How the good girl 'badnaam hui'

Blessy Chettiar tracks the descent of the Hindi film heroine — from epitomes of chastity to eye candy who do not let chastity come in the way of their sex appeal.

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Gone are the days when Hindi cinema’s leading ladies delivered emotionally-charged dialogue, sobbed now and then, and eventually won over the leading men with the charm of their morality. In this scheme of things, there was also a distinct place for the sensual ‘other woman’, who danced suggestively, made a pass at the hero, and established herself in the audience’s memory with her seductive charm.

Over the years, the other woman, who had a monopoly on sexuality, so to speak, made the ‘item number’ her own. From Cuckoo in the ’40s and ’50s, to Helen in the ’60s and ’70s, and later Aruna Irani and Bindu, Hindi cinema has always had seductresses playing on the male fantasy. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, a new breed of item girls like Mumaith Khan, Nigar Khan and Malaika Arora upped the oomph quotient and helped secure a permanent place for the ‘item number in Hindi films.

With the exception of Madhuri Dixit (and perhaps Sridevi) around the ’90s, the role of the heroine remained restricted to ‘acting’, which necessarily meant behaving in morally acceptable ways.

But Dixit’s Ek do teen (Tezaab, 1988), Dhak dhak karne laga (Beta, 1992) and later the scandalous Choli ke peeche kya hai (Khalnayak, 1993) were unique departures that paved the way for the eventual ‘take-over’ of the item number by the leading ladies.

So, where Helen invited her lover with Piya tu ab toh aaja (Caravan, 1971), today Katrina Kaif plays hard-to-get with Sheila ki jawani (Tees Maar Khan, 2010). What Helen did for Amitabh Bachchan in Don (1978), Kareena Kapoor tried to ape in the 2006 remake, Don: The Chase Begins. Deepika Padukone too jumped on the bandwagon in Dum Maaro Dum this year. And Kaif is ready with another ‘tapori’ item in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan.

So how has it now become acceptable for the chaste leading lady to parade around as a piece of meat stoking male lust?

Explaining shifting boundaries of what is acceptable, media analyst Geeta Seshu says, “Roles for top actresses are not so much about the character these days. Earlier, the shades were black and white, and roles were well thought out. Today, they’re one-dimensional, not bound by convention, and they stop at that. There is no depth or complexity to characters.”

Director Subash Kapoor of Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010) fame echoes Seshu’s sentiments when he says, “People don’t question it when a mainstream heroine does an item number. We’ve come to a stage where you do whatever it takes to promote your film. But I hope we reach a stage where item numbers will be included in a film only for cinematic, as opposed to marketing, reasons.”

Filmmaker Jagmohan Mundhra (who passed away a week after this interview) felt that the current trend of even top actresses doing item numbers can be linked to the need to connect with the escapist needs of the audience. “People come to the movies to fulfill their various needs, and sexual stimulation is one among them.” Plus doing the item number helps the actress in two ways: it gives her added publicity every time the item number is played as part of the film’s promos — precious publicity she would have lost out on had an ‘item girl’ done the song; and it opens up additional earning opportunities in the form of lucrative stage performances of the popular ‘item numbers’ in different parts of the world.

Seshu, however, believes that the leading lady turning into an item girl is not without its downside. “For the most part, heroines have lost their importance as heroines. Earlier, it didn’t matter what the heroine did. She did all the ‘bad’ things only to save the hero. The vamps always turned good later. Girls were always essentially good. These days the heroine is there for pure entertainment, with no role and no context to the item song. It’s almost like the heroine is incidental,” she says.

Incidental or otherwise, it is certain that every heroine, even the most ‘conservative’ ones, are standing in line showing off their moves in clothes that could put Tarzan to shame. But we shouldn’t complain too much, for they do give us a reason to turn into impromptu Sheilas and Munnis at every party. And with even Vidya Balan doing an item number in The Dirty Picture, get set for sharper, more explicit turns.


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