Are Item Numbers Really Necessary?

by Biswadeep Ghosh - Jan 11, 2015 02:08 PM +05:30 IST
Are Item Numbers Really Necessary?

The idea that an attractively packaged song-and-dance routine can make a film a hit is wrong. The viewer certainly doesn’t spend his or her hard-earned money to sit inside a theater for two hours for a few minutes of musical entertainment.

Some makers of hardcore commercial Hindi cinema insist that music in their films take the stories forward. That statement makes very little sense since dialogues could have achieved the same objective anyway.

Music is used, but for entertaining the viewers without contributing to the story. Seen in that context, 90 per cent of the songs in our films are item numbers.

If most songs are item numbers in Hindi films, how are they different from those classified as ones in recent years?

A typical item number is that song which is incorporated as a USP of the film. Part of a marketing strategy, it is usually promoted for a long time before the film gets released.

Marketers start the process of selling the song by first releasing the teaser. Only gradually is the entire music video shown to the public which on occasions, is done over a substantially long period.

Way back in the past, such strategies were non-existent. The expression ‘item number’ didn’t exist either, although there is no reason to deny that Helen’s classics like Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu from Howrah Bridge belong to that category of songs.

In spite of the incredible growth in the budget of item numbers and the manner in which they are marketed, Helen will be always remembered as the most important performer in this space. This is not only because those who followed her into her forte, such as Bindu and Aruna Irani, were no match for her charisma, but also because she was lucky enough to get some of the best songs composed in this genre. On top of it, she had a very long career, which nobody can aspire to emulate.


That Helen’s performances are timeless ones because of musical support is surprising since the contemporary composer is a lot more familiar with Western musical idioms which can be used to achieve the desired effect in many item songs. But in spite of a far greater degree of access and understanding, this composer has rarely managed to attain the kind of compositional excellence which his predecessors did.

Malaika Arora-Khan who has chosen to limit her participation in films to her performances isn’t far behind Helen as far her glamour and dancing ability is concerned. But except for Chhaiya Chhaiya in Dil Se, does she have a single song which is likely to be remembered for a long time? She does not.

That the item song objectifies the woman is the truth. But in recent years, item boys have also joined the list of performers with even a normally circumspect Aamir Khan letting his hair down and showing up in I Hate You (Like I Love You) in his home production Delhi Belly.

Since the business of appearing in such tracks is a well-paying one, if a leading star makes a guest appearance, or even if Mallika Sherawat does so,like she did in Jalebi Bai in Double Dhamaal, many seekers of a few seconds of fame are joining the queue. Horrible performers like Rakhi Sawant and Veena Malik might have been rejected by the audiences, but new names will come along. The temptation is simply irresistible.

Not until the early 90s was the female lead used consistently as a performer in item numbers. Then Madhuri Dixit happened. Because of her dancing ability, Madhuri performed in and delivered several super hits, among them her career-making Ek Do Teen in Tezaab, Dhak Dhak in Beta, and the controversial Choli Ki Peechhey in Khalnayak.

All these films worked at the box office, setting the stage for the belief that item songs could be used in every other film.

Two decades after Madhuri had captivated viewers with her performances and screen presence, commercial Hindi cinema has undergone several changes. But, one aspect that is becoming increasingly visible is the inclusion of one such song or even more.

Composing and tuning an item number into a crowd-puller isn’t as easy it seems. With practically everybody hell-bent on churning out such tracks in an endless battle for eyeballs, the film-maker, the music composer, the choreographer and the performer or performers need to excel to make the track stand out in the crowd.

If the output of any one of them is substandard or they fail to deliver as a unit, the idea of promoting the item song boomerangs. Mani Ratnam used Mallika Sherawat most attractively in Mayya Mayya in Guru which worked. But that a massive budget isn’t enough was evident in Chiggy Wiggy in Blue which featured Western pop star Kylie Minogue.  An underwater action thriller, Blue sank and so did the song.

In spite of the ever-lengthening list of item numbers, their ability to impact a film’s outcome can be seen from this short list.

Ishq Kamina from Shakti: The Power featured Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Chamma Chamma in China Gate had Urmila Matondkar. Yana Gupta lit up the screen with Babuji Zara Dheere Chalo in DumKrazzy 4 had two item boys, Break Free featuring Shah Rukh Khan and the title track performed by Hrithik Roshan. Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra made guest appearances in Billu’s songs.

What is interesting is that though the music videos of songs like Ishq Kamina, Chamma Chamma and Babuji Zara Dheere Chalo became very popular, the films tanked.

What the viewers will like and what they won’t has been an eternal mystery, and will always remain so. All one can say for sure is that any film in order to become a hit must click as a package. When that happens, the item number gets more attention that it otherwise would have.

Nobody had imagined that Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan could dance as freely as she did in Kajra Re in Bunty Aur Babli. Once the film became a hit, the song and her performance became even more popular.

Om Shanti Om appeared to be a surefire hit before it was released. Once it worked and how, Dard-e-Disco began to rock many more parties. Dhoom 3’s Kamli could be heard much louder, but only after the film broke all the records to become the biggest ever box office hit.

The proliferation of item numbers notwithstanding, 2010 saw a hyped clash of two item numbers. One was Munni Badnaam Hui from Dabangg featuring Malaika Arora-Khan, and the other Sheila Ki Jawani in Tees Maar Khan in which Katrina Kaif was the performer. Dabangg was taken past the line of success by Salman playing a cop named Chulbul Pandey. Tees Maar Khan promised to take off, but within a day or two, everybody realized that the film will crash, which is what happened.

Madhuri Dixit
Madhuri Dixit

Four years later, Munni Badnaam Hui is the song that most viewers remember, while Sheila Ki Jawani that was comparably big before the film’s release has been reduced to being a distant second in terms of popularity.

An item song, if well-promoted, can definitely contribute to the number of footfalls during the opening weekend of a film. But those who insist that attractively packaged tracks play a major role in a success story are wrong. While the viewer’s reaction cannot be predicted, the person certainly doesn’t spend his or her hard-earned money to sit inside a theatre for two hours, more so for a few minutes of musical entertainment.

The lesson a major section of the industry must learn is that the creation of a properly packaged film with the hope that it clicks with the masses is what matters. If that package serves its purpose, the absence or presence of an item song doesn’t matter.

Having started out as a journalist at 18, Biswadeep Ghosh let go of a promising future as a singer not much later. He hardly steps out of his rented Pune flat where he alternates between writing or pursuing his other interests and and looks after his pet sons Burp and Jack.
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