Excerpt from "The Evolution of the Bollywood Item Song" by Zeahaa Rehman, published in the Juggernaut.
Since “Dard-E-Disco,” several Bollywood actors have done item songs that center the female gaze (think Ranbir Kapoor’s towel dance in “Jab Se Tere Naina” from Saawariya (2007)). Shahid Kapoor and Tiger Shroff are also male actors who “put their bodies on display through dance,” said Usha Iyer, a film and media academic at Stanford University and author of Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema. And years before “Dard-E-Disco,” Farah Khan had choreographed another song focused on a man’s chiseled abs, this time of a newcomer: “Ek Pal Ka Jeena” from Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai (2000), featuring Hrithik Roshan. “Ek Pal Ka Jeena,” for example, literally puts a spotlight on Hrithik’s abs, easily visible through his thin, mesh shirt. In another part of the song, rain-like water falls on him as he dances — another trope of female item song numbers.
Bollywood has, what Sarwal has coined, an ache-ghar-ki-ladki syndrome, where the heroines — both on and off-screen are expected to have an image of someone who believes in “the mandir, the values, the arranged marriage.” “In some sense, the item number kind of liberated the female body from the social norms. At least for that song, you have a break,” he said. But, he emphasized that an item song is only that: a break.
Iyer, however, disagrees. She explained that the binary of exploitation and empowerment is complicated when it comes to item songs.
Many female spectators derive all manner of pleasure from watching item numbers,” she said. “Item numbers can mean different things to different people at different times…We need to have nuanced conversations around how class, caste, regional location inflect women’s responses to item numbers rather than universalize from privileged metropolitan or diasporic locations.
She elaborates that “queer modes of looking” can also disrupt the cis-gendered, heterosexual male lens usually affixed to Bollywood item songs.