Cinema
TNM spoke to actor Disco Shanti, film critics, and industry insiders to analyse how the "item" song has changed with the times and why its expiry date may soon be here.

A saxophone or guitar plays. Men are seated in a club, cards in one hand and a cigarette or beer in another. Next, we’re shown the seductive eyes of a woman or a shot of her quivering stomach. As she dances down the stage or floor, she is joined by the hero or villain and is soon surrounded by a number of male dancers. Flashing lights and sequined clothes might be involved. The woman heaves and pouts a lot, and despite her proximity to the hero or villain, she soon disappears from the story and is never heard of again.

If you’ve followed Tamil cinema for long enough, you’d immediately know what this is – an “item” number. Completely unnecessary to the plot but nevertheless a device that many filmmakers have employed in their films.

The “item” number in Tamil cinema has been around for decades. It typically involves a woman who appears only for this song in the film, makes raunchy dance moves, and often wears skimpy clothes. From MGR’s times to the present day, the “item” song has changed and evolved, and some say, it may even be well on its way out.

But how did this trend begin? Why did film directors over the years keep it going? And why did women actors choose to star in these songs? TNM spoke to film critics and industry insiders to understand the “item” song phenomenon.

Where did it begin?

Dr Uma Vangal, Visiting Professor of Film at Kenyon College, Ohio, says that the idea of the “item” song was always around, even before it came into cinema.

“The entertaining courtesan or the erotic dance form pre-exists cinema in India in three ways. One, was, of course, for the kingly or royal patronage kind of performances where you had courtesans who would come into the palace itself and dance in front of the king and courtiers. They were slightly more exalted than the others,” she says. "The middle layer would be the women who are referred to as the devadasis, but they were very independent and didn’t need any special patronage. They would choose whom they would entertain - the upper middle classes, landed gentry, traders, travellers. The women who were attached to the king would be considered exclusive to him. She could not entertain anyone she chose. The Pandyas, Cholas…all of them had such women entertainers whom they kept in the palace.”

Folk dancers catered to the lower classes, and the rural audiences. “These were quite often eroticised folk dance forms, which today have descended into what is called ‘record dances’,” she says.

The ‘record dance’ is a type of entertainment where music is played and the dance is performed in a public space, on a stage. Since most people who came to watch such dances were from the lower classes, it was considered to be “cheap” by those who were higher up in the caste and class hierarchy.

Uma gives an example of the 1976 film Bhadrakali, where a Brahmin man (Sivakumar) is attracted to record dancing. This is considered to be inappropriate for someone of his sociocultural location and his wife (Rani Chandra) teases him about it. She then performs the “Vaangona” number, mimicking the moves typically made in record dances.

“So the whole point was to put that lower class stamp on it and establish that only people with crude tastes would go for record dance, an evolution of the karagattam. But even in karagattam, nobody could touch the dancer. It’s very similar to what we see in the cabaret dances in cinema. They would choose to wear skimpy clothes exposing the midriff, which is seen as a very erotic thing in most public spaces. These three forms got subsumed into cinema. In cinema, the same stories are being told – love and forbidden passions,” she adds.

Uma also points out that filmmakers had to contend with a British-run censor board that was driven by Victorian ideas of morality. The board would clamp down if the director showed a traditional woman dancing to such songs, so the solution was to create a character who had no role to play in the film perform the dance and leave.

Many of the women who first entered Tamil cinema were from the devadasi tradition because of the prevailing ideas about morality and the performing arts. Film historian Theodore Bhaskaran has spoken about how, when the movement against the devadasi tradition started to gain traction, many of the women joined drama troupes and later came into the film industry. They were trained in dance and music and their performing skills gave them an advantage.

TR Rajakumari who first appeared on screen in 1941 and went on to act until 1963, was from a devadasi family. According to film historian Randor Guy, it was with her that sex appeal entered Tamil cinema. In an article published in The Hindu, where he discusses one of her earlier films Katcha Devayani, Randor writes, “The sleeveless blouse that highlighted her shapely shoulders, the sari tightly wound round her body, the clinging garment when she stepped into a pond to bathe… Rajakumari teased the viewer with her smile and beckoning eyes. Indeed, sex appeal entered Tamil cinema with Rajakumari. Besides being beautiful, she could act and sing well. A true professional, Rajakumari was shy and reticent.”

TR Rajakumari later played Chandramukhi, the courtesan, in Devadas, but she is perhaps best remembered for “Manmatha Leelaiyai” from Haridas.

The courtesan character was so popular in those times, Uma Vangal says, that even Parasakthi, which was the harbinger of rationalist scriptwriting, had Kamala dancing as one in “O Rasikkum Seemane”.

Creating the other

Invariably, the women who performed such dances or acted in seductive roles were set up as the foil to the “chaste” woman who was the one the hero would eventually choose.

Subha J Rao, film critic and consultant editor with Silverscreen.in, says that the women who performed in these dances would be instantly distinguishable from the “good women”.

“They would have fuller lips, maybe fillers. They would be bustier, duskier, their make-up would be different,” she says. “They’d play the gangster’s moll, they’d play a negative character, they may either suddenly become very good people, make a sacrifice and die, or they’ll continue being bad right till the end. The heroine and these women were never on the same social pedestal.”

Besides, the setting of the song would establish beyond doubt just how the audience was supposed to perceive the dancer on screen.

“In order to show seduction, maybe a negative character, or maybe just a place where the hero goes in order to do something but that’s not his environment – to create the other, basically, they had these sequences in early cinema,” says Uma.

With changing plot-lines and themes, the courtesan dances gave way to cabaret numbers, limiting the screen time of these characters even more. And here, too, the othering continued.

In 2016, director Pa Ranjith spoke about the intersection of gender, caste and community in creating this othering of certain women characters on screen. The Kaala director was addressing members of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

“If you watch old movies, women who express their sexuality openly will be with the villain. She will have a name like Rita or something of that sort that’s associated with minority communities. After this, in films made by directors like K Balachander, an upper class/caste woman expressing her sexuality will be shown as progressive, but if a woman from a lower class/caste does the same, it will be shown as wrong,” he said.

The cabaret dances were considered to be entertainment for the front-benchers – the show timings were such that they coincided with record dance performances, and they could watch a similar performance in a magnified manner.

“They would be sitting so close to the screen and it would titillate them a lot more because they’d feel like they could reach out and touch the woman,” Uma says.

Moreover, the cabaret dance was considered to be ‘unIndian’, which was crucial for it to pass the censors run by the British.

“I think that’s why they had cabaret dances instead of showing folk dances because anything which was visibly, culturally Indian would be clamped down upon because it could become part of the nationalist movement,” she muses.

How the ‘item’ song evolved

There was a lull in film production in the early 1940s because of World War II, and the films made after the war and up until the ‘60s did not have much use for courtesan or cabaret dances because the themes were all around nationalism and nation building.

“It’s in the ‘60s that we once again had middle class dilemmas on screen and the item song made a comeback,” says Uma.

Jyothi Lakshmi was one of the popular women actors in those times who would perform such dance numbers in films across the south, especially in Tamil and Telugu. She was subsequently upstaged by her sister Jayamalini, who became so famous that she even did films as the lead heroine – Jaganmohini, which was first made in Telugu and then Tamil, went on to become a blockbuster across languages.

These two women ruled the screens when it came to the “item” dance well into the ‘70s. Vijayalalitha was another actor who became popular for such numbers although she was also called “Female James Bond” for her action flicks.

The late ‘70s to ‘80s saw the emergence of Silk Smitha, who was nothing short of a phenomenon. Producers whose films had flopped would include an “item” number by Smitha in their film and re-release it, confident that it would be a success this time around.

The mantle was taken over by Anuradha and Disco Shanti who ruled the ‘90s and then came Alphonsa, who was around for a few years (she did the famous ‘Ra Ra Ramaiya’ song with Rajinikanth in Baasha).

Kuyili’s ‘Nila adhu vanathu meley’ dance from Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan was such a hit that she ended up doing more “item” songs.

Subha says, “Mani Ratnam reduced someone like Kuyili, who was such a deeply sensitive actor in serials after that, to this – he put her into a zone like that, and that was the end of her film career. Even the so called most sophisticated of filmmakers had to use them at one stage to cater to one section of the audience.”

However, directors like Bharathiraaja, who did films with rural themes, did not include “item” songs because these had no relevance in the stories that they were telling.

Actors like Mumtaj and Mumaith Khan were the "item" girls in the new millennium, but with many top-rung heroines doing “item” dances in big star films, they couldn't quite rule the screen the way their predecessors did. The trend of popular heroines doing such numbers though is not entirely new, Uma says.

“This idea of a heroine in the film doing a raunchy number or when a top actor is brought in to make a special appearance in a song, I’d say MGR brought it in with all his heroines. With Rickshawkaran, Manjula begins to do those kind of dances though she’s the leading lady…she’s wearing bizarre tights and some slip thing over it, with feathers in her hair. Even Jayalalithaa has done such numbers where she’s wearing one of those golden, shimmery dresses and shoes. MGR’s heroines probably heralded the ‘item’ number as we know it today,” she notes.

The ‘Hindi’ influence

Once the Tamil film industry began importing women from non-south Indian states, starting with Khushbu, the heroine’s wardrobe became more and more daring. Directors expected them to be more sexually explicit on screen, somewhat dimming the exclusive allure of the “item” song. And then, with Gautami doing “Chikku Bukku Rayile” in Gentleman (1993), where she appeared for just one song, it became acceptable for A-list heroines to do such dances and disappear, too.

However, this latter trend is not as common in the south as it is in Bollywood because the heroines here are still typecast and may end up getting called only to do such numbers, Uma says.

Comparing Bollywood “item” numbers to southern ones, Subha notes that the lyrics in Hindi films tend to be a lot more explicit and objectifying than they are in Tamil. While the women actors there who do such numbers, like Katrina Kaif, may not be as voluptuous as the ones in the south, the overall effect of the song is far more exploitative in Bollywood.

She further adds that filmmakers like Mani Ratnam have brought in well-known faces from Bollywood like Sonali Bendre (“Arabi Kadaloram” in Bombay) and Malaika Arora (“Chaiyya Chaiyya/Thaiyya Thaiyya” in Dil Se/Uyire) to do “sophisticated item” numbers in their films to provide a more “exotic” quality.

Subha recalls how the young women and children in the family would be asked to look away when such songs with “kavarchi nadigaigal” came on screen.

Now 42, Subha says, “They were very good dancers but such dances were not considered appropriate for us to watch. Our childhood was full of Anuradha, Disco Shanti, and Silk Smitha to a certain extent. But by the time I was in my 20s, these dancers began to take the backseat and heroines started doing such dances. For example, Shriya Saran did an ‘item’ song with Vadivelu in Indiralohathil Na Azhagappan, Simran danced in ‘Aal thotta Boopathi’ in Youth. Once heroines took over the mantle, what people hid and saw became very acceptable.”

And with the evolution of reality TV and dance shows, it became acceptable for even children to do these steps, Subha says.

“So, what was considered to be a taboo then became something that parents would ask children to do. It has come a full circle,” she observes.

Assertion of sexuality or exploitation?

Some argue that the “item” song, in its current form at any rate, can also be interpreted as a woman’s expression of her sexuality. Subha, however, disagrees.

“I believe that sexual agency is something women can have when they are in control,” says Subha. “If a woman made a film, a woman wrote the lyrics, a woman choreographed it, a woman composed the music AND a woman chose to dance, then I may say that yes, she has sexual agency. But it is a predominantly male-dominated industry and it’s the vision of a male writer that he wants to see a woman do that dance.”

But if it is exploitation, why do women actors choose to do such songs? Because, Disco Shanti, the queen of the ‘90s says, they needed the money. The Bollywood film The Dirty Picture starring Vidya Balan in the lead, was a biopic on Silk Smitha, but parts of it were also inspired by Shanti’s life.

“I did it 20 years ago,” Shanti laughs. “The pinafore in those days used to be below the knee. Then it became above the knee and now it is shorts.”

It’s a comment on how women’s clothing and the connection to morality has changed with the times.

“In real life, girls and women these days wear short clothes a lot. I have family members who dress like that and I don’t judge them. As long as it doesn’t look vulgar, it’s fine. People now watch films in all languages, not just Tamil. So it’s become common,” she says.

She goes on to add that in those days, producers and directors included such numbers believing that the audiences would like it.

“I haven’t acted in 20 years, so I don’t want to put the blame on anyone. It also depends on how the audience sees a character – Ramya Krishnan has done glamorous roles but people also accept her in a saree,” Shanti points out. “In those times, a film would have one such song, now I feel all the songs are like that, so there’s nothing special.”

However, when Shanti was active in films, she used to feel very shy about how she was dressed.

“I would never be in that same glamorous dress throughout. I would be dressed like that only while shooting. I would change before going home. I didn’t want my siblings to see me dressed like that. Only once my mother came to a shoot and I felt ashamed to be seen in shorts. I’d wear a coat over the dress, but even then I felt uncomfortable. My brother came for a shoot and he ran away from there because he felt shy to see me like that. It’s all become very cool now,” she says.

Did she ever wish to do a bigger role in a film? Shanti laughs in response.

“I only did dances all through. I had no such desire to act. I just needed the money. It didn’t matter who. If I was getting paid, I would go and dance. I wouldn’t even ask who the producer or director were. The car would come in the morning to pick me up, I’d go and dance and come back. That was my job,” she says.

Now, with top-rung heroines willing to do such dances, it’s no longer only about the money. It’s also about the visibility that such a song can give, especially when the actor’s career shows signs of slowing down. 

“’Aal thotta Bhoopathy’ gave Simran a huge boost in her career when it was lagging. Shriya Saran did that Vadivelu number when her career was down,” says Subha.

Is the item number on its way out?

All said and done, the expiry date for the “item” song may soon be here, at least for Tamil films. The industry has several young, promising filmmakers who are not interested in forcing songs into the screenplay.

The “item” song now surfaces largely in the gangster or thriller genre. CS Amudhan’s Tamizh Padam 2, which was a parody on cop films, even had an “item” song to make fun of this tendency to show a woman dancing around when a serious investigation is in process.

“In the gangster film it can have some relevance because of the locations gangsters would need, or to show a kind of place where gang clashes would take place. But other than that, I don’t think they will insert it into films as a stand-alone piece,” says Uma.

Many contemporary directors echo Uma’s thoughts. Director Sri Ganesh is among the crop of upcoming Tamil filmmakers who’ve proved themselves early on. His first film was 8 Thottakkal, a tightly knit thriller about a policeman and a gang of robbers.

“I have no idea why people shoot such songs,” Sri Ganesh says. “I’m quite clueless as to what the purpose is. A lot of people actually get up and leave the theatre during such songs because nothing important is happening.”

Before 8 Thottakkal, Sri Ganesh was assisting director Mysskin who is known for his cutting edge films – and also his love for including an “item” song with a woman clad in a yellow saree in them.

“I think some years ago, the perception was that it may help the movie get some visibility when the song plays on TV. But it’s of no use now. With YouTube and so many streaming apps available, who is going to watch a movie for the sake of a song? When Mysskin did films like Anjathey and Yuddham Sei, it used to be a selling point. But it’s become irrelevant now. Mysskin himself tells me that when he does movies now, he doesn’t include such songs. Earlier, it was thought that if there’s a hit song in a film, it would bring people to the theatre,” he says.

Sri Ganesh, in fact, attempted to include an “item” song in 8 Thottakkal on the insistence of the producer.

“To be honest, we did shoot a song like that. I didn’t know what to do on the set! Someone told the producer that it might help to include an “item” song in the film – there is no hero or heroine in the film, so let’s have a song. I worked like an assistant director for that song, asking the dance master if they needed something. But thankfully, those who watched the film before the release asked why we needed such a song when the movie itself was good. So, we removed it. After the movie released, I was relieved because I really thought many people would have slammed me for including such a song,” he says.

Sri Ganesh further points out that not just the “item” song, even the number of regular songs have come down in films, including ones with big stars. And this is a change that the young filmmakers are driving in the industry.

“Unless it’s helping with the story, we don’t think it should be there. There’s something called the montage song and many of us feel it’s so boring to have the hero and heroine simply walking. Unless there’s a purpose, why have a song? But I also feel that a good, well-shot song can help the narrative…we need to explore how it can be done,” he says.

Uma and Subha are on the same page about the “item” song dying a slow death.

“When STR (Silabarasan) tried to do the ‘Kalasala’ number, it didn’t work as well here as it did in Bollywood. The song itself became very popular because it has the beats and the pep to it, but in the film itself, it wasn’t so great. Audiences also are becoming very different now. The demographic has shifted. They don’t want this 4 stunt, duet-cabaret formula any more. They’re even happy now without any songs,” Uma says.

Subha, who watches at least two Tamil films a week, reckons that the number of “item” songs has definitely come down. She also believes that the representation of women’s sexuality on screen is, in itself, going through a change.

“In the film Kaali, directed by Kiruthiga Udayanidhi, we have the ‘Arumbey’ song, where a young woman married to a much older man willingly falls in love with a thief. She’s not shy about accepting it. It was a Vijay Antony film and there was no outrage about it. I think the writing has improved when it comes to women characters, even within the commercial space. The younger lot of filmmakers who took centerstage last year gives me a lot of hope,” she says.