You don’t need to be a Bollywood fan to know that there is a lot of music in Bollywood films. Songs just pop up whenever characters fall in love, whenever families reunite, whenever there is a traumatic event; name any situation and Bollywood will have a song for it. Scholars like Sheila Nayar argue that because Bollywood has a large non-literate market, its cinema is oral in that it needs randomness besides the plot to keep the audience entertained. While the use of songs in Bollywood films is reducing significantly, most commercial films still feature “item numbers”. Item numbers are songs that mostly feature beautiful women dancing sensually and in revealing clothes to a crowd of awestruck men. As a self made Bollywood know it all( thank you very much), I wish to discuss item numbers and the globalization of the Indian sound through this particular item number: Ram Chahe Leela.
Ram Chahe Leela is one of the songs in the highly popular 2013 hindi film directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali called Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela. Sanjay Leela Bhansali also served as the music director of this film and the lyrics of the film songs were written by the composer duo Siddharth-Garima. Ram Chahe Leela was sung by Bhoomi Trivedi,and it has become one of the most popular item numbers to date. The song follows the basic form of the mukhra-antara form, whereby the song starts with the refrain and the refrain is sung multiple times. Like most songs in the hindi film industry, Ram Chahe Leela is cosmopolitan as it draws from various influences. It is an amalgam of Indian folk music through the use of sitar and western influences such as rock through the use of cymbals. Moreover, Ram Chahe Leela includes multiple languages such as: hindi, english, and gujarati thus emphasizing its cosmopolitan nature. Lyrically, Ram Chahe Leela summarizes the forbidden love story between the two protagonists: Ram(played by Ranveer Singh) and Leela(played by Deepika Padukone) who belong to two different clans that have hated each other for a very long time. Ram Chahe Leela’s video that was choreographed by the renown Vishnu Deva also subtly describes the setting of the plot. The pointed gun finger dance step hints at the setting of the film which is a village called Ranjar that is notorious for its illegal manufacture and sale of arms.
As can be inferred from the previous paragraph, Ram Chahe Leela is a product of many talented artists who collaborated to create a sensual dance song that was not part of the plot, but was nevertheless essential. Scholars like Rita Brara argue that item numbers are not as superfluous as “literate audiences” tend to think, but that they support the plot of the film and contextualize it even more.This brings me to the issue of item numbers in Bollywood and how they have become part of everyday mainstream, commercial cinema. According to Rita Brara, the term “item” is a word that is used to describe chilli hot and savory foods that are mostly served in urban restaurants in India, but not at home. Similarly, Brara contends that beautiful girls who are dressed in revealing clothes, and can’t be “home material” are called “items”. This explains why the most iconic item numbers have been sung in courtesan( the definition is complicated; it ranges from highly gifted women entertainers to upper class prostitutes) salons and not in homes, because “item girls” are usually not “wife material.” True to item number form, Ram Chahe leela also features the famous Priyanka Chopra as a courtesan in a revealing choli and dhoti skirt who is entertaining Ram after a heartbreak. In the film context, Ram and Leela escape their homes and get married but before they consummate their marriage, Ram’s friends betray them and Leela is forcibly taken back to her home. Ram is declared a hero for ruining Leela’s reputation and he is made a chief, but he is hurting because he hurt Leela. Consequently, Ram and his friends decide to go to the courtesan salon for entertainment. This example supports Rita Brara’s argument that “item numbers” are not additive in nature, but that they are nuanced ways of emphasizing the plot line. This is also evident in other films like Agneepath, where the item number in the film( picturized on Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif) was designed to be a welcome party for the main protagonist when he visited his enemy. Another change in item numbers that is significant is the actresses item numbers are picturized on. Scholars like Brara and Beaster Jones have pointed out that item numbers used to feature actresses who would not typically play leading roles. These item numbers featured actresses that were typecast as morally dubious women, or vamps. However, the trend in Bollywood these days is to cast bigger heroines so that many people can go to watch the movies. As previously mentioned , Ram Chahe Leela features Priyanka Chopra who is not only a household name in India, but also an international star who is the first South Asian to head an American TV show- Quantico.
Going off more research done by Brara, item numbers are made so that the sound is highly connected to the image.. For example, at the beginning of Ram Chahe Leela before we see the courtesan or the salon, we are given a clue by the sounds of the payals(anklets) and bells worn by courtesans( traditionally, Indian courtesans wore anklets during their performances). These sounds are paired with the painted feet of a woman with payals thus telling the audience that the scene has shifted to the courtesan salon. Another example of the sound image relationship in Ram Chahe Leela is when a male voice(picturized on Ram) takes over Bhoomi Trivedi’s voice( picturized on Priyanka Chopra) to emphasize the interaction between the courtesan and her guests . In this case, Ram is seen nodding in a “wah(wow)” expression to the lyrics of the song and expressing vocal appreciation to the lyrics’s relevance in his life.
To conclude, Ram Chahe Leela is a beautiful song whose purpose was not only to draw more people to the theaters, but to also summarize the plot . Ram Chahe Leela is considered by many critics the best song in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s album of Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram Leela, and I can’t say I disagree. The images and sounds are in sync, the playback singer’s voice is unique and beautiful, and the choreography is one I can watch all day. That said, this song like many other item numbers is an unpleasant reminder of how patriarchal the Indian society( most of the world really) is. It is an unpleasant reminder that while women have definitely come a long way in having roles of substance in cinema, many more women are still typecast as objects of male gratification.