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Objectified men and female gaze: Male ‘item numbers’ in Bollywood

In the 1970s, Helen had grooved her way in Bollywood through performing songs now labelled as ‘item numbers’ while being caricatured as a ‘vamp.’ A woman draped in skimpy clothes would instantly raise eyebrows and trigger debates about morality for luring the attention of men and defying the stereotypical construct of a “cultured Indian woman.” Song and dance have been the cornerstone of Bollywood cinema since ever, and the picturization of songs increased their popularity overseas making it a centre of debate and social chats. ‘Item numbers’ now target the vast youthful constituency that craves for a visual escapade on the silver screen.

So, despite receiving backlash for exploiting the materialistic culture of voyeurism, it contributed immensely towards bringing popularity to Bollywood blockbusters, and at times, a single ‘item number’ would lead to a box office hit. Eventually by the 1990s, Bollywood blockbusters would invariably incorporate an innovatively picturised ‘item number’ and soon, India and its “Indianness” was being defined by gendered performances of actors with an ‘exotic body’ performing an ‘item number.’ This was a watershed in the sense that the gaze had shifted from the “immoral woman” to male actors doing ‘item numbers.’ Then came a smooth shift of dancing bodies where every woman would inevitably be a spectacle of desire, lust and fetishization. But this led to a lot of criticism within feminist movements who felt the urgency of addressing the anxiety and low self-esteem that they triggered. So, from the consciousness to fit into the size zero image portrayed by the ‘item numbers’ featuring female stars there came a need to focus on male stars. The dancing male body emerged as a novelty to replace the scantily clad female stars. The provocative dance moves with underlying sexual appeal that captured primarily male audiences now shifted to women patrons. The woman from being the centre of gaze became the gazer.

Times are changing and reversing the stereotypical gendered dynamics in Bollywood narratives. Women, besides being the objects of gaze also gained prominence in the script wi. Under this transformed representation female protagonists now would gaze at the eroticised men doing ‘item numbers.’ Men possessing machismo and flamboyance are now a striking feature of Bollywood productions where the shirtless hero is doing an ‘item number’ feeding female fetish.

The quintessential “King of Romance”- Shahrukh Khan and the heart throb for millennials- Ranbir Kapoor were eroticized, catering to female spectators in the movie Om Shanti Om and Saawariya, respectively. The bold display of machismo in the songs contradicted the normative constructs of masculinity in Bollywood.

Although the films did not do well at the box office the two item numbers appealed to the female gaze. In contrast to the 1960s style of dancing by Shammi Kapoor or the Dabbang style Salman Khan moves, the two songs offered a visual escapade for the female patrons by zooming into their bodies. In a departure from the stereotypical masculine construct jab se tere naina portrayed a waxed and toned semi-nude man dancing in a towel, similar to shirtless Shahrukh Khan performing in a fire fighting gear in the song dard-e-disco.

It is imperative to highlight differing locations for portraying masculinity in the songs. In Saawariya, Ranbir not only attracted female gaze off the screen but within the movie as a lonely character on a dingy street also became the centre of the gaze of sex workers as well, making him uncomfortable. On the other hand, the fair skinned extra dancers were shown smitten by the charisma and six-pack image of Shahrukh in the dard-e-disco song capturing the imagination of the millennials.T

he two songs symbolise the transformations in gender portrayal in Bollywood over the last few decades. But it also triggers debate about morality and commodification of men in ‘item numbers’ and diverting attention from portrayal of women’s sexuality. But it would be interesting to view masculine ‘item numbers’ as a new form of sexual representation from the yore. Male nudity can be viewed as an indicator of how the stereotypical constructs of masculinity, normative ideals of heterosexuality and established gaze at female stars within the script has changed.

But the new trends beg the query whether the new form of six-pack shirtless masculinity perpetuates a ‘desirable’ body image and thereby generates self-esteem amongst the vast population of men not able to match it. So then, should the new trend of male item numbers be welcomed as an alternative to objectification of women’s bodies? The gender implications of this reversal are difficult to ignore as it could lead to lopsided perceptions of inducing anxiety now among men. For now, let us see it as a novel space for celebrating sexuality of not only females but also males. 

Ms. Priyam Sinha is pursuing doctoral research on ‘Sexuality and the disabled woman: Tracing the incorporation of feminist agenda in Bollywood and portrayal of the sexual culture’ at the National University of Singapore.