Farah Khan has the country tripping on a Bollywood number with a difference: an item girl who hints at onanism and has hearts throbbing all the more for it
On a recent Bollywood banter show on TV, choreographer and filmmaker Farah Khan bemoaned her sex life as being “non-existent”. However, her forthcoming Christmas delight, Tees Maar Khan, has her item girl Sheila swinging to a rambunctious groove, singing herself hearty that she’s getting plenty—all by herself, no less.
In India, popular music culture emerges mostly from Bollywood and regional films, often with an ‘item number’—a song sequence with a hot girl—expressly designed to scorch the audio-visual playlist charts. While the Bollywood item girl offers energy, vitality and sexuality, her songs are given less to making statements than providing sociologists with material to discuss an ‘objectification’ of the female. Bollywood’s item girls have been unfamiliar with Britney Spears’ Touch of my Hand or Cyndi Lauper’s She Bop that openly invoked female erotica, including the self-love sort.
“Don’t intellectualise it,” protests Farah. She calls Katrina Kaif, who plays Sheila, “a Bollywood Beyonce” who has invoked a Broadway musical set to a kitschy pulse: “It boasts of a rocking beat and Katrina is dancing like never before.”
She sure is. Farah’s brief to the lyricist was a song “by a wannabe actress who’s not looking for male appreciation and is happy on her own”. Farah’s husband Shirish Kunder came up with the title while they were brainstorming with lyricist Vishal Dadlani on the theme of earthy sexuality evoking the spirit of a B-Grade Hindi film. Sheila Ki Jawani is a throwback to the soft-porn films of the 1970s and 1980s with titles like Jawani Ki Kehani. “You have to approach the song with a sense of humour,” says Farah, “and not look at it as a vulgar display.” Her heroine Katrina chose to shed not just her Barbie doll ambassadorship of cuteness, but also kilos, taking to her work-out “with a warlike attitude” to tone and reshape her abs to look good in village belle costumes. At the end of the fitness programme, Katrina was “hyper confident” of her look. Leggy and curvaceous. “I am not a size zero woman,” says Farah, a jest reference to her own prodigious frame.
“Katrina gave it all and it shows,” says Farah, who has sparked off an online war between Sheila and Munni (of badnaam hui infamy). “Munni and Sheila are both my babies,” she says, “but Sheila is the first song that has turned a huge hit in such a short time in my career.” The song sequence was shot over five days. “It’s the cheapest song I’ve produced,” boasts Farah. It had only ten backup dancers gyrating besides Katrina, and was filmed at Mumbai’s Film City on a nondescript floor. “You don’t need big money, but a big idea for a super successful song,” says Farah. All that the music itself demanded was Sunidhi Chauhan’s hearty vocals against the pulsating rhythm of Maharashtrian folk drums playing to the melody of a harmonium.
“One of the peculiarities of American womanhood,” Gertrude Stein remarked in 1903, “is that the body of a coquette often encloses the soul of a prude.” Contemporary female erotica in Bollywood lets the lady express her sexuality, but expects the male to make the next move. Now, with Sheila’s self-satisfied audacity, that’s been overturned. If Munni rubbed Zandu balm on her derriere in mock protest, Sheila proclaims disarmingly that no one’s got a body like hers. “Too many women want appreciation. Sheila needs no man, she’s dancing of her own free will, and she’s in love with her body and knows how to keep herself happy,” chuckles Farah.