexual scopophilia is the role of the woman. She functions primarily to address the erotic gaze and constitutes an indispensable ingredient in look-soliciting strategies. It is imperative to therefore examine the cultural negotiations with regimes of power that must take place in order to successfully present the woman as an erotic spectacle. It aims to show the commercial and ideological pressure that are exerted on film makers to make a ‘spectacle’ of the woman, and the strategies and subterfuges that the industry must deploy in order to legitimize such erotic voyeurism.

Popular Hindi cinema caters to a vast, heterogeneous, cross-class audience which is not always entirely familiar with the Hindi language. In order to maximize its market share, it acknowledges the composite nature of its nationwide public and privileges visual and non-verbal modes of address. After Indian Independence, instead of liberalizing film censorship, the new Indian Board tightened its control over the industry even further much to the dismay of film-makers. The post-Independence nationalist project was seeking to create a unique ‘Indian’ identity, untainted by a less fortunate past sought to uphold tradition, morality, and good taste. Faced with ideological pressure to present the woman as muse, Hindi cinema had to develop strategies that could uphold the state directives and placate the controlling bodies, without sacrificing the erotic pleasures for its audiences.

In order to uphold the modern state’s vision of the Indian woman as muse rather than erotic spectacle as well as to provide erotic pleasures to the different pockets of its vast viewership, the Hindi film industry has had to resort to a variety of strategies and subterfuges. The most important strategy has been to create an ‘idealised moral universe’ that upholds the ‘official’ definition of femininity within the main plot and then to provide erotic pleasures to its targeted audiences through the song-and-dances sequences. The paradigmatic moments of song and dance mark a shift of registers that places them well within the realm of fantasy, and frees and distances the moments of spectacle from the syntagmatic narrative. In such spectacular displays, the woman is the central component who solicits and intensifies the voyeuristic gaze.

Till the 1970’s, the Hindi film narrative achieved this through a simple bi-polarization of women into ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Most frequently the Hindi film deployed a ‘vamp’, an unscrupulous adventuress, a grand seductress of men who counterbalanced the sexual modesty of the virtual heroine. As the over-westernized femme fatale, the vamp provided the antithesis to the ideal woman’s embodiment of chastity, by her demonstrations of uncontrolled female lust and wantonness. With names like ‘Rosie’ or ‘Mary’, she was parodied as either an Anglo-Indian (a racial outcaste) or a member of India’s Christian minority. A demi-mondaine, she was often a cabaret dancer operating in smoke-filled bars, night clubs, or similar ‘foreign’ dens of vice, usually owned b the gangster-villain, where, clad in a tight-fitting, western gown she performed audacious dances. The vamps sexual promiscuity, her racial ‘otherness’ and non-Hindu identity contrasted dramatically with the heroine’s own strict adherence to traditionally defined codes of behaviour required of the ideal Hindu woman. Moral codes were upheld in grandiloquent and hyperbolic pronouncements on the virtues of the ideal Hindu woman, while transgressive voyeuristic enjoyment of the fetishized ‘foreign’ woman making a ‘spectacle of herself’ in a staged performance was also achieved consequently.


In Hindi cinema, transgressive desire is given access through the over westernized stereotype, an example of which can be found in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420.

Once the vamp’s erotic performances were successfully executed, she was usually disposed off (again by the convenient, stray bullet) as fitting punishment for her threatening sexuality. Such a resolution also saved the film-maker from having to relocate her in the narrative, a difficult task, given her moral depravity and unredeemable racial ‘otherness’. In Hindi cinema, transgressive desire is given access through the over westernized stereotype, an example of which can be found in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 where the corrupting ‘vamp’ dressed in a shimmering, tight-fitting gown performs a cabaret number (‘Mudmud ke na dekh’) at a night club, to seduce the ‘hero’ away from the simple, sari-clad, and incorruptible ‘heroine’

With times, post Helen’s retirement, was the advent of the ‘new woman’. By the 80’s, the new desirable heroine is sexy but unaware. Cinema constantly lays down the norm of the ideal versus the submissive ‘heroines’ are rewarded while the ambitious women are punished. In the ‘90s there is no difference between the vamp and the heroine. The ’90s actresses combine a new sexual candour and youthful female rebellion. She now replaces the vamp in performing the ‘sexy’ ‘item number’ sequences. The vamp and the heroine seem to have finally become one. This is an easy way out for directors who attempt to achieve a clumsy and facile reconciliation between ‘modernity’ and traditionalism.

Demystifying The Popular Item Number Trend: Indian Cinema


Since about six years or so, there has been a flurry of ‘item numbers’ that are indoctrinated into films. The only difference is that there isn’t any ‘vamp’ but a series of women cheapened by percussion. The dominance of this new form is so great that the so-called ‘item-numbers’ are almost a pre-requisite for any commercial film. ‘Beedi jalaile’ a recent anthem of sorts shows the ‘item girl’ dancing in front of many men, half drunk and smitten by her. Since the staged performance within a film is invariably accompanied by its own diegetic audience, the woman is presented as an erotic spectacle purportedly for the benefit of this audience.

Consequently, the charge of voyeurism is displaced on to the (often leering) aiegetic spectator, establishing him as the holder of the erotic gaze instead of the actual spectator watching the film in a cinema. This happens even though after the introductory, establishing shots of mutual acknowledgement between the woman performer and her diegetic audience, the camera transfers the spectacle directly to the film spectator. Although an exchange of looks between performer and diegetic spectator(s) periodically draws attention to their reciprocal relationship, the real consumers of the erotic performance remain the actual spectators in the cinema. Such mediation by the diegetic voyeur between performer and film spectators absolves the latter of any prurient desires, and establishes them instead as dispassionate observers who are only ‘looking at looking’. Furthermore, such mediation and disavowal also allows the dancer to break cinema’s cardinal principle and look directly into the camera without fear of confronting the spectators with their own voyeuristic indulgence. The ‘imagined look’ that watches the viewer take delight in the projected image, must not be allowed to let him be ‘caught in the act of voyeurism’. This becomes absolutely true in the context of the popular item number ‘Beedi Jalaile’ a group of men are shown dancing with the ‘item girl’ while she sings with overt expressions. The song, one of smash hits of the year has a lot of space for sexual oppression in the context of the ‘item girl’ dancing away to glory with expressions that reveal much more than the lyrics of the song.

Demystifying The Popular Item Number Trend: Indian Cinema

A spectacular example with reference to such an embodiment of virtue would be Madhuri Dixit in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas.

The creation of a moral universe in which idealized femininity can perform is underpinned by a fetishization of chastity. Even the most cursory examination of the Hindi film narratives would reveal that of all the virtues of the idealized woman, none is more crucial than that of chastity. A spectacular example with reference to such an embodiment of virtue would be Madhuri Dixit in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. The ‘item number’ of ‘Maar-dala’ that she performs confessing her love and dedication towards the male ‘hero’ is bound on a solid grounding of underlying chastity. Indeed, Hindi cinema’s intransigence on the issue of sexual purity can sometimes lead to paradoxical situations where even a prostitute remains undefiled despite years of service in a bordello. To emphasize the woman’s sexual purity, the Hindi film indulges in hyperbole and tumescent rhetoric on the subject of Virtue and Honour. The Indian woman is ‘as pure as the waters of the river Ganges’, ‘as chaser as Sita’ and so on.

These narratives speak of a highly unreal world, which to the modern feminist may be of concern, but the solutions they offer are all fantasy based.

Parallel to the myths of the mother and the wife is the myth of the ‘other’, the courtesan or tawaif. The courtesan is one of the most ambiguous figures in the Indian ethos. She appears recurrently in Indian ‘songs’. She exists on the fringes of the society but is yet respected because of her great learning and talent. In Indian cinema, she embodies the nostalgia for a lost age. Interestingly, courtesans also embody a fusion of the Hindu and Muslim traditions. In the song ‘Maar-dala’ between exquisite sets, there is somewhere a strong fetishization with the body of the ‘item girl’ in the strict sense of attracting the male gaze.

In Hum Aapke Hain Kaun…! a film about the perfect, traditional family, the performance stratagem still prevails with most of the dances being performed as staged events overseen by family elders within the intimacy of the extended family instead if a public display for the debauched villain and his merry men. This is evident in ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’, a highly suggestive song with provocative words.

Demystifying The Popular Item Number Trend: Indian Cinema

‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’ is a highly suggestive song with provocative words.

Here, we see that a further disavowal of any voyeurism is made possible by the incorporation of an ‘approving’ audience. In this case, the entire family (all women, except for the ‘hero’ and his friends wanting to see this erotic performance and arrive disguised) is present. Sometimes, the diegetic audience is shown to comprise men and women of authority (metonymic representatives of the state and civil society), who smile approvingly at the display. The pleasures of the highly erotic content and its lyrical double entendre are further heightened by the accompanying dance gestures and body moments. All erotic intentions are deftly disavowed by the mediating close-ups of the faces of the family members that are shown to be smiling in appreciation, clearly innocent of its erotic content. Such strategic mediation of ‘approving’ elders and other respectable personages disclaims any prurience on the part of the film audiences and any intention to titillate male viewers on the part of the film makers. Consequently, as seen, the woman can retain her lofty moral stature while all the time satisfying the desiring male gaze.

It is both idiosyncratic and influential and surely says a lot about how we as a society see the world. The most noticeable thing about these ‘item numbers’ is that it separates the input it sends to different senses- the ear hears the familiar but eye is treated to a completely new visual landscape. The familiarity and the standardization of the song that is sung with lot of jest and energy allows for us to focus on the eye candy that unwraps itself on screen. The ‘item song’ us also sanitized of its nuanced complexity and is bulldozed into pleasantness- the result s that we get a combination of eye and ear candy to gratify both the senses. These ‘item numbers’ are also busy re-writing he beauty code for Indian women by placing clear emphasis on the body instead of the face. The face is no longer a site of beauty but merely the amplifier of the body’s desires.

It is interesting how many videos depict a form of baby doll eroticism- there is an air of adolescent passivity in a lot of the depictions. The use of schoolgirls, marionettes and Barbie doll clones is a pointer to the intent underlying this representation. Sex here is seen as being akin an oral confection- what we see is almost the child-like discovery of sites of bodily pleasure, to the voyeuristic delight of the spectator. The videos are unabashedly sexual, without there being any actual sex shown. The role of men in the videos is merely to be inert reference points- they fulfil the purpose of being the poles around which the dance takes place. This allows the spectator to locate himself in the video much more effortlessly.

The popular Hindi film through its ‘item numbers’ introduces and reinforces a number of stereotypes. The recurring ‘rain-dance’ sequence in the average film caters to the male fantasy. An example of this would be ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’ a very suggestive song, where the ‘heroine’ (now itemized in the song) seems to be saying that her entire body is feeling heated up when the raindrops fall on her. This seems to be a case of male activity and female passivity- her response to the man’s sexuality. This phase eventually becomes the stereotype of the wife. The strong and continual patriarchal bias is evident throughout. The study of posters advertising a film which the item number in it very overtly show the patriarchal bias with prominence given to the hero, while a skimpy outfit covers the heroine or the item girl who is relegated to some obscure corner of the advertisement.

Hindi films firstly seek to overcome cinema’s dislocation of the actor performer (or the exhibitionism-voyeurism) axis. A theatrical performance within a film re-establishes reciprocity within the world of the film narrative to compensate for its absence in the cinema. Second, it justifies the voyeurism of the spectator because a performance is an exhibition that demands to be looked at. Third, any voyeurism on the part of the film spectator is disavowed by the deliberate mediation of a diegetic spectator, who is determined s the true owner of the voyeuristic gaze. It is this last disavowal of voyeurism that is of interest because it reveals why and how the Hindi plot becomes unlinear, episodic and at times, even illogical.

The high morality of the Hindi film narrative in the ‘item numbers’ and the various processes of disavowal thus serve to placate not just the agencies of the state and civil society, but also the female members of the audience. Western film theory has so far offered only a partial understanding of the female gaze and pleasure. Mulvey has proposed a ‘masculinization’ of the female gaze whereby the woman, assuming a masculine position, male points of view, and male identifications, enjoys the freedom and control typically available to men. Craig Owen proposes that in performance, a subject acts an identity into existence and the ‘subject becomes an object in order to become a subject’. In Hindi cinema, the staged performance allows the performing woman to bring a powerful and sexually-aggressive identity into existence. Temporarily discarding the self-sacrificing and idealized straitjacket imposed on her by patriarchal society, the woman assumes command of her body and defiantly acts out her own desires.

While the debate on feminine pleasure continues, it is clear that the song-and-dance spectacle does offer female spectators the pleasures of identification and fantasy through the female star. The female gaze is also solicited by the kaleidoscopic changes of extravagant sets, sumptuous costumes, fashionable jewellery, imaginative hairstyles, and daring make-up, so that ‘the filmic frame is a kind of display window and spectatorship consequently a form of window shopping’ in the words of Doane. The commercial success of the Hum Aapke Hain Kaun…! sari- that is, the sari worn during a highly seductive dance number in the film, even in such far-flung markers as Hong Kong and Singapore, confirms the visual impact of dance performances on the female spectator/consumer.

These ‘item numbers’ have images of easy pleasure. They create a world where everything is arranged so that it can be easily consumed. It is a passport to infantile bliss, it makes for the atmosphere look pink and pretty.

The economic pressure that drives the Hindi film to propose erotic pleasure through the presentation of woman as spectacle to both its male and female spectators also requires that it take into account the ideological and moral concerns of all sections of its heterogeneous spectating public. And as many item numbers are churned out each day, it is paralleled by the forces of its power to the forces of resistance.


Asha Kasbekar, Hidden Pleasures, Negotiating the Myth of the Female Ideal in Popular Hindi Cinema.

Shoba V. Ghosh, The Lady and the Vamp.

Santosh Desai, The remix re-mixed, A Combination Of Eye And Ear Candy To Gratify Both Senses; Times of India, August 30, 2004.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Sneha Subramanian Kanta is a poet, writer, critic and works as a Visiting Faculty in various colleges across Mumbai. A postgraduate in English Literature; her areas of interest are poetry, literary criticism and postcolonial literature. Her debut book named 'Whispering Paths' is a compilation of poems and short fiction.
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