There’s a lot that people have had to say when it comes to item songs, and most, of course, has been negative. However, when it comes to dance and performance, it only is a deeply rooted tradition of Subcontinental cinema, and those who have any knowledge of Pakistani narratives would wholeheartedly agree.
Be it those momentous songs, pre-dating the word ‘item number’ itself such as Sonay Di Tavitri by the iconic Madam Noor Jehan or Runa Laila, Naseebo Lal and Naheed Akhter crooning to some racy lyrics, emotive songs have played a huge role in expression through the annals of Pakistani cinema.
From Na Maloom Afraad’s Kaif o Saoor to Karachi se Lahore’sTutti Frutti – today we have an item song in every other commercial movie made in Pakistan. But what is it really about item songs? Are they truly a vulgar objectification of women or just a form of artistic expression like any other?
The proponents of item numbers often argue that these sequences can be viewed as empowering for women. They advocate that the performers willingly take up these roles and they become a means for women to take control of their own narrative and redefine notions of femininity. Moreover, item numbers have played a significant role in breaking the shackles of patriarchy in cinema. In the past, female characters were often relegated to the background, solely existing as love interests or mere supporters of the male protagonist’s story. With item numbers, women are given center stage, showcasing their talent, beauty, and charisma. This shift in the narrative has paved the way for more diverse and complex roles for women in the industry.
On the other side of the debate, detractors of item numbers assert that these sequences objectify women by reducing them to mere objects of desire for the male gaze. They argue that such overt sexualization perpetuates harmful stereotypes and promotes a culture that objectifies women in society at large. Furthermore, critics argue that the glamorization of item numbers detracts from the plot and sometimes, they are just not necessary. Actor in Law, for example, did not need an item song to make the movie an overnight success: it had a strong story line, superb acting skills being utilized, and great music. The item song was overkill.
It is essential to acknowledge that the debate surrounding item numbers is reflective of broader societal attitudes towards female sexuality. While some argue that they symbolize women’s liberation and empowerment, others criticize their portrayal as harmful and vulgar. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The solution to this complex issue lies in striking a balance between creative expression and social responsibility. Filmmakers can continue to incorporate dance sequences into their films, but with a conscious effort to portray women as multidimensional characters with agency and not merely as objects of desire. Empowerment can coexist with aesthetics and entertainment without compromising on either.
Furthermore, it is crucial for the audience to engage critically with media, acknowledging that item numbers are a product of the entertainment industry, shaped by the demands and desires of viewers. By encouraging more inclusive and diverse narratives, audiences can contribute to the evolution of item numbers, transforming them into a form of self-expression that respects and appreciates the talents of performers, irrespective of their gender.