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Those were the femmes…

Friday, December 02, 2011
By Deepa Gahlot

As ‘The Dirty Picture’ gets set to release, supposedly a biopic about Silk Smitha, the most popular item girl of the eighties, a flashback to the times when the sexy siren was needed in films, because the heroine was meant to be demure and chaste. But men in the audience had to get their money’s worth of lust, so the character of the vamp was thought up by filmmakers; of sometimes just a night club dancer or cabaret girl.  Today, we call the sexy dance sequence that is unconnected to the narrative an item number. The item girl just dances and vanishes.  The vamp often had a speaking part and inevitably a tragic end.

Cuckoo must have been the earliest item girl, the one said to have a body of rubber; without her dance, films in the forties and fifties were not considered complete. Then there was Minoo Mumtaz who did some memorable dance numbers and faded away. Cuckoo introduced Helen to Bollywood and she turned to the dancer and vamp with the longest career span.  Today, she is considered a legend, though she leads a rather reclusive life as Salim Khan’s second wife.

Nigar Sultana, Nadira, Shakeela, Sheela Ramani and Shashikala were not just dancers, but added the spice and tang to the films they did as vamps and all had their heyday. Even as Helen’s career was its peak, dancers and vamps like Madhumati, Fariyal, Sonia Sahni, Bela Bose, Kumud Chhugani, Aruna Irani, Padma Khanna, Kalpana Iyer came on to the scene.  Fariyal disappeared from the scene, Madhumati went to start a start a dance school. Aruna Irani and Padma Khanna did some substantial parallel –the former is still around on TV, the later hasn’t been heard of in a while. Kalpana Iyer is reportedly managing a hotel in Dubai. There may have been other few-film wonders who have simply faded away.

When the ‘bold’ generation of Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Tina Munim, with their modeling backgrounds came into the industry and did not hesitate to get into skimpy costume; over a period of time the ‘vamp’ became redundant.

Now there is a whole bunch of showgirls who do nothing but item numbers; the big producers get A-list actresses to do item dances.  Lead actresses flaunt skin and have no inhibitions.  Silk Smitha was judged on her sexiness quotient, her thunder thighs and her image that was quite different from what she was in real life.  The contradiction probably killed her.  Today what you see is what you get.  No secrets, no guilt, no shame, no modesty… maybe only a dirty picture.

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