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Text: Roshni Nair
Kumaar reckons he will never tire of writing item songs. I first met him at Re N Raga Studio, in Mumbai’s Andheri West. Flanked by a composer, playback singer, and sound engineer, he’d snap his fingers each time the engineer amped up the volume, putting pen to paper as he wrote on the fly to a pre-recorded tune slated for a still-untitled Neeraj Pandey production.He wrote four lines:
Birth pe daaru, death pe daaru
Marriage pe daaru, divorce pe daaru.
Chahe koi bhi ho brand,
Liver ki hai yeh demand.
(Alcohol at birth, alcohol at death,
Alcohol at wedding, alcohol at divorce.
No matter what the brand
This is the liver’s demand.)
“Make sure you pronounce ‘demand’ as ‘demained’,” he instructed the playback singer. “Ekdum rustic bolo. Rustic bahut chalta hai.” (Pronounce it in a rustic way. Rustic sells.)
Meet Bros Anjjan and Kanika Kapoor might’ve stolen the show with Ragini MMS 2’s “Baby Doll”, but Kumaar isn’t far behind. The mononymous Amritsar-born lyricist (born Rakesh Kumar, but now simply ‘Kumaar’) has a knack for penning club thumpers and he’s already notched up hits like “Dilli Wali Girlfriend” from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, “Subah Hone Na De” from Desi Boyz, and “Desi Girl” from Dostana. And audiences are lapping it up.
But if Nutan Thakur were to hear Kumaar’s rustic ode to alcohol, she’d be less likely to lap it up. The RTI activist, writer, and former member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has a bone to pick with item numbers. Or any song she deems unfit for societal consumption really. She told me, in a phone conversation from Lucknow, how everything from cursing and alcohol consumption to objectification of women is glorified in the offending numbers.
“Freedom of expression is good, but that doesn’t mean we should let go of our sanskriti”, (tradition) she stressed, without elaborating on said sanskriti. In 2010 Thakur filed a Public Interest Litigration (PIL) against “Munni Badnaam Hui” as well as one against “Sheila Ki Jawaani”, demanding their removal from Dabanggand Tees Maar Khan respectively. And the reason? “There are many women named Sheila and Munni, especially those who are downtrodden. Girls in villages get teased as a result of such songs.” The Monicas of India, meanwhile, are free to remain everybody’s darlings.
Thakur also blames Bhojpuri item song “Nathuniya Pe Goli Maare” for the attempted murder of a bar dancer in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, suggesting the dancer wouldn’t have been shot if she were dancing to a different number. Prod her about the existence of item songs since the black and white era of Indian cinema, and of a doyenne like Helen and she responds, “Heroines those days never used to do item numbers. Helen always played a negative character.” In short, good desi girls don’t shimmy to anything.
The December 2012 gang rape in Delhi was a flashpoint in the ongoing fracas over item songs, with many pinning blame on these saucy tracks for crimes against women. As crude as some of these songs are, it’s been more disturbing to witness the motives behind the demand for a ban. Most self-styled activists place the blame for sexual vioence on the perceived “stimulant”, rather than on the shoulders of the perpetrator. Psychiatrist Harish Shetty weighed in, concurring that commodification of women is, of course, an issue, and that the female body can’t be a substitute for a good narrative. But he trashed the call for a ban on item numbers. “Indians need a whipping boy. We don’t take responsibility for our actions,” he said to me. “To blame everything on item songs and the media is utter rubbish.” He cited Sheila Ki Jawani as an example of how subjective song interpretation can be. “I think it is a fantastic song. She (Katrina Kaif’s character) is aware of her sex appeal and flaunts it, but also says she’s not for the taking. She doesn’t need a man to love herself.”
But interpretation matters not for Shivanand Tiwari, a veteran politician from Bhojpur in Bihar. Tiwari was expelled by the Janata Dal (United) political party in February this year for “anti-party activities”. If some reports are to be believed, he compared item girls to mythical apsaras (nymphs)who’d disrupt the meditation of sadhus (sages). Tiwari tried hard to clarify his stand when I called him, arguing that his grouse isn’t the item song as much as it is consumerism as a whole. So much so that he even suggested the rise in incest as one of its (many) ghastly outcomes. “Now you hear of such cases in father-daughter relationships too. What do you think is the reason?” he asked me.
No prizes for guessing. Tiwari lamented the gulf between urban and rural India, which, in his opinion, is augmented by commercialism, which he, no shocker here, equates with Westernisation. So, he contended, men who leave their villages to go to cities experience a culture shock. “See what’s happening in America and Europe”, he paused, then continued, “Girls who are 10-12 years old are becoming mothers. Their rates of violence against women are worse than in India.”
But how does all this tie in with the item number? Tiwari holds the same evil consumerism responsible for actresses making a beeline toward appearances in item songs in both Hindi and regional cinema. And yet, the statesman isn’t on a crusade against racy songs. There’s nothing anybody can do about them, he explained dispiritedly, because they are just a symptom of globalisation. Item numbers will survive as long as globalisation does.
Shivanand Tiwari may have thrown in the towel, but Sudhir Kumar Ojha is on a mission. This civil lawyer from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, has tasked himself with banishing all forms of vulgarity from India.
Ojha has a reputation for being the enfant terrible of PIL activism, with everyone from film directors to sarkari babus being slapped by his notices. His first high profile PIL was against Dhoom 2. More specifically, against the kissing scene between actors Hritihik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai. “My fight is against ashleelta (vulgarity)”, he proclaimed in a phone interview, even though the kiss in question was retained in the film. When asked about kissing scenes and dance numbers in vintage Bollywood films, Ojha was unfazed. Audiences didn’t have the means to complain, he reasoned, since mechanisms to do so didn’t exist back in the day. Add to that the exposure to movies and songs being limited to cinema halls and radio, and you realise why one hardly heard about people with hurt sentiments.
“I want to show a mirror to society”, Ojha said in an attempt to explain his notion of janseva (social service). “Using the law to weed out impropriety gives me a sense of satisfaction.” His recent PILs have been against the song “Fevicol Se” from Dabangg 2 and “Radha” from Student Of The Year. The latter, he explains, is in bad taste because Radha-she of wife-of-Lord Krishna-fame is badged “sexy” in the song. If Ojha had his way, no person would call a holy consort sexy. Perhaps no one would be permitted to name a child after a god or goddess either.
Of course, the complaints against the use of hallowed names in item songs don’t stop there. In 2012 Sameer Rai, the head of the Maharashtra division of NGO Bhartiya Bhrashtachar Nivaran Sanstha, filed a PIL against Housefull 2 for the song “Anarkali Disco Chali”. The line “Oye hoye chod chaad ke apne Saleem ki gali Anarkali disco chali,” (roughly translates to: Leaving the lane where her beloved Saleem lived, Anarkali left for the disco) could, he argued, impart a false history to children. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali also received notices for Goliyon Ki Raasleela… Ram-Leela on grounds that it hurt Hindu sentiments, filed, of course, by Sudhir Kumar Ojha. And Bhansali would have had to deal with yet another notice if the PIL against Priyanka Chopra’s item number in the same film hadn’t been quashed. “The hearing for that case (against the item song in Ram-Leela) was before mine in court,” said Delhi-based advocate Sanjay Bhatnagar. “The applicant had to pay a hefty sum because the judge said it was frivolous.” Bhatnagar is all for quashing errant complaints, but didn’t consider his own case a frivolous one. He filed a PIL last year against the Akshay Kumar-starrer Bossbecause it featured a song with an “explicit” word. The track in question, “Party All Night”, has a line which goes “Gaand mein dum hai toh band karwa lo,” which translates to the seemingly inoffensive “If you have the guts, put a stop to this,” but “gaand”is a colloquialism for arsehole, and Bhatnagar alleged the makers of the film tried to deceive the court by claiming the line was actually “Kaan mein dum hai toh band karwa lo” which translates to “If your ears can’t take it, shut them.” As it happens the offending word, supposed to be bleeped out as per court orders, has cropped up again in its original form during airplay and on video sharing sites.
“Singers like Jasbir Jassi and Dinesh Lal Yadav said they would support me, but backed out at the last minute. I fought alone”, Bhatnagar said, adding that he believed profanity and double entendres in item songs should be curbed. The advocate may not have won this round, but he is far from done. If ever there comes an item number which sets off his moral antennae, he will go marching to the court, provided he gets support from within the industry. “Item songs reach crores of people. If I can keep even a fraction of people from listening to vulgar numbers, it will be good.”
There is one thing Sudhir Kumar Ojha has that Nutan Thakur, Shivanand Tiwari, and Sanjay Bhatnagar don’t have: persistence. Ojha has filed 495 PILs against public servants, party leaders, and celebrities, on grounds of graft, indecency, and cheating, to name but a few. Of these 495 cases, 74 are PILs against something he perceives as a prime threat to Indian ethics: vulgarity in film. To him, the item song is cinema’s bubonic plague, and it is his duty to ensure audiences don’t get infected. Whether the lyrics, choreography, camera angle, or the clothing on the actors, Ojha objects to all the sums that make up the whole.
When I ask him about the allegations that it’s all publicity-seeking, he sighed, asserting that no person in his or her right mind would do this for attention. “Filing a PIL isn’t fun. You have to spend money, sit through the hearings, and be prepared for the outcomes. Some people may file PILs for silly reasons. I’m not one of them.” Ojha told me about the time he sold 10 katthas of his land “for the good of all”. He does not regret it, and declared that if his crusade required it, he would do it again. His latest target is Bhojpuri cinema. “The mess there is terrible”, he concluded. “I’m going to clean it up.”
Some arguments against item numbers are plain inane. Some shriek of moral panic. And then there are others that make a modicum of sense. Chinni Prakash, who choreographed ’90s hits like “Jumma Chumma”, “Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast”and “Shaher Ki Ladki” rued both the repetitive nature of item songs as well as the shift in focus from expressive dance to a woman’s body. For him, the problem isn’t sexual expression as much as it is the lack of creativity.
Prakash has choreographed films in the South and noted how in that industry dance has always come first. “The priority in item songs there are the steps, not the shot,” he told me at a dance studio in Mumbai’s Oshiwara. “Bollywood dance numbers prioritise lights, camera angles, and makeup above all else. It’s all style and no substance.” Prakash has a set of preconditions before he agrees to choreograph a song. He won’t associate himself with a track if he thinks the lyrics or picturisation are crass. Certain hip movements and pelvic thrusts are also off the table.
Prakash thinks the item number bubble will eventually burst, but Kumaar, the songwriter, doesn’t agree. He admitted that the lyrics to some songs are questionable, and that someone, somewhere will always have a problem. But movie going audiences have better things to worry about, he pointed out. “People want to dance”, he smiled. “Let them.”