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Munni & Sheila, don’t be miserable
- Study says item numbers reflect aspirations of urban india

Lucknow, Dec. 26: Hey, Munnis and Sheilas, just grin and bear it, such “oomph factor” does serve a purpose too.

A lofty socio-economic-aspirational purpose, if you go by a recent study by a Delhi School of Economics professor.

Throw in a “structural” comparison with Shakespeare, and the picture is complete.

Right? Not quite, says Nutan Thakur.

The Lucknow-based social worker has moved Allahabad High Court alleging that the two songs, Sheila Ki Jawani and Munni Badnaam Hui have made life miserable for most Sheilas and Munnis.

These songs are voyeuristic and vulgar, she said in her petition and sought a ban on the two item numbers.

She isn’t the only one who wants such songs banned.

Satish Chandra, another social activist in Lucknow, says such raunchy numbers are nothing but a cultural assault on the heartland.

He goes back to a 1999 film, Shool, where Shilpa Shetty croons Aayi hoon UP-Bihar lootney.

Chandra says Shool, which tells the story of a don-turned-politician’s conflict with cops, marked the beginning of this “cultural assault” in which the socio-economic fragility of the heartland states “was made to fit in with” stereotyped images of violence.

“This explains the sense of outrage now over the recent songs and the court battles,” he said, referring to the case filed by Thakur and two others in Varanasi and Kanpur.

A singer, too, has moved court against Munni Badnaam Hui, though her charge is that of plagiarism.

Yasin Fatima, a Lucknow-based singer, claims the Malaika Arora number, directed by Lalit Pandit and choreographed by Farah Khan in the Salman Khan-starrer Dabangg, borrowed its tune from a Bhojpuri number, Launda Badnaam Hua Nasiban Tere Liye, sung by her mother Razia Begum in the seventies.

The main charge, however, is that of indecency. Such songs, says social worker Thakur, are made deliberately vulgar to tickle the voyeuristic impulses of viewers.

Rita Brara disagrees in her study. Such onscreen song and dance items needn’t always be seen from a negative perspective, says the Delhi School of Economics professor.

These songs, which evolved over the years, present to viewers “a constant dialogue” between the “historical” and the “evolving cultural social practice” in urban India, she says in her study.

The sociology professor says item numbers like Sheila Ki Jawani, composed, written and co-sung by Vishal Dadhlani and filmed on Katrina Kaif in Tees Maar Khan, go beyond cinema.

“Engendered in the specific discourse and practice of popular film culture in India, the item numbers… range beyond the filmic,” the study says.

They are performed, the study points out, “off screen”, at “social venues, events ranging from urban dance bars across the country”, and at “live concerts to wedding celebrations and dance schools”.

Such songs, Brara feels, have “become a career tool for budding aspirants” and given rise to “extensive commercial activities”.

“The songs have moved and criss-crossed through modelling, VJ-ing or talent contests and reality TVs that organise Item Bomb contest fall back on these numbers,” the study says.

The “oomph factor” in the songs, the study says, is encouraged as the choreographers feel this is the way to “take care of the aspirational needs of urban India”.

To back her argument, Brara pointed to Helen, whose dance items between 1952 and 1972, she said, made her the “original item girl” and helped her get the Padma Bhushan. This shows how item songs have travelled to win social acceptability, the study says.

The study also found structural similarities with Shakespeare’s insertion of clowns for a dash of comic relief, though a broader view is that the item songs were a redesigned form of the traditional nautanki.

One of the oldest forms of performing arts in Uttar Pradesh, nautankis were verse plays performed in courtyards of rich people during weddings and festivals.

So grin and bear it, Munnis and Sheilas, for old time’s sake.

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