Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ talks extensively about how the role of women in mainstream Hollywood films as belonging to an extra-diegetic space, i.e., belonging out of the narrative of the film, the narrative being carried on solely by male protagonists. This statement very rightly applies to Bollywood cinema where role of women is secondary, in the background supporting male characters, and item songs hold a big part in promotion of the film.
According to Mulvey, the presence of female characters, especially in item numbers, works against the narrative of the film, offering the cisgender heterosexual male audience (henceforth referred to as just ‘male’), a break from the intensity of the story until the song ends, and the story picks up after that, the story being of and for the male hero, with whom the said audience identifies.
To the common Indian, erotic scenes from movies act as the primary and easiest access to sex education, other than pornography. In recent years, Bollywood cinema dutifully depends on success of item songs, and this success depends solely on the hyper-sexualization of the female figure, the performer’s “raunchy movements” 1 , promotion of violent display of male heterosexual desire, and the woman’s position of powerlessness — a commodity who enjoys being objectified. This objectification begins with the term itself: ‘item’. It has several vulgar connotations, and they mostly surround a woman’s sexual appeal. Item song titles used words like “Chikni”, “Jalebi”, which reinstates this point.
Songs such as these help construct the idea of women as just tools for entertaining unrealistic male fantasies, locating them in purely male narratives, the women acting as machinery to provide “relief” until the other carries on with their story. “Chikni Chameli” is a number from the movie Agneepath starring Hritik Roshan and Sanjay Dutt. In this song sequence, we see Katrina Kaif (as Chikni Chameli) actively performing erotic scenes to get the attention of the protagonist. From the point the male hero arrives at the scene of the performance to the end of the song, there is little to no plot development; rather, the performance seemed to be interrupting and distracting the conversation between the two male heroes, that is, working against the “flow of the diegesis” of the film—
“…her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze
the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.”
However, this said female performer is supposed to entertain two sets of audience: inside the screen, and outside the screen. She is a spectacle for either side. In this space, she is a woman without a landscape. She is a “cut-out”, a two-dimensional figure without a background, story, or identity. She is cut from a landscape and displayed for an erotic transaction. She does not belong, nor stay — she disappears from the chronicle, stops existing in the primary line of plot. This is not just the case with item numbers but also with female characters in mainstream Bollywood movies. The female protagonist exists as a function for the real hero.
In the movie Agneepath, Kaali Gawde (played by Priyanka Chopra) exists concerning Vijay Chauhan (played by Roshan), and nothing else. She could be replaced by anyone without disturbing the main narrative carried on by the male heroes. In mainstream Bollywood, the role of the female character is relational, functional and dispensable. She belongs outside the diegesis, mostly providing viewers with pleasantness by a form curated as per male notions of sexual appeal. She is there to be looked upon, and deliver visual pleasure on either side of the screen. As Budd Boetticher rightly puts it:
“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
- Jha, C., 2017. Sexism through Song: A Feminist Analysis of Bollywood Item
Songs. Feminist Spaces, 3(1), pp.25-30.
- Mulvey, L., 1975. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen.