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Essay: Hindi Cinema

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Hindi Cinema

In India, the most potent sources of fashion are tradition and cinema. The power of Hindi cinema is often manifest by the transition and appropriation of on-screen costume into the wardrobe of masses. Barthes argues that clothing transcends limitations of individual dressing habits to integrate in the ‘widest sociality’ (Barthes 1959). Costume as the language of the clothed body through a multiplicity of signs is evident in the ‘Bollywoodization’ of fashion, a firmly entrenched phenomenon caused by globalization and consumerism. These often become reproducible, mutating images through the fashion system across all social strata, re-iterating the transition from tradition to modernity.

The reinterpretation of garments that are part of the traditional design repertoire on celluloid generates new images of the Bharatiya nari1. Cinematic conventions including the interplay of make-up and lighting stylizes and sexualizes the female actor to create ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey 2006). The clothed body thus becomes the ‘subject and object of the gaze’ looking at others and in turn, being looked at (Calefato 2010). Costumes become a mode of defining the on-screen ‘character’ through appearance, public visibility and perception of image ‘ ‘conservative’, ‘bold’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ by the audience. Song and dance sequences, in particular, are perceived as being synonymous with Indian cinema. Sometimes they form a part of the narrative and at other times, merely entertainment placed in a variety of situations and contexts ranging from family gatherings, romance, friendship and more recently, the item number2.

This paper examines the dance costumes worn by actors in roles of the seductress and the ‘fallen woman’. Through select examples of ‘hit’ song and dance numbers in Hindi cinema in the last decade, this paper questions the reasons for association of dance numbers with the choli3 blouse. How similar is it to the bra in terms of wearability and metaphorical meaning? How is the relationship between the screen character, body and the body covering, represented in this case by the choli blouse, established on screen? The focus is on how the choli blouse while retaining its traditional essence, adapts to cinematic requirements and follows the path of fashion diffusion in society.

Keywords: Hindi cinema, Dance, Item number, ‘Fallen’ woman, Choli blouse


The duality of fashion lies in the simultaneity of its tangible reality with its fictive essence. This makes fashion an incessantly mutating expression of individual desires and societal aspirations. Its un-real quality creates and communicates images of the self and therefore functions as a form of fiction. The imaginary aspect of fashion constitutes elements of ‘mass culture, like pulp fiction, comics and movies’ (Barthes quoted in McNeil et al 2009: 1). Barthes argues that dress is always abstract requiring either verbal or schematic description which would include, among other aspects, ‘those dress phenomena which are artificially re-constituted in order to signify (theatre and film costumes)’ (Barthes 1959: 27). The costume becomes the language of the clothed body through signifiers whose meaning lies in the ‘functions, opposition, distinctions and congruences’ (Barthes 1959: 28). The roles of dress being those of protection, concealment and display governed by the viewer’s gaze on the adorned body contribute to the narration and transformation of identity as visual signifiers.
The complexity of the role of fashion within the realm of cinematic fiction is the interplay of narrative, character and the viewer’s gaze. The clothed body becomes the ‘subject and object of the gaze’ looking at others and in turn, being looked at (Calefato 2010: 344). Laura Mulvey’s canonical concept of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ is applicable also to cinematic conventions including the interplay of make-up and lighting to stylize and sexualize the female actor (Mulvey 2006: 317). This construction creates uneven hierarchical positions where ‘to look at’ and ‘to be looked at’ form two corollaries where the former is associated with men and the latter with women (Mulvey cited in Calefato 2010: 343). Extending Mulvey’s argument, I argue that the interpellation of the viewer as consumer is the result of the intensification of desire fuelled by the dance and costume in in Hindi cinema.

The significance of the film song and dance number, widely perceived as being synonymous with Indian cinema, serves as an important channel of garnering popularity and evoking fandom for actors. Whether emerging naturally from the film’s narrative or inserted as an entertainment ‘break’ to alleviate the tension in the narrative at a strategic juncture, the dance number forms a part of the narrative and at other times, merely entertainment placed in a variety of situations and contexts ranging from special occasions, family gatherings, romance, friendships and so on. The dance number is a mode of interpretation and expression of popular culture where an actor may essay a larger role in the movie or may perform a single item number. The context of the dance routine forms a site of struggle in producing and effacing differences through the perpetuation or departure from the stereotypical representation of Bharatiya nari. The character who ‘performs’ (read dances) in a less-than-respectable location like a hotel/bar/restaurant/brothel is often represented as being antithetical to middle-class morality. The ‘fallen’ woman may be a vamp, cabaret dancer, night club dancer, bar dancer, mujra4 or courtesan dancer, prostitute or call girl. Unlike the romantic mode of song and dance popularly associated with Bollywood, the dance of the ‘fallen’ woman evokes and articulates desire through titillating bodily movements suggestive of seductive enactment. The item girl5 does not prescribe the narrative metalanguage of morality upheld in movies as arbiter of culture and respectability. The public visibility of dance and costume becomes a vehicle of communication in determining the way in which the cine-viewer interprets the social identity of the dancer. Therefore, in examining the relationship between cinema, dance, costume and identity it becomes necessary for movie scholarship to move beyond the cinematic text to consider the ways in which costume contributes to the characterization and viewership.

This raises the question of what are the ways in which the changes in time and space can result in changes in the significance of a garment. How can a garment archetype be interpreted and expressed in terms of the ‘work’ undertaken by the wearer in cinematic narrative? How are movie costumes decontextualized and appropriated for social occasions? These questions inform the research objective and methodology of this paper.

The academic analysis of costumes for song and dance sequences in Hindi cinema, this paper adopts a predominantly visual-centred approach to focus on costumes in general and the choli blouse in particular, functioning both as spectacular intervention and visual narrative. The appropriation of a traditional dress and decontextualizing it constructs culture anew. In this paper, I consider select Hindi film song-dance numbers enacted by actors essaying the character of women with ‘different’ professions. The dances were identified on the basis of their ‘hit’ status in terms of periodicity on music channels on radio and on television in the decade between1993-2013. The list was narrowed down to three hit songs in three commercially successful movies – the first is ‘Choli Ke Peeche’ [Behind the Choli] in Khalnayak7/ Anti-Hero (Ghai 1993); the second is ‘Ooh La La’ in The Dirty Picture (Luthria 2011); and the third is ‘Ram Chahe Leela’ [Ram wants Leela] in the movie Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ramleela8/ Dance Festival of Bullets: Ramleela (Bhansali 2013). Through the socio-semiotic analysis of the performance of the clothed body both as a subject and a visual object, I explore the construction of identity and the portrayal of ‘fallen’ women. With references to the origin of the ‘choli’ blouse as a traditional garment, I ascertain whether the re-iteration of this costume archetype for item numbers in cinema contributes to its role as signifier of sexuality and morality of the screen characters.

The Choli (etymologically deriving from the Sanskrit chola or cholaka) traces its origins to the pre-Vedic period (c 2200-1500 BC) when it was a draped piece of fabric called stanapatta (stana means breast and patta is a piece of fabric) also named Stanamshuka9, Stanottariya10 and Uttairiya11 worn as a breastband, fastened at the back with a knot (Goswamy 1993: 185). Wearing a draped sari with bare breasts has not been uncommon in parts of India. The earliest blouse was made of unstitched fabric pieces of varying sizes and widths worn in a variety of draped styles. This breast covering whether wound tightly or loosely, has been the subject of literary eloquence in imaginative dalliance of lovers.

Evidence of paintings from the Gupta period (c 4-8 AD) reveals variations in the design and structure of the choli, which has metamorphosed from its original longer and fuller version to its abbreviated contemporary form tied with strings at the back. The bust cup of the traditional choli, literally referred to as katori12, comprises two crescent pieces where the upper piece is named paan13, the lower one named chiriya14 and the pattern segment for support to the breast is the diwar15 (Goswamy1993: 188). Its multiple names are derived from design variations which are, in turn, drawn from regional influences – in Rajasthan it is referred to as Kanchali (Kanchuka in Sanskrit) and as kapadu (deriving from kapada or cloth) in Gujarat and Sindh. It continues to be extensively worn across Rajasthan and Gujarat as well as by village and tribal women in Bengal and Bihar.

Though often worn as a breast covering directly on the body, the choli is not an undergarment. This manner of wearing the choli continues till day, either with or without bust pads superficially inserted under the cups. This is in contrast to the brassiere which may be deliberately made visible to public view or worn on top of garments according to post-modern fashion trend of ‘inside as outside’. It is the simultaneity of the choli worn as an independent item of clothing or over a bra, as a representation of feminine body and the subject of scholarly study that the complexity of meaning is created.


Calefato argues that clothes and bodily coverings have their own language with its own ‘syntax’ guided by rules where the interpretation depends on the context (Calefato, 2004: 5-6). This creates the appearance and public visibility of the body enabling the interpretation of identity and role in society.

In Mahasweta Devi’s trilogy included in the Breast Stories, the breast whether covered or bared, naturally or forcibly, fluctuates between its identity as sustenance-provider on one hand and as sexual object subjected to brutality, rape and subjugation on the other. Against the backdrop of wider socio-economic-political issues of national concern, ‘Behind the Bodice’ threads a narrative of the overarching apathy, hopelessness and injustice of urban experiences underpinning the atrocity of encounters between woman and man, the oppressed and oppressor. The engagement of the visual aspect of ‘pirated cassettes’ with the sound of the song choli ke peeche1 recurring as a ‘national anthem’ throughout the story, fluctuates between the duality of interpretation regarding the popularity of the movie Khalnayak and the angst of the protagonist Gangor, a naive, rural woman who comes to the city in search of work. The sight of her naked breasts semi-covered by her sari while breast-feeding her child fascinates Upin, a photographer who seeks to immortalize the image by publishing these photographs in an international magazine. The naturalness of Gangor’s ‘statuesque’ breasts ‘like the cave paintings of Ajanta’ contrasts with Upin’s wife Shital’s silicone implants under the latter’s choli. However, Gangor’s virtue is derided by the overseer referred as the Caretaker for not ‘understand(ing) that police are men too’ and for daring to press charges against the atrocities perpetrated by them. At the climax Gangor aggressively solicits Upin wearing a ‘very dark choli, very insolent breasts’ which proves to be an illusion since she has been gang-raped and mutilated presumably in the police lockup. His intention of ‘saving’ a woman’s endangered breast, not as an erogenous zone but through its transformation into a beautiful, fashion icon is defeated when his idealism encounters the harsh truth. What lies behind her choli, now stuffed with ‘straw- chaff, rags’ is the symbolical ravage of a subjugated community. The choli therefore, is no more than a frail covering bearing mute testimony to the abject helplessness of a tribal woman and a signifier of the oppression inflicted by the authorities whose mandate is to uphold the law.


In Indian cinematic fiction, virtue and chastity are essential characteristics of the ideal woman, which contrasts with the attributes of actual or implied promiscuity associated with the ‘other’ woman, be it the vamp or item girl. Since portrayal of female nudity is not permitted by the Indian Censor Board, the male gaze is drawn to the heaving bosom and midriff particularly in song-and-dance sequences. This may be attributed to the fact that integral to and often dominating Hindi cinema is a self-conscious preoccupation with spectacle and costume including contemporary fashion, non-authentic representations of indigenous dress and tribal costumes. Both these aspects are included in the item number, which is a part of a strongly-entrenched genre in Indian popular cinema, differentiated from the rest of the film by a brief hiatus in the narrative flow. The dancing female body soliciting the attention of a predominantly male audience or a specific male individual deliberately crafts the portrayal of the item girl. Kasbekar argues that the primary role of woman in Hindi cinema of attracting the male gaze is central to the ‘pleasures of heterosexual scopophilia’ (Kasbekar 2001: 287). The item number represents a deviation from classical dance norms through visual conventions and ritual gestures which draw attention to the eyes and lips and to the erogenous zones particularly to her breasts, curve of the waist, hips, buttocks and legs. It portrays stereotypes of overtly sexualized femininity in a profession which is not considered either mainstream or respectable. The earlier separation between the lead actress and her playback singer from those who performed and/or sang item numbers has changed in recent times with lead actresses also performing in item numbers.

Bruzzi argues that when costumes are noticed as themselves, rather than their role in the larger picture, the ‘element conventionally prioritized is their eroticism’ (Bruzzi, 1997: 247). I draw on this argument that the dance costume in general and the choli, in particular, becomes a mode of interpreting on-screen characters by the audience according to the cinematic context through appearance and perception of the image as being ‘traditional’, ‘modern’, ‘bold’, ‘tribal’, ‘fallen’ and so on. The costume of an ‘item number’ often frames the dancer in a low- back or backless choli usually revealing the midriff and waist. The costume of the lead dancer is designed to stand out against the backdrop of group dancers called extras17. The latter often wear replicas the same costume as the lead dancer but in relatively muted colours or minimized design details. Therefore, while the synchronized group dance creates a panoramic curtain of movement, the replication of their costumes creates a uniform-like quality, rendering them largely ‘invisible’. This makes their presence non-threatening, as contrasted with the unwavering camera attention to the screen space of the main dancer/item girl.

The song-dance number ‘Choli Ke Peeche’18 from the movie Khalnayak sung by Ila Arun, has a raw ‘folk’ vocal sound mediating between the aural representation of urban and rural, rustic and seductive with a rhythm that echoes the heartbeat. The dance occurs at a juncture when the female lead actor, who is actually a police officer, agrees to masquerade as a nautch19 girl to entrap the anti-hero to bring about his downfall and capture. She becomes the embodiment of deceptive illusion, a femme fatale whose beautiful ‘exterior’ [read appearance] belies her ‘interior’ [read intention]. To lure the anti-hero who is rustic and crude in his mannerisms, she dresses like a village belle in a choli blouse, lehenga and odhni20, accessorized with ivory bangles up the entire length of her arms. Her choli leaves her back uncovered, fastened with two strings, her legs hidden beneath the calf-length skirt but her face is concealed beneath the veil, a look which typifies the traditional ensemble of village women acts as a signifier of socio-cultural tradition. However, the masquerade is expressed through the partial concealment of her face with the ‘odhni’ while revealing her heaving choli-covered bosom shows her body as an field of conflict enfolding a barely disguised expression of desire while simultaneously indicating her laj21 (Tarlo 1996: 160-164). At the release of the movie, the song had faced strong criticism for its suggestive lyrics. When the other dancers pose the query encoded with innuendo Choli ke peeche kya hai (What is behind the choli) she coyly sings Choli mein dil hain mera (The choli contains my heart). This establishes a sort of equivalence between the breast and the heart both contained by the choli, but differentiated by contextual interpretation.

The popularity of the song ‘Ram Chahe Leela’ in the movie Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ramleela is attributed to the romantic lyrics and the vocal quality by female playback singer Bhoomi Trivedi characterized by its unique timbre and power picturized through a dance number. In terms of visual appeal, the costume of this dance sequence obliterates any regional affiliations and provides extra-textual information about the dancer herself. The ensemble is a radical departure from the norm in terms of colour and design details. Against the panoramic scene dominated by the lavish spectacle of locale and costumes in an exotic colour palette of deep red saffron and indigo, the dancer wears pristine white, a colour usually not associated with the image of the item girl. The choli has a snug fit but with full-length, fitted sleeves teamed with a calf-length, draped lungi22 knotted low on the hips where the bare expanse of her midriff is emphasized by a sparkling crystal in her navel. The dramatic lighting and deliberate act of fastening the top button of the choli at the start of the dance suggests that she is a professional whose allure does not lie in titillation but in the mystery of her gaze and the energy of the performance. Though it is an item number, she is at a distance from the audience ‘ her dance may be viewed but she may not be touched.

The song ‘Ooh La La’ in the movie The Dirty Picture is based on the life of late Silk Smitha, a South Indian actor associated with sensuous dances. This song-dance sequence is a bricolage of fantastic sets and costumes inextricably bound with the cinematic narrative with a focus on entertainment of the masses. The actor essaying the role states that the ‘public’ [read audience] wants ‘entertainment, entertainment, entertainment’23 and that she embodies their desire. The aural aspect includes the lyrics and seductive voice of female playback singer Shreya Ghoshal, as a potent signifier of overtly sexual femininity with reverberating sound effects. The gyrating movements of her heaving bosom, curvaceous waist and well-endowed hips representing her as a hyper-feminine sexualized commodity, positions this dance at the opposite polarity of ‘respectable’ performance. The visual lure of this dance is accentuated through the costume which constructs her exotic and eroticized body, desirable in its voluptuousness as an object of the onscreen and off-screen male gaze, to draw spectators en masse to the cinema theatre. There are twelve costume changes during the course of this single song, each more revealing than concealing, designed to enhance her erotic image. Interestingly, while the lower garment varies from a calf-length draped lower garment inspired by the dhoti24, multi-paneled ankle-length skirt, mini-skirt, sari and even tennis whites. What remains constant, however, is the choli blouse albeit with design and colour variations ranging from an elaborately shirred choli with pearl strings, fitted blouse with knotted at the centre-front, sweetheart neckline and scooped neckline with crisscross strings across the bare back, bearing similarity with the western corset as a visual signifier to metaphorically represent feminine sexuality. The invasive camera angles focus on her cleavage emphasized by the plunging necklines of the choli along with the bare expanse of the midriff creating a fetishistic and erotic effect. The combination of the dance choreography and costume recreates her image as an actor-dancer who may not garner social respectability and yet exhibits contempt and disdain towards the sanctimonious and hypocritical attitude of society.

Barthes argues that clothing transcends limitations of individual dressing habits to integrate with the ‘widest sociality’ (Barthes 1959: 21) In India, the power of Hindi cinema is evident as a potent source of fashion, often manifest by the transition and appropriation of on-screen costume into the wardrobe of masses. The ‘hit’ status of the dance gives it a stamp of acceptability and evokes a desire for emulation in a lateral trickle-across mode in society. However, though emblematic, their screen styles can be appropriated only by re-contextualizing them into more conservative styles. Film dances and item numbers are rapidly becoming an integrated component of weddings, particularly those in in North India. Occasionally film actors and professional dance troupes perform choreographed dances similar to the popular songs on celluloid. The extent of popularity can be gauged by the fact that professional choreographers are hired to train family members and friends to practice dances to popular film songs/item numbers to be performed on stage during marriage festivities. This is to ensure that all performances on the final day are synchronized and flawlessly performed. Traditional Indian dress including the choli-lehenga, salwar-kameez25 and the sari are worn during these dances signifying the integration of filmi26 songs into the socially ‘respectable’ milieu.


The popularity of film song and dance sequences, evident in their widespread circulation through audio (radio) and video (CDs and cassettes ‘ whether genuine or pirated) and the internet reverberate in public space. Popular Hindi cinema with its aura of enchantment pervades the collective imagination of society through the portrayal of emotion, action, glamour and entertainment through song and dance popularized by the print and electronic media. This contributes to the ‘Bollywoodization’ of fashion, a firmly entrenched phenomenon caused by the power of cinema and the condition of communicability reaching out to the viewer as consumer. Sproles argues that the essence of fashion lies in its social acceptance ‘temporarily adopted by a discernible proportion of members of a social group because that chosen style is perceived to be socially appropriate for the time and situation’ (Sproles 1979:5). The interstices of literature and cinema create reproducible, mutating images from the illusory world of cinema to penetrate into the fashion system through osmosis. In particular the established tropes of costume designed for specific screen characters transcend cinematic significance into the wider fashion market. The versatility of screen costumes is subject to their adaptability, manipulation and subsequent re-insertion into new social contexts.

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