I believe society has concocted a certain perception for the term ‘item song’: Amna Ilyas
Model-cum-actor defends ‘performance songs’ in light of her dance to ‘Aatish’
‘Item numbers’ weren’t always the way we see them today. They weren’t only meant to boast characteristics of a Sheila, Billi or another seductress surrounded by salivating men ogling at her. The 50s’ saw Honton Pe Aisi Baat deliver the same sexual urgency as Piya Tu, Ab Tou Aaja in a manner more suitable for the living room. And as times changed, and sexual themes became more palatable, songs like Jumma Chumma De De and Choli Ke Peechay dropped, forever changing the way evocative tracks would thereon be projected and perceived.
Gulzar’s subtle but suggestive Kajra Re and Beedi, were followed by gaudier and raunchier depictions of more provocative numbers like Sheila Ki Jawaani and Munni Badnaam Hui. The prior even prompted audiences to watch a film like Tees Maar Khan and feel “cheated” towards the end. Thus, Pakistani filmmakers, who were scurrying to ‘revive’ local cinema back in the day, picked up on the formula and never looked back.
While Pakistani audiences did not exactly praise Ayesha Omar and Mehwish Hayat for Tutti Fruiti and Billi the way they praised Malaika Arora and Katrina Kaif for Munni and Sheila, the lure of item songs did not fail to generate buzz for Karachi Se Lahore and Na Maloom Afraad. So, even a film as recently-released as Chaudhry – The Martyr, sees Aatish, a "performance song," as lead performer Amna Ilyas would like to put it.
The true show-women
The model feels the way the label “item song” is now interpreted, does not exactly do justice to its making it. “I believe that society has concocted a certain perception for the term ‘item song’ that automatically adds a degrading and derogatory spin to the finished product,” Amna told The Express Tribune. “Performance songs are meant to add flavour to a film. They’re meant to serenade the audience with a catchy tune and introduce them to a dancer who can pull off immaculate moves,” she added.
Amna has elaborated on her decision to take on the number, irrespective of the fear of backlash. “When we think of subcontinental films, we always associate them with the songs they feature. There was a time when audiences would watch artists such as Barbara Sharif or Resham Jee break into a song and dance with the same oomph in a different setting, and that would be perceived for what it was without the whole backlash angle.” She went on to point out that “music and dance have always been the focal elements carrying any Pakistani or Indian film to its trademark success.”
For viewers, with love
While Aatish could not pick-up box-office sales for the Chaudhry Aslam Khan biopic, it managed to garner over a million views on YouTube. Sang by India’s Sunidhi Chauhan and Ali Quli Mirza, the song is choreographed by Wahab Shah with styling by Hunny Haroon. It sees Amna in a fiery avatar, channeling her inner femme fatale. “I believe that when an artist, irrespective of their gender, puts their blood, sweat and tears into something, the public should celebrate it instead of looking for reasons to demean them."
The Baaji star aired her reservations against the double-standards of Pakistani audiences that are quick to praise international celebrities for the same bold choices that would bring shame to the country if a local artist is in the picture. “Our audiences have no problem lauding Bollywood for its supreme performance songs but when local talent takes up the same task, it’s met with extreme hatred. Which isn’t fair,” she stressed.
“Mehwish Hayat’s dancing was impeccable in Billi and I applaud it till this day,” continued Amna. “Just like I applaud Katrina Kaif for Sheila Ki Jawaani and Ayesha Omer for Tutti Fruitti. We are entitled to praise whomever we want. But I’d highly encourage our audiences to save some of that praise for local talent. It isn’t simple to do what we do and we sacrifice a lot to make them happy. One should remember that before jumping on the hate bandwagon.”
A fiery experience
Amna also spoke about the work that went into making Aatish and how comfortable, yet enlightening her experience was. “From the rehearsals beforehand to the costume fittings and then the two rigorous and adventure-filled days of shooting the song, it was both thrilling and a teachable experience. The best part was getting a team that made me so comfortable.”
The song features three outfit changes, a first for any performance number in Pakistan. And Amna’s dance requires a lot of stamina, considering she has to constantly, move, jump and even glide through the space provided to her. “Initially the task itself seemed a bit scary to me. But as I got into the rhythm of rehearsing and absorbed each beat of the song, things fell into place,” she recalled. “I was also given full creative liberty alongside Wahab Shah, Hunny Haroon, Arshad Khan and Aali Khan. We all came together to create the look and feel we wanted. We took inspiration from Arabic cabaret dancers and poured through options of how best to accentuate each look,” added the model.
To conclude, Amna assured that she takes pride in herself for “understanding the public’s perception of things,” which is why she prepared herself in advance for the trolling that would follow Aatish’s release. “But when you take pride in what you do and you understand that this is a task that you have been given, you do it wholeheartedly no matter the cost. And I believe that women have a right to do what they choose to do. Whether they choose to dance on a stage or join the army, they deserve respect for their work.”
Listen to Aatish here: