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Do item songs objectify women?

Item numbers tend to attract negative criticism but what is it that makes them objectionable? Filmmakers Nadeem Baig, Wajahat Rauf and Yasir Nawaz weigh in…

Do item songs objectify women?

Instep Comment

A catchy, upbeat and sometimes garish song, featuring a dance sequence typically with a woman at the centre of things, is referred to as an item song in the current age of cinema. It generally features someone who isn’t a part of the film’s main cast and only appears for a special performance, while the song itself holds little to no importance to the film’s plot.

There have been several debates and/or opposition over the need to insert this kind of a dance number into a film that is both debasing and whose chief purpose is to objectify. In Bollywood, such item songs are a norm with ‘Munni’ ‘Chikni Chameli’, ‘Fevicol Se’ being some examples.

Earlier this year, actor, social media activist and anchor Hamza Ali Abbas spoke against item numbers when ‘Kaif O Suroor’ from Nabeel Qureshi’s Na Maloom Afraad 2 featuring Sadaf Kanwal was released. He took to social media and said: “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing to see some brilliant Pakistani filmmakers still using ITEM NUMBERS to sell their films. How can the censor board allow such filth to run in cinemas and how can PEMRA allow this to be run on channels?”

He went on to say that item songs objectify women and degrade them which goes against the essence of women empowerment,  women’s rights, our religion and our norms.

Recently Bollywood director and producer Karan Johar also disapproved of them and apologized for glorifying item songs in his films (though none of his directorial ventures carry an item song).

“The moment you put a woman in the centre and a thousand men looking at her lustingly, it’s setting the wrong example,” he said in an interview with SheThePeople.TV. “As a filmmaker I have made those mistakes and I will never do it again.”

Using Johar’s statement to support his stance, Hamza Ali Abbasi reiterated his views saying that he hopes this helps explain why it’s not okay to use a woman’s sexual appeal to sell films.

In the light of this ongoing debate, Instep spoke to a number of Pakistani filmmakers to find out their take on the subject and whether item songs are integral to the success of a film.

Nadeem Baig, who recently wrapped up the first shooting spell of Jawani Phir Nahi Aani 2 in Turkey, speaking on the matter, explained that as long as the song is important to the narrative, there is no harm in having one.

However, he also added, “If it’s not required in the story then it is something very distasteful. I, as a director, wouldn’t like to do it. I have never done it. I am not against songs or dance sequences; we have a history of them but if the purpose is just to present them as an item number than it I disapprove of it.”

Similarly, director Wajahat Rauf, whose last big screen venture was Lahore Se Aagey, feels that it is completely okay to feature a song that is part of the film’s story. He said: “‘Kalabaaz Dil’ (Lahore Se Aagey) wasn’t an item song as Saba [Qamar] had a key role in the film while ‘Tutty Fruitty’ (Karachi Se Lahore) featured Ayesha [Omar] who was not just a guest appearance either. If this is wrong then highlighting any taboo issue onscreen is wrong, whether it is kissing, murder, violence or other similar scenes. But if a song is placed out of context or that scenario is forced into the narrative then it is purely a marketing tool.”

To back his argument, Rauf revealed that since an item song isn’t integral to the story, his next film will not feature one.

On the other hand, Yasir Nawaz who is known for making commercially successful films (Wrong Number, Mehrunisa V Lub U) shared that there is nothing objectionable about item songs. However, he disagrees with the term ‘item song’ that is used to refer to scenarios where a woman is dancing.

img1012_Sadaf-optional“We have given a new name to this entire idea where a woman is dancing and is the centre of attention,” he began. “Women have been appearing in dance sequences since the early years of cinema; earlier it was Helen and now it’s Deepika or Sohai. I don’t find anything wrong in it. The fault lies in the term ‘item song’. When you make a commercial film, you need to incorporate these elements in your film. It is not an item; it is just a woman dancing.”

When asked if these songs play an important role in the film’s success, Nawaz refused and said that a song doesn’t decide the success or failure of a film. “There are multiple elements that make a difference such as the cast, the director and most importantly, the script. A song can top charts but it doesn’t guarantee a film’s success (case in point: ‘Baby Doll’).”

Speaking on the same lines, Nadeem Baig too dismissed the notion that a song determines whether a film will be super-hit or not. “It is a flashy thing that attracts viewers’ attention but has nothing to do with the film’s fate,” he asserted. “When Sadaf’s [Kanwal] song (‘Kaif O Suroor’) came out, people talked about it and wanted to watch the song but it is not the reason behind Na Maloom Afraad’s success. The film did well because it had something to offer to the viewers. Big screen is not just for young adults who enjoy watching such songs but is targeted at general audience. I feel if the song isn’t part of the film, the audience never connects to it.”

Whether item songs are connected to the script or put out of context, they tend to objectify women in most cases. A woman dancing is not the problem but being surrounded by a group of men who seem to be lusting after her, doesn’t leave too much room for doubt. Lyrical content also makes a huge difference in such ‘item’ songs. We feel that it largely depends on how women are portrayed in a particular dance number and what purpose the producers wish to derive out of that. Aesthetics play a crucial role too. And if an item song isn’t a decisive factor in the film’s success, as some of our filmmakers have pointed out, then there is no point in having one unless it shapes the story or takes it forward.

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