The A-rating on TV will hopefully put some sort of brake on filmmakers who use item numbers solely - and un-aesthetically and irresponsibly - as a means of collecting more money.

As with so much else in India, we are doing the right thing for the wrong reason at the wrong time — and in a piecemeal manner. So item numbers, one of the many targets in the national outrage that followed the Delhi gang rape case, have now been given an Adult rating for television, which means such songs cannot be broadcast before 11 p.m. And that the telecast of a film with A-rated item numbers will have to make do without them if it wants prime-time viewing. Will that shield young minds from their insidious, offensive impact? Of course not. But, hopefully, without the liberty to blast such song 24/7 on TV, it will put some sort of brake on filmmakers who use item numbers solely - and un-aesthetically and irresponsibly — as a means of collecting more money.

I’ve had a problem with item numbers for some time now, on purely cinematic grounds. I see them as the contemporary equivalent of the old rape scene — an ingredient to be added to the pot to spice it up, the operative word being ingredient. It’s a part of the formula film, the Bollywood genre that believes in filmmaking by numbers: Action scene hai? Emotional scene hai? Item number hai?

Nobody even bothers to pretend anymore that item numbers are incidental, let alone integral to the plot. It’s taken for granted that most every film will have an item number, so when the hero, in a quick break between fighting the baddies of the world, steps into a dark, smoky hangout, you know what’s coming next. And we don’t bother to ask why. Not the audience, not the critics.

How many reviews have you seen of late that question the validity of an item number that is irrelevant and redundant (as most of them are)? There are long discussions on characterisation and screenplay and suchlike, but the item number? Silence. We’ve all been bludgeoned into such a weary acceptance that we don’t even bother to question item numbers anymore.

Neither do we sufficiently appreciate a film that is brave enough not to have one. Like Talaash. A film about the demi-monde, in which one of the main characters is a lady of the night (in more ways than one!), and no booty-shaking item number? Of course you’re asking, hey, what about Muskaanein jhooti hain? Thank you for that. Here’s a song that had every justification for going the tacky item number way but chose not to. Pankaja Thakur, the CEO of the Censor Board of Film Certification that will hand out the Adult ratings for item numbers, has admitted the Board will not define the parameters by which to decide which song is an item number and which isn’t. It’s a bit like pornography — you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

Just as you know Muskaanein jhooti hain is not one. Yes, it’s a cabaret number harking back to the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, Kareena Kapoor is incredibly seductive in gorgeous retro style. And the song bathes you in sensuality. But nothing about it titillates. Not the lyrics for sure — Javed Akhtar is not the man to write a vulgar line. Not the cinematography — the camera dwells more on Kareena’s face than any other part of her anatomy, and there are no shots of jiggling cleavage, thighs or belly button. And, definitely not Ram Sampat’s languorous music. Above all, it is a song that blends perfectly with the story and, in fact, gives you one big clue to the mystery. (It’s another matter that most didn’t get the clue.)

Now, jump to Kareena’s other recent number, the screechy Faavicol se from Dabangg 2, which has absolutely nothing to contribute to the film except titillation. It’s an affront to every cinematic sensibility, to women, folk music, lyric writing, choreography, costume design… there are few parameters on which it does not offend.

Why in cinema’s name did Kareena ever agree to do this atrocious number?

The answer lies in all the award nights and stage shows where she will perform this song for the next couple of years. How can any actress who takes her acting seriously (and Kareena does, in her own manner, but only selectively) consent to be part of something that has no cinematic justification whatsoever?

There was a time when coy heroines would defend degrees of undress or steamy scenes with that ancient line: ‘The role demands it.’ Nobody bothers to say that anymore (thankfully, that hypocrisy has ended) because nobody sees the need to keep up that pretence anymore. The role or movie doesn’t demand an item number — the producer/ distributor/ box-office/ Rs 100-crore club does. So bring on the itsy-bitsy costume, the heaves and thrusts.

Sometimes, I wonder if Gulzar saab, among the most refined, responsible and respected men in the industry, did us a bit of an unintentional disservice with his Kajra re. His lyrics, born of a milieu that he understands so well and shaped with a delightful aestheticism, were one big reason Aishwarya Rai’s item number in Bunty Aur Babli (2005) did not seem vulgar. Then came his lyrics for his faithful protégé Vishal Bhardwaj’s Beedi jalaile in Omkara (2006), and there has been no stopping the onslaught of the raunchy faux folk song item number ever since. The difference between those two songs and that atrocity called Faavicol se is like that between a Picasso nude and porn. Where does one even begin to object to a line like ‘Main to tandoori murgi hun yaar, gatka le saiyyan alcohol se’ (I’m a tandoori chicken, gulp me down with alcohol)?

But how does one measure aesthetics in an item number when one cannot even define it? And how can we expect children and young minds to figure out all that nebulous stuff? When I see eight-year-olds and pre-tweens in my building complex trying to move their yet-to-bloom bodies to Sheila ki jawani and Faavicol se in their evening playabouts, I begin to think that the new Adult rating is perhaps a good thing. Of course, I support freedom of expression as much as any in the arts would. But it is valid to argue that those who do not use it responsibly will have to pay a price for doing so.

shashibaliga@gmail.com

(This article was published on March 14, 2013)
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