A scantily-clad woman gyrating to a racy song has powered some of India’s biggest chartbusters.
So, when a new song from the southern Telugu film industry dropped in December, claiming to subvert the male gaze, it grabbed attention.
It was recorded in five languages – Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi – and released along with just 19 seconds of footage. The lyrics had the same message across the versions: whether a woman is old or young, tall or short, wearing a sari or a gown, she cannot escape ogling male eyes.
But many women were not impressed. They saw it as a mere gimmick, and a deeply offensive one at that, claiming to break down the very thing it’s built upon the male gaze.
The song’s lyrics, in fact, imply women are irresistible sirens, and men are uncontrollable lechers, argue some critics.
And, they say, it has all the elements of what is now a familiar formula: men leering at a woman as she sways, slides, and drapes herself over the hero, while a camera constantly cuts to bared bits of her body.
All of this “left little doubt that the video would celebrate all that the words appeared to lament,” wrote one reviewer.
“I examined the different lyrics. There is a line across all the versions which compares women with food,” says Sowmya Rajendran, features editor at The News Minute, where she writes about films.
“In Tamil, it’s a dessert, in Telugu, grapes, in Malayalam, sugar. Treating women as consumables end up justifying the ogling and lechery.”
Viewers, many of them male, love the song. They have lauded Samantha Ruth Prabhu, the song’s protagonist and currently one of the biggest southern female stars, for her performance – since she doesn’t appear in the film, Pushpa, beyond the song, they appear elated that a heroine, who has so far been praised for her acting, can also be so titillating.
The full video is yet to drop, even though the movie is out – but the track has now crossed 100 million views on YouTube in Telugu alone. And its title – oo antava – has been trending for days.
A view from the balcony during a packed sold-out, mid-day show at New Shirin Talkies Cinema January 2002 in Mumbai, India.
Unsurprising, given that the so-called “item” song – in Indian male slang, an “item” is a sexy woman – has always been an unabashedly sexist and successful formula.
Most “item” songs treat women like a piece of meat, both visually and in terms of the lyrics, says Ms. Rajendran.
She cites one of the worst offenders, the infamous ‘Fevicol song’, featuring Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor Khan, where she mouths lines likening herself to “tandoori chicken that can be washed down with alcohol”.
“In many cases, we know nothing about the woman in the song. She has no backstory, she just appears and then disappears from the movie,” Ms. Rajendran adds.
“Item” songs have long drawn outrage for objectifying women – with tight, revealing clothes, suggestive choreography, raunchy lyrics, and voyeuristic camera angles. But they are undeniably popular in a country where the audience is overwhelmingly male.
A popular soundtrack was once essential to a movie’s fortunes, drawing people to the cinema and earning huge revenues for music labels. Now, in the age of YouTube and Instagram, songs are even more lucrative.