When I looked up “item numbers” on Wikipedia, the page included a list of songs; “Babuji Dheere Chalna” was the oldest on the list.

The sequence includes many elements we associate with item numbers: a nightclub, a stern hero watching from the audience, a beautiful dancing woman. Considering how subversive item numbers can be, it’s intriguing just how long-lasting the formula has been.

Shakila stars as the “Dancer.” Her dancing is wild and enthusiastic, though it does not look particularly skilled (the moves mainly consist of flailing arms and hip turns, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t skill involved). She writhes on the floor, smiling. Her bodice is tight, skirt flowing; the outfit suggests a German dirndl or Ren Faire wench.

The outfit is what most took me by surprise, as it doesn’t seem particularly sexy, even compared to other item songs of the era. But it does emphasize bust and hips, and that it’s not a traditional sari/lengha choli/etc adds to the exoticness.

At the midpoint of the song, another woman enters the scene. She is stern-faced, frowning as she watches Shakila dance. She seems to be the girlfriend of one of the audience members. She seems to be less fun; who wouldn’t prefer the Dancer?

Which, of course, is the real purpose of most item numbers: “respectable” girls are necessary, but such a drag. We (men) need to have some fun, but of course we (men) can’t actually marry the dancers and singers. We (men) can enjoy them for a night and move on.

Posted by Natasha

Natasha received her MA in Literature and Culture in 2008 from Oregon State University. Currently she lives in Oregon with her husband and cats.

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