“Sab ko to parsaad baate, main maangu to mujhko daate” – Lyric from a recent Hindi song (Agent Vinod)
The new millennium has seen the establishment of a new device in Indian cinema, the ‘item girl’. It is interesting to speculate on the specific origins of the ‘item girl’ terminology. One possible source is the fact that young Indian men often call an attractive woman an ‘item’, reducing her personhood to a commodity in the most literal sense. It could also be an English translation of the ‘maal’ (thing) terminology used by Indian men in a similar context. Bollywood has featured attractive women and provocative female characters before, but the last decade has seen the ‘item girl’ and ‘item song’ becoming an attraction in themselves.
The typical ‘item girl’ in millennial Indian cinema has no past and no future. She has no relationships, no desires apart from gyrating for the pleasure of a few drunk men. Typically none of these drunk men who lust after her have any chance of ‘getting her’, only the hero is macho enough, but he is often not interested, most certainly not for the long term. After all, he has the cultured, coy and docile ‘typical Indian girl’ at home that he can order around and father respectable children with. Indeed, the ‘item girl’ phenomenon is a symptom of a severe moral crisis in Bollywood when it comes to dealing with women. Movie makers know that their consumers want to see sex and skin, but the lead actress cant be the one displaying this sexuality (atleast not outside the bonds of marriage), so in comes the slutty ‘item girl’ to the rescue.
So where do ‘Chikni Chameli’, ‘Sheila’ and ‘Munni’ come from ? They look too well nourished to come from our omnipresent slums. They most definitely do not come from our saas-bahu loving ‘middle class localities’. Actually, they come from much closer. Bollywood’s item girls are the produce of the dirty, patriarchal mind of the modern urban Indian male. The last two decades of liberalization have imparted Indian men with an ambiguous sense of sexual morality. Indian tradition ever only imposed constraints on Indian men’s sexuality in a weak sense. The ‘worst’ punishment for sexual transgressions for upper caste Hindu males was a hastily arranged marriage. For women, it was and still is death. What happened in the last 20 years ? Male sexuality has been almost completely released from even these weak bondages, young Indian men are no longer scared of their fathers and older relatives. There is a revolt against old expectations, but little reflection among men about their new expectations (see Jaa Chudail (Scram Witch) from execrable Delhi Belly below).
Jaa Chudail is one of a long line of Hindi songs that reflect the entrenched misogyny in the minds of Indian men, especially young, urban males. Mainstream Indian cinema of the last twenty years is a classic example of how a medium that could have ostensibly challenged sexual conventions (and indeed has, in the past done so) can be completely co-opted by the oppressive instincts of society. To be sure there are some brave exceptions, but it remains to be seen if they can shake up the current norm.
The impact of this new highly sexualized imagery of non-heroine women in Bollywood has been devastating for women and men of the working classes. In addition, the social legitimization of drinking has lead to widespread alcoholism among the underclass men, greatly increasing the dangers for the women who live with and around them. And limited job prospects, delayed age of marriage, lack of self-confidence and the underclass women’s inability to participate in romantic and sexual relationships due to severe social reprecussions, is leading to immense economic and sexual frustration.
It is critical to note the differing attitudes towards the sexuality of the lead actor’s wife, sister and Chikni Chameli. The lead actress seems more liberated, but stays within the boundaries of patriarchy, the sister’s sexuality is a threat and vulnerability to be guarded from opportunists, while Chikni Chameli is out there, a non-person, waiting to be taken advantage of. So ‘Chikni Chameli’ can be viewed as a construction of the elite Indian male mind, a construction that reflects its own sexual depravity and contempt of women, and projects it onto the mass medium to exploit and enhance the same tendencies in the minds of the masses.