Bollywood Item Songs – An Introduction, Part 1

How do you even begin to describe the true glory and history of the Bollywood item song?

The item song is a staple of Bollywood cinema.  I’ve briefly introduced P-Mag readers to an item song reigning queen, Helen, but we haven’t really gotten to the root of the magic of the item song.

How do you know you’re watching an item song?

  • Are the characters on stage either plot related (surprise talent show or nightclub performance) or not plot related?
  • Are the lyrics irrelevant to the plot?
  • Is the setting an abrupt tone shift from the plot?
  • Are the main performers of said song not actually involved in the rest of the film (i.e. guest stars or glorified cameos often used to reference older, often, better movies)?
  • Is the cameo or guest star known more for their dancing ability or good looks and less for acting talent?
  • Is the song a breakout hit to be played at Indian diaspora weddings and birthday parties and maybe some college Indian culture club fundraisers/Bhangra & Bollywood themed parties forever?

If you answered yes to any of these, congrats! You are almost definitely watching an item number.

Let’s look at some of the most famous item numbers from the middle years of Bollywood, the 50s-80s.

“Man Dole Mere Tan Dole” – Nagin (1954)

Vaijayanti Mala is the performer here and you can tell why she was a standout actress of the golden era of Bollywood (50s and 60s). This is song from my grandparents’ era of Bollywood and honestly I only vaguely remember hearing it on the radio growing up and had to google a lot to get here.

“Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo” – Howrah Bridge (1958)

I’ve never seen Howrah Bridge but everything about this movie and song clearly link it to the 1950s, and also highlight just how long Helen has had a long and wonderful career as a item song performer.

“Piya Tu Ab To Aaja” – Caravan (1971)

I may have mentioned my love for this song and Helen’s many costume changes before. I will post this song as many times as possibly relevant because it’s the greatest.

“Mehbooba Mehbooba” – Sholay (1975)

Sholay is one of the greatest and widely celebrated Bollywood movies ever. It’s because of great songs like this which became huge songs in their own right. While this time, it’s a male singer, no surprise, Helen makes an appearance (or dominates the whole scene) yet again.

“Yeh Mera Dil Pyar Ka Deewana” – Don (1978)

I linked this song already in the Disco playlist but I don’t care because Helen is the greatest ever. Yes I realize she appears four times, but that pretty much sums up her whole career.

“Mere Naseeb Mein” – Naseeb (1981)

Oh look, a club/stage performance. This time with queen Hema Malini holding the skinny mic and slinking around stage. #Goals

“Pyar Do Pyar Lo” – Jaanbaaz (1986)

I’m so sad I didn’t include this in an earlier list, but you know what I’m not, because it gave my mid week exactly the boost I needed. This is pretty much Stayin’ Alive the movie in a shorter song form but with Rekha instead of John Travolta and Anil Kapoor instead of Finola Hughes.

“Hawa Hawai”- Mr. India (1987)

A common thread among item numbers is their introduction of future Bollywood superstars. This bizarrely poppy number mostly introduced the world to Sridevi who is 1. badass enough to handle being a one-named diva, 2. Made this song look more fun and less cheesy.

“Ek Do Teen” – Tezaab (1988)

This song might be famous solely because it reminds people how to count to 13. Like the song above, it introduced the world to a superstar, this time the incomparable Madhuri Dixit.

Next week, we’ll revisit the 90s and bring us up to speed with more item numbers filled with some huge stars, some could-have-beens, and more cameos than you can even imagine.


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Karishma is a twenty-something living in New York City and is trying her hardest to live out every cliche about Millennials. This involves eating her feelings, drowning in debt and mocking infomercials. She likes sociology so much that she has two degrees in it, and is still warding off her parents' questions about a real career.

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