Rape spotlight on item numbers

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  • Published 2.09.13

New Delhi, Sept. 1: Some of Bollywood’s sexualised song-and-dance sequences crafted to tickle or titillate may also spur criminally inclined minds towards sexual crimes, sections of psychologists have said.

But film industry veterans and other researchers have challenged any such links while admitting that the content and style of the “item numbers” have changed over the decades.

The claim by the clinical psychologists comes amid widespread speculation about the factors that might help explain the motivation behind the recent gang rapes in India.

Some experts say the combination of raunchy lyrics and dance movements with sexual overtones, often portrayed by the female lead for a male-dominated on-screen audience, may push persons already primed for wrongdoing towards exploiting opportunities for rape.

“The emphasis on the (woman’s) body, the suggestive lyrics, the dance movements — they are things that have the potential to stimulate and provoke ideas in certain sets of people,” said Manju Mehta, professor of clinical psychology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, who is also president of the Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists.

“The most popular item songs don’t just stay on the cinema screen, they’re also on television and mobile phones,” said Kaptan Singh Sengar, a psychologist at the Ranchi Institute of Neuropsychiatry and Allied Sciences. “Many of them portray women as objects, not as human beings.”

Critics point to the lyrics of Fevicol se, an item number from the film Dabangg 2 during which Kareena Kapoor sings: “Main to tandoori, main to tandoori murgi hoon yaar/ Gatkaale saiyan alcohol se, oh yeah/ Mere photo ko seene se yaar/ Chipka le saiyan Fevicol se.

A rough translation: I’m a tandoori chicken, mate/ Gulp me down with alcohol/ Stick my photo on your chest/ With Fevicol.

Film industry veterans and analysts concede that item numbers are more explicit today than they were decades ago — for example, during the reign of Helen in the 1970s — but say that filmmakers use a lot of other devices too to attract audiences.

“Sex is one of the tools and it is perfectly legitimate to do so,” veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal told The Telegraph.

“Item numbers are aimed at attracting the audience physically. It depends on how well one uses it without crossing the borders of social legitimacy. Most item numbers are right at the border.”

He added: “Popular entertainment cannot afford to concentrate on intellectual stimulation. But I don’t think it can be blamed for promoting rapes in the country because films by definition are meant to entertain, either emotionally or physically.”

Komal Nahata, editor and publisher of Film Information, a trade journal on Indian cinema, said: “Songs from the earlier Bollywood periods were suggestive and teasing, and tickled the audience. Nowadays, they leave nothing to the imagination. They are bolder and more brazen, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame films alone for corrupting minds.”

However, Mehta, the AIIMS professor, said item songs could provoke people who are already leaning towards crime, possibly because of other factors such as poor guidance from parents or teachers, lack of role models at home, or exposure to wrong social environments.

“The perpetrators are likely to be individuals with poor impulse control,” Mehta said. “In a state of heightened provocation, particularly when they are in a group, their ability to control impulses may be even further weakened.”

But some other psychologists questioned the link between item numbers and rapes.

“The objectification of women in popular music, films and videos can have the effect of desensitising viewers to women’s humanity,” said Karen Franklin, a licensed psychologist in San Francisco, in an email.

“But there is little evidence that such depictions have a direct impact on rates of sexual violence.”

Psychologists say the perpetrators of gang rapes are likely to view the presence of a male companion with a potential victim as another challenge to overcome.

In several of the recent gang rapes — such as the December 16 incident in Delhi, the rape of a Swiss tourist in Madhya Pradesh in March, and the Mumbai atrocity last month — the attackers overpowered a male companion who was with the victim.

Group-perpetrated violence, according to Franklin, can serve many purposes for disempowered men.

“It can increase group solidarity, demonstrate and celebrate masculinity,” she wrote in the email. “Attacking a couple rather than a lone woman increases the challenge and, thus, the level of excitement.”

“Collective encouragement is one reason why many young men fail to appreciate the severity of the crime — either in terms of the victim harm or even the potential negative consequences to themselves,” Franklin said in a paper published this year in a research anthology titled The first handbook on research on multiple perpetrator rape, edited by UK-based forensic psychologists Jessica Woodhams and Miranda Horvath.