Kalank: 'Aira Gaira' is a progression from 'Chikni Chameli', but also yet another item song Karan Johar could've done away with
While it is excessive to label Karan Johar as an 'oath-breaker' for including an item number in Kalank, his vow during MeToo to never do so for any Dharma film was rather opportunistic.
Thoughts cost nothing. Words require some effort. But it is actions that move the world’s needle when it comes to affecting change, no matter how infinitesimal or inconsequential they might seem in the face of the mountains still left to move. Most of us do not have the strength of character or fortitude to back up the words and values we claim to espouse, especially when the cost of those beliefs is inversely proportional to the number of zeroes in our bank balances. Thankfully, not many among us matter enough for the world to remember — or care for — the promises we made (but never seriously intended to keep) when it simply made a lot of PR sense to jump on to the bandwagon burning rubber on the moral high ground by making public announcements about that most deliciously ambiguous, shape-shifting, and conveniently accommodating of all human mind games: intent.
Karan Johar, unfortunately, does not have the luxury.
The internet never forgets, especially when it is someone as influential as Johar making bold, industry-defining pledges. In the immediate aftermath of the wildfire of #MeToo that Bollywood found itself being scorched by, scarcely six months ago, Johar earned himself many positive headlines for assuming moral responsibility and acknowledging the influence that Bollywood wields in shaping public opinion and attitudes. He also committed himself and his business to doing better unto women by announcing that no future film from the Dharma Productions stable would feature an ‘item number’. This was in December last year. Less than four months later, the faint echo of Johar’s bristling-with-conviction words have come back to haunt him, as Kalank, a Dharma film and one of the biggest movies of the year, stands on the verge of release. A few days ago, 'Aira Gaira', a catchy song from the film, featuring Kriti Sanon, was released on YouTube. Less than a week old, the song has already garnered close to 15 million views.
The only problem? It looks and sounds a lot like a thinly veiled, upgraded version of an item song. Naturally, it is making people raise eyebrows and tweet uncharitable things recalling Johar’s earlier earnest promises.
To be fair to Johar and Team Kalank, the song, by itself, is not gross or misogynistic. The lyrics are not sexually explicit. Nor is Sanon seen gyrating or aggressively thrusting her body parts into the camera in a manner that simulates sex. There is no suggestive running of hands on the body or vigorous rubbing of body parts that leaves little to the imaginations of the drooling male gaze. The camera does not linger lasciviously on Sanon’s skin. One could even go so far as to call it playful and melodious, with all the makings to become the next 'Ghagra' or 'Kajra Re'. Heck, Sanon’s look, plentiful nakhras, and rippling adas in 'Aira Gaira' seem to have been borrowed right out of Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s playbooks.
Unfortunately, that does not stop it from being problematic. It just makes it a little less problematic.
With the likes of 'Chikni Chameli', 'Fevicol', 'Munni Badnaam Hui' and 'Anarkali Disco Chali' (among dozens of others) that have normalised the existence of songs that show women dancing and even disrobing for the viewing pleasure of large crowds of drunk men, 'Aira Gaira' and its low-stakes objectification might almost seem like progress. Is that good enough? Where is the line that seemingly tells Bollywood, “Hey, listen, buddy, given your long, sordid history of treating women like a sum of their body parts, this much objectification we will forgive while letting you maintain your veneer of feminism, but do not cross that line, okay? Okay. Good talk.”?
An item number, by its very definition, is a song inserted into the narrative not because it serves any plot-furthering purpose, but mostly as some sort of titillation to draw largely male audiences into the theatres. It usually features an attractive , scantily clad woman dancing to entertain men.
'Aira Gaira' might not be overtly sexual in the way it portrays Sanon, but it is an item song. Unless her role is being kept a surprise, by all accounts, Sanon’s only contribution to the film is to play an unnamed dancer, surrounded by stranger men with their eyes trained on her. And unless there are two versions of the song — one for YouTube and the other for the film — by the looks of it, 'Aira Gaira' has no narrative value to the film. We do not learn anything new/more about the story or the characters by its existence.
Again, given the relative harmlessness of the song, perhaps it seems a bit harsh to mock Johar as an oathbreaker (Game Of Thrones-time merits at least a passing reference, right now!). Or maybe now is exactly the right time to wonder why so many Bollywood bigwigs (it goes far beyond Johar) are so quick to announce intent, but so slow to back it up with action. Do their ability and willingness to introspect and do better only extends upto the point where they are not as offensive as they could have been, or as gross as others still are? Are their beliefs lazy, or were they no more than a well-timed PR gambit?
The thing about pompous declarations of intent is that they only save your neck for so long. Eventually, your actions will give you away. And if it looks like opportunism, and smells like opportunism… It is time for us to wake up and smell the Koffee opportunism.
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