Argument Against the Item Song in Kayamkulam Kochunni

I watched Rosshan Andrrews’s Kayamkulam Kochunni last day and I liked it. You can read my review here.

But there is one thing that I did not like: an item song titled ‘Nrithageethikalennum’ featuring Canadian model Nora Fatehi. The song itself is all right and adds to the masala and setting of the film, but the problem I have is with its sheer existence and the picturization. It has been categorically made to appeal to the male gaze, both in and out of the screen.

Even as the Indian film industry scrambles to think through and look at doing away with it, here we are using it to do what it has always been used to: drive more men into the theaters. I know that you may have your doubts with this article – coming from a male himself – but I am going to make my points anyway.

The Argument

I understand why director Andrrews may have resorted to putting an item number into his magnum opus, which is now the most expensive Malayalam film (INR 45 crores). He (and his producer Gokulam Gopalan) wants his money back and more. And for that people need to be barge in in the initial weeks. For those uninterested in history, flesh show compensates. At least that’s what I like to believe. It’s like falling to another low in box office business.

I also understand that the item number is a storyboard requirement. The makers want to show how cabaret was a common source of entertainment for English officers. And by showing that, also describe their sexist and condescending nature, mostly against Indians. I get it.

But what I don’t get is why. If showing what the British Raj enjoyed watching in the late 1800s in India was so important for the narrative, then why not also show other aspects of their lifestyle? Why does it have to be an isolated topic – an entire song that goes on for 4 minutes with a woman dancing and seducing? Finally, why make the central character validate it? I would understand if that was part of character development, but in this Malayalam film, it isn’t. Showing that the character was interested in cabaret has absolutely no impact on the rest of the story.

Lastly, the way the item number has been choreographed also points to the ultimate intention of the makers. If you observe the video song closely, the camera focuses on those body parts of Miss Fatehi that are devoid of habiliments or those that are naturally bound to evoke the feeling of sexual desire in a person (mostly male).

Cinematic Liberty and Style

I am convinced that the item number in Kayamkulam Kochunni (2018) was only placed to appeal to those who fancy it. And that’s a majority in a sex-starved country like India.

I am also convinced that this is what filmmakers consider as a catalyst to ensure box office success. But, I think it is high time that filmmakers – mostly in southern India – respect the current culture and social landscape and push the concept of item numbers into oblivion. The film industry is currently experiencing one of the most significant movements in a long time – the #MeTooIndia movement – and it is probably also the right time to shed elements that have dictated Indian cinema for ages. Item number, being one, and the idea of not passing the Bechdel test, being the next target.

It is up to each filmmaker to decide whether they want to add an item song in their film or not. The day when they don’t even think about it is when we will move towards being an industry that is culturally and socially sensitive. Otherwise, all this courageous activism is going to bite the dust in a few months, manhandled and subdued by the oppressive.

PS – I still remember the time I edited an article for The Review Monk during the 2015 edition of MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. I was summarizing an interview of a panel of women in Bollywood and had misheard the term “male gaze” as “male gays”. The lovely Ruhi Sinha corrected me later that day and here I am today. I hadn’t heard the term before that. How childish of me.

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