These days, I very often hear from people about Chiknee Chameli, Sheela and Munni. I listen some songs on radio which feature these words. Well, my having used word 'These Days', in the opening sentence of this post is, in no way a suggestion that this is something of a very new zeitgeist in Bollywood or in India. If I say so, I would be suffering from Recency Illusion. The moment you know that you're suffering from an illusion, it ends. Illusions cannot stand light of awareness. That much for illusions.
There have been item songs in Indian movies since the inception of the talkies in India. The form of those songs however, has undergone a radical transformation and so has their importance in various mainstream commercial movies.
[ 'Mainstream' along with 'Commercial' insinuates towards redundancy in a sentence but it's not a big offense methinks!]
Wherefrom does this holy term 'Item Song' come? The quotation below from Wikipedia might be handy :
Although, the origin of the term "item number" is obscure, it is likely that it derives its meaning from objectification of sexually attractive women. This is because item in filmy Mumbai slang is a sexy woman. The classic meaning of "item number" refers to highly sexualized songs with racy imagery and suggestive lyrics. The "item number" would feature an "item girl" who appeared in the film as a dancer, usually in a bar or nightclub, and was only in the film for the length of that song. It was often frowned upon at that point in time.
I completely agree with the quotation above. You will often hear word Maal for a good looking/sensual boy or girl in India. You might find your friends saying "See Maal is coming." for a boy/girl if you happen to be standing somewhere and an attractive boy/girl is coming. 'Maal' literally means 'Object' or 'Goods'. You are most likely to hear word Maal used for girls and in some cases ( actually it is catching up as a trend these days...) for boys. This is indeed objectification of sensual man/woman. The name Item Song therefore indeed stands for a song featuring such a man/woman capable of pulling in audiences into the movie hall. Now it's not that man don't do item numbers in Indian movies but frequency is very less when compared to those featuring woman. What does this mean? This simply means that we are yet living in a Patriarchal society; a society which is dominated by man and where woman is considered to be an object for his gratification, especially sexual gratification.
Another excerpt from Wikipedia:
An item number or an item song, (Hindi: आइटम नंबर, Tamil: குத்தாட்டப் பாடல்) inIndian cinema, is a musical performance that has little to do with the film in which it appears, but is presented to showcase beautiful dancing women in very revealing clothes, to lend support to the marketability of the film. The term is commonly used in connection with Hindi, Tamil and Telegu cinema, to describe a catchy, upbeat, often sexually provocative dance sequence for a song in a movie. However, the term as understood in Bollywood parlance has entered the Kathmandu entertainment industryscenario as well. Item numbers are usually added to Indian movies in order to generate publicity by featuring them in the trailers. Item numbers are favoured by filmmakers for the reason that since they do not add to the plot, they afford the filmmakers with the opportunity to pick potential hit songs from the stocks. It is thus a vehicle for commercial success which ensures repeat viewing.
The link will take you to the list of item numbers in Indian cinema. It would not take a Mathematician to figure out that number of such songs being created has been significantly increasing in last two decades. The quote above clearly tells you why this trend is catching up so vehemently: The irrelevance of such songs with the plots of movies gives the filmmakers immense room for experimenting while maintaining commercial success.
Some object to the objectification of woman as happens through Item Songs. Others suggest that it's not justified because movies merely reflect the society. I concur with the latter. Cinema is a powerful media but it adheres to society and not the other way around. The patriarchy in the society is responsible for many things including the objectification of women and cinema merely portrays reality of society.