With the recent release of Pushpa’s Oo Antava, there has been a lot of conversation around item songs and the seriously insidious effects it can have on gender equality. 

Of course, it is an apparent fact that item songs serve the male gaze, and that puts women at a grave risk of being objectified and dehumanized. 

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But long ago when the first “item number,” was created, it was less about sexualizing women and more about the art of dance and music. 

For instance, the first person to be seen performing dance in Hindi cinema was Anna Marie Gueizelor, also known as Azurie. Azurie was incredibly talented and skilled in Ballet and playing the piano, plus several other Indian dance forms (which she learnt later in life).Her first film was Nadira (1934), and was known well for the song O jaane wale balam laut ke aa from the film Rattan (1944)

Another notable solo dancer was Helen Ann Richardson Khan. Helen has done 700 films over the span of her 70 year career in Bollywood. And it is interesting to see that she has expressed her dislike for the word, “item dancer.”

As we moved towards modern forms of dance with nightclub backdrops, the term changed. I feel calling any song or actress an item number or item girl is very unaesthetic. It doesn’t sound good, nobody is an item here, and everyone is a working professional. I really feel we should not use the word ‘Item’ to refer to an actress or to any song.

-Helen said on the sets of DID L’il Masters Season 5

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But somewhere along the way, dance performances in films began being defined as item numbers. Women’s objectification and an exploitation of female actors really started showing around and after the 60s. 

For instance, Vijayalakshmi Vadlapati also known as Silk Smitha featured in some very well known songs in the 1980s, and it was speculated that she was pushed out from the industry for the immense success she’d garnered in a short span of time. Which was based majorly on the sex appeal that she enacted in her dance numbers.

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Actor and model Koena Mitra is another person who’s featured in several songs in Bollywood films. Though Mitra has had her fair share of acting gigs as as well individual dance performances in movies. 

But she appeared in song videos such as Ishq, Aaj Ki Raat, Akh Teri, and Channo before she took a deeper dive into the film industry. And is mostly known for her brilliant performances in the films Apna Sapna Money Money and Musafir (for the song O Saki Saki). 

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Mallika Sherawat has been a part of some of the most popular songs in Bollywood. She gave us songs such as Jalebi Bai, Mayya Mayya and Ghaghara. 

But years ago, according to an interview, she’d made the decision to leave India because she’d been extensively bullied by journalists for her choices in films. Which made me question why women featuring in item songs have been getting more hate than the production houses and directors who thought it was okay to have an item number in their film in the first place?

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Even though today, item songs are done by mainstream actors as well, there was a time when certain female actors were singled out and labelled as “item girls.” And it’s upsetting to see that rather than questioning the system that is obsessed with catering to the male gaze, for a long while, the judgement kept falling on the women who were doing the item numbers.

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Though, to be honest, item numbers as a whole, are a corrosive addition to films. They’re incredibly damaging to all genders, because they alter the way women are perceived. 

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I wish more fingers were pointed at the people who put women in positions where they’re objectified rather than at the women themselves!