Lovely* Interfaces: The Many Lives of the Item Number in Social and Digital Media
In this post, Silpa Mukherjee, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2015, introduces her proposed work.
The item number  in Bombay cinema is an ensemble form navigating between the circuits of B cinema and the allure of the mainstream. As a dance form and practice, the item number has been shaped by a wide range of intersecting influences: 1990s B cinema, the fashion and modelling industry, music video culture and the 24*7 music television format introduced in globalised India. I propose to trace the life of the item number through social and digital media and the affective landscape transmitted through multiple interfaces . As an intermedial form, the item number has many screen lives: as a YouTube promotional on the personal screen of the gadgets (often shared on Facebook) and the small screen of television to its release on the big screen and finally as the “Full Video Song” back on YouTube, music channels, and the playlist in the Emulator (transparent touchscreen digital mixing screen) touched by the DJ in clubs that host Bollywood Nights. Some of the contemporary item numbers, through their visual and sonic registers, playfully acknowledge this intermedial structure and work towards foregrounding the mechanisms of its dispersion by citing multi-format music players on personal gadgets, the ubiquitous presence of cell phones in clicking and creating sensations out of every moment and the viral dispersion of image data through Instagram.
Owing to the proliferation of media through the 1990s, sexually explicit content from the west began to pour in through private cable channels, increasing the (hitherto unseen) sexualisation of the visual public spaces. The Central Board for Film Certification (along with the Hindu Right and many other organisations, even including the women’s rights activists) sought to censure women’s representation in cinema (also in television, advertisement, magazines, bill boards, film lyrics) for what was perceived as the obscene. At the same time, the figure of the new woman  became the central node of concern for the obscenity debates. Paranoia about the ensuing commodity culture of the globalising nation was displaced onto the bodies and consumption practices of women . Proto item numbers began to be seen from the early 1990s when debates around liberalisation and the new liberal woman were on the rise and provoked many controversies and bans. The item number has undergone several transformations since that time and faced new controversies. I am drawn to the role played by social and digital media in reframing and adding to the existing obscenity debates. The controversy over YouTube “covering up” Sunny Leone’s bare breasts in the YouTube version of the song Baby Doll despite the film receiving an A certificate release in leading multiplexes, and the temporary “removal” of the Ranveer Singh starrer advertisement for Durex, with the jingle “Lovers All Over The World/ DO THE REX” (the ad is meta-filmic in structure depicting the journey of the item number from its production to the controversy over its viral circulation through social media) from YouTube explicate the curious ways in which social media has become the new order of censorship and surveillance and the new purveyor of virtual morality. However, in the age of media contagion, digital media’s own intricate relations with an amateur hacker culture and its own logic of virality, it works to bypass such censorship and surveillance mechanisms [6, 7]. DO THE REX was back in two days tucked into one of YouTube’s own mix of Durex ad videos.
I propose to examine the phenomenon that is generated in the domain of social media that I refer to as the item number effect. The phenomenon creates a new imagination of the item number, in which cult sequences from hit films are parodied to generate a new citation culture as well as celebrate the individual stardom of actors in new ways, provoking one to think of the many new meanings now associated with the term item number. The speed at which amateur digital culture is proliferating with the rise of portals like scoopwhoop, 9gag, buzzfeed, imgur, etc. popularised via social media platforms is significant for my research. These portals generate interactive content in the form of memes, gifs and picture comments (followed by sharing it on social media) by freezing “moments” from the item number and “listing” and “ranking” celebrities who have performed these numbers according to their popularity. Digital new media thus dynamically morphs star-fan relations to not only erase bifurcations of the on and off-screen lives of stars with their tweets and fan pages on Facebook but also allows an elusive audience verdict on their favourite item numbers/girls/boys. This creates a virtual discourse about the item within a landscape of taboos about the sexualized screen bodies.
The multimedia constellation of the item number is complimented by the enormous amounts of YouTube and MP3 downloads circulating as offline data. They are high on demand in the computer generated playlist of the DJs. In a vibrant new media context, the item number also finds its way back to its B circuit audiences through offline data circulating in cheap mass storage devices.
Item numbers travel through an intricate media network of ringtones, digital star posters as wallpapers on personal gadgets, live shows telecast on television and recorded and sold on DVDs or buffered on YouTube, iTunes, apps and the online portals as the item number effect. In the process, digital and social media’s interaction with the item creates a haptic sensorium for the spectator/user producing a feedback loop between the production economy of the film industry and the fan community [8, 9].
. The name item number (special song and dance sequences) is probably derived from the term “item” (nowadays used for petite gay men as well), the Bombaiya equivalent of the slang “looker”, the worst way of objectifying a human body by disintegrating it into individual units (items). Item numbers tend to be big budget productions, like standalone attractions that are staged to have a life independent of the narrative. The production economy for these dances are intricately designed with special focus on sets, costumes, make-up, digital technologies for lighting, music, cinematography and editing.
. Galloway, Alexander. R. The Interface Effect. Polity, USA, 2012.
. The “new woman” blurred the distinction between “vamp” and “heroine”. She was now urban, confident, aggressive and sexually desiring.
. Sampson, Tony. D. Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks. University of
Minnesota Press. London, 2011.
. Wark, Mackenzie. ‘A Hacker’s Manifesto: version 5.7’, Sarai Reader , pp 368-72, 2003.