June 29, 2022
Katrina Kaif slumbers on a revolving, round bed, clad in nothing but a bed sheet, while the director of the film she is starring in leers at her. Suddenly, male dancers appear behind the bed and surround Kaif, who awakens, clutches the bed sheet to her chest, and begins singing the opening lines of “Sheila Ki Jawani” from Farah Khan-directed Tees Maar Khan (2010).
I first saw “Sheila Ki Jawani” when I was 13. My cousins and I had watched item songs on TV while growing up in Lahore, Pakistan (when the adults weren’t looking, of course), but something about the song immediately set it apart. Katrina Kaif checked off nearly every item song cliché — performing suggestive choreography and wearing revealing clothes while surrounded by men. But, in a divergence from many item songs, Sheila confidently announces that she is too sexy for her suitors. I was in the throes of puberty at the time and struggling with my changing body, my sexuality, and the fact that I couldn’t discuss either with anyone. I grew up in a Muslim family who believed, as many South Asian families do regardless of religion, that I should conceal my body and its urges — definitely not flaunted with Sheila’s confidence. “Sheila Ki Jawani,” however, showed me that it didn’t have to be that way.
Bollywood item songs are a space outside the boundaries of South Asian propriety, where South Asian women can unapologetically admire their beauty and body, acknowledge their sexual desires, and announce their intent to act on them — or even withhold them. Perhaps “Sheila Ki Jawani” was enticing because the director behind it was a woman — a rarity in film. But, in a world where men dominate filmmaking, can item songs empower women?