The Body Artists
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The problem is not that the item song is sexy, but that it is designed solely to please unimaginative men.
One of the best things about this protest around sexual violence is the way we are now interrogating taken-for-granted facts about our public culture. And thanks to this new alertness, we're finally seeing "item songs" for what they usually are – a blatant, calculated piece of sexism in the middle of a movie. Look, everybody please, take a few minutes to appreciate this "item".
It wasn't always this way. Even those who might revile the ideological world of the item song would laughingly jig along to the latest offering. It's just good booty shaking fun, after all. At a party, when the item song comes on, it has a way of getting everyone on the dance floor. You affect a mock-Bollywoodiness, play at its silly conventions, do some jolly jhatkas and matkas.
And it's funny how little one seems to demand of an item song, in aesthetic terms. They're rote and schematic, the exact opposite of the sexiness and spontaneity they're trying to evoke. Chikni Chameli and Chammak challo and Jalebi bai blur into each other — hoarse voices, suggestive "rustic" lyrics, be-kajalled women with swingy skirts, padded cholis and flat abs, maybe a strip of cloth symbolic of a pallu. Best of all, they all seem very proud of their own objectification, even in control of it, making it all delightfully guilt-free.
Personally, this ghaghra-choli genre is what I find particularly annoying, its smug fantasy of the item as a saucy, working-class seductress. It's a bit like what the Victorians called "oriental dance" or hootchy cootchy — the shimmy and shake popularised at world fairs, with characters like Fatima and Little Egypt embodying the voluptuous seductions of this other world, where sexuality is just somehow sexier.