Eroticism and Bollywood Dance
Eroticism and Bollywood Dance
The commercial potential attached to the subject of Sex was understood by Indian film distributors very early. As far back as 1932, the erotic elements in “Zarina” led to public outcries for stricter censorship. But it earned a lot of revenue for the cinema houses. How to handle erotic content became the most asked question. For a film to fare well, a degree of eroticism was necessary for commercial success. However, the sensibilities of Indian society would not allow the leading lady of a film to behave in any immodest way. Three formulas were created to deal with this situation. These were the rape scene, attempted seduction, and the item number.
The rape scene is now outdated. But through the late 1950s to the 1970s, it was an essential part of any masala film formula. The 1960s employed different methodology to providing the necessary sexual excitement – the seduction scene. In such scenes, the vamp or a woman of loose character would attempt to seduce the hero using song and dance. The hero who was always portrayed as the embodiment of good character would almost never fall into such a trap laid by the vamp, remaining faithful to the woman he loved and eventually marrying her some reels later. This approach worked very well for producers as bigger doses of eroticism began to be injected into storylines with minimal reservation from the censor board. It was also felt that the hero’s spurning sexual advances made by the vamp would bear testament to solid Indian values.
Dances were woven into seduction scenes. The dance style would change depending on the current artistic norms, but every form of such a dance was always necessarily
suggestive in its spirit.
Eroticism in Bollywood can be said to have reached its climax with the introduction of the ‘item number’ and consequently the ‘item girl’. Item numbers introduce the erotic element. In such a song, the item girl acts, sings and dances in an erotic manner. The item girl keeps the heroine’s modesty intact.
In early movies, an item number meant a kathak style of dance. This doesn’t mean kathak in its purest form and was always more suggestive of the mujra variety. Over the years the handling of story lines, item numbers, and dance, have changed in way that is interesting to note. Earlier, the hero would go to a mehefil (gathering) where a tawaif (dancer-courtesan) was performing. The mehefil scene could be either linked to the storyline or have nothing to do with the development of the story. But, the introduction of the mehefil scene was a convenient way to introduce an item number into the film.
This method of introducing the item number soon became part of the masala movie formula. The 1960s saw the introduction of the cabaret in Hindi films. So now, the hero began going to the cabaret instead of a mehefil. As Westernization had started trickling in, Indian society was becoming a little bit more relaxed. It was not an uncommon sight to find the hero and heroine going to a cabaret together.
The cabaret scene marked a new high in dance as an artistic form. It was a commercial hit too. The cabaret can be considered as the first form of dance that was truly ‘Bollywood’ style. Unlike earlier item numbers, which used the traditional mujra dances, the cabaret dance was unique. As the cabaret theme is Western, it found wide appeal among Indian audiences.
Forms of dance in cabaret borrowed heavily from ‘modern’ Western dance forms of the 1960s. Helen was the favorite choice for a cabaret number. She was the then reigning queen of the Indian cabaret scene. Born Helen Jairag Richardson, she was of mixed Anglo-Indian-Burmese parentage. Helen began her career (dancing and acting) in the 1950s, and very quickly rose to the top of her profession. Come 70s, item numbers were being offered to younger girls. By the 1980s, the ‘item girl’ was almost dropped from the standard masala formula. Helen laid low for a while before returning to the movie scene and very successfully making the transition from “item” roles to elderly “mother / mother-in-law” roles.
Helen’s success as an ‘item actress’ is unmatched. She was part of a tradition that began before her times and is still surviving. Other well-known item actresses Bindu, Shashikala, Silk Smita, Aruna Irani, Jaymalini, Jyothilaxmi, have all left their mark on the history of Indian Cinema. Today’s, item actors include Malaika, Sameera, Rakhi Sawant and many others. Interestingly today, many lead female actors are doing cameos in movies for ‘item numbers.’
Many a time, the “item number” in a film shares an interesting relationship with the story line – it is simply inserted into the film. It is not in any way connected to the story line. Item numbers can be easily interchanged and it really would not make any difference to the film. A good example of this is the item number in Bunty aur Babli. Of course, there are times, when they do add to the twists in the movies or at least create an interesting sequence. A good example of a relevant item number would be the one in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S..
Tracing the history of item numbers in Hindi cinema to understand how they evolved is interesting. The sea-change in attitudes and a less inhibited Indian audience means that films do not have to use an item girl in order to maintain the lead female actor’s modesty. Modern audiences do not squirm in their chairs at the sight of a heroine dancing sensually. In earlier times, this would have been considered scandalous. Some item numbers however, are an exception when dealing with the subject of sensuality and the degree of eroticism can make even modern film audiences feel uncomfortable.
Such high levels of eroticism have a specific target audience – the young male Indian audiences. However, it is very clear that the demands of the Middle Eastern market play very heavily into these decisions.
Today’s hyper-erotic item numbers are very different from the very early examples of item numbers. Western erotic dancing has set a benchmark in erotic dancing which for practical reasons cannot be emulated to the letter. Traditional dance moves seem to be passé in these cases. But there are those times when, in order to give the mood of a film a classical feel, dance steps from the past are summoned and take center stage in a song and dance sequence.