Early Icons Of Item Numbers
Renowned choreographer, actor of ‘Bombay Talkies’, Mumtaz Ali was famous as a dancer and character- artist in 40s and early 50s, when he was sought after by producers for dance numbers and training new entrants in the industry as item girls. His item number, Main Dilli Se Dulhan Laya Re, became the rage of the time. Although a familiar figure of item numbers in Bombay Talkies' films, he had formed his own group and started doing stage shows all over the country, performing popular Hindi songs as dance numbers. The show travelled from city to city and was called Mumtaz Ali Nites. His son Mehmood, who later became the most famous comedian of Bollywood films, would most of the time accompany his father to these shows. His job was to sit outside and sell tickets and then to make announcements on the stage. His daughter Malikunissa, who was later known as Minu Mumtaz, the well-known dancer and character actor, also accompanied her father but did not perform till the circumstances forced her to. Indeed, Mumtaz Ali was not only the father of his famous children Mehmood and Meenu Mumtaz, but could rightly be called the king of item numbers in Hindi cinema.
Addiction to drinking had proved detrimental to Mumtaz Ali's show business. In Benares, all the actors working for Mumtaz Ali refused to work. They had been working without any salary, but were now at the end of their tether. The show was about to begin and Mumtaz Ali was the only actor. Malikunnisa said she was willing to work with Mumtaz Ali. At first, he refused. He knew that Malikunnisa was fond of dancing and singing but what he did not know was that when the actress Sheela Nayak came to Mumtaz Ali to learn dancing, she would watch her father’s steps closely and then practice them alone before the mirror. Malikunnisa auditioned before Mumtaz Ali. She danced and sang Mumtaz Ali’s famous song “Main to dilli se dulhan laya re…” and convinced him that she could indeed perform on stage. By now, Mumtaz Ali knew that he had winner in his family and presented her to perform on the stage that evening. This was the beginning of Malikunnisa’s career in dancing. Malikunnisa gained a great deal of experience and self-confidence in facing an audience, having travelled with Mumtaz Ali’s stage shows and worked on stage. She now began doing the rounds of studios to find work and soon became a star in her own right. Minoo Mumtaz, the name Minoo given to her by Meena Kumari on the sets of Bandhan, started out as a dancer and subsequently as a character artist in quite a lot of films. Her debut film was K Amarnath's Baradari (1955), which also had her brother Mehmood in the cast as a comedian. They both, the children of Mumtaz Ali, subsequently ended up acting together in about 10 films together including Chitralekha, Jahan Ara, Akeli Mat Jaiyo, Faulad, Jagir, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Qaidi No. 911, Howrah Bridge, Ek Saal and C.I.D. Meenu Mumtaz appeared in many films of the 50s and 60s, mostly as a dancer. In many films she was paired with comedians including Johnny Walker and in few films she was also cast as the leading lady including Black Cat (1959), opposite Balraj Sahni.
Cuckoo Moray, popularly known as Cuckoo, was the first major dancing star who ruled the cabaret scene in the Forties and Fifties. Maybe because of the era’s social dynamics — or perhaps it was a novelty that filmmakers introduced an unconventional face —this petite Anglo-Indian danced her way into Bombay filmdom. Cuckoo’s vivacious demeanor and lusty moves were completely in sync with the playful dance numbers she starred in — cabaret, club and party. Be it that mesmeric dance sequence in Aan (1952) or in Kabhi Haar Kabhi Jeet in Shabistan (1951), she had her moves for all occasions. Cukoo was the queen of film dancing in the 1940s. Her talent made cabaret a must in the Bollywood films during the 1950s and 60s. Cukoo made her screen debut in the film Arab Ka Sitara in (1946). The turning point in Cukoo's career were in Mehboob Khan's films. Her dance numbers in his film Anokhi Ada established her as the lead dancer of the era. Andaz (1949), a romantic drama starring Nargis, Dilip Kumar, and Raj Kapoor, gave the dancer an opportunity to display her acting skills. Cukoo was a family friend of the Anglo-Burmese dancer and actress Helen. Cukoo had introduced a 13-year-old Helen into films as a chorus dancer in the films like Shabistan and Awaara(1951). Cukoo and Helen most notably appeared in song and dance sequences together in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Her most popular movies are: Andaz (1949), Barsaat (1949), Arzoo (1950), Hamari Beti (1950), Hulchul (1951), Awaara (1951), Aan (1952), Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955), Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Yahudi (1958) and Mujhe Jeene Do (1963).
Helen (Richardson Khan), of Anglo-Burmese origin, is best remembered as the Bollywood item dancer of the 60s and 70s. She entered the industry as a chorus dancer in films like Shabistan and Awaara (1951). Helen in the years following was in high demand with many successful roles as a cabaret dancer which lead to the nickname Cabaret Queen. If transformation was an art, Helen perfected it. She could be the sexy siren calling for her lover in Piya Tu Ab Toh aaja (Caravan, 1971), the avenging angel in Yeh Mera Dil (Don, 1978) or the gorgeous gypsy queen shimmying unabashedly to Mehbooba in Sholay (1975) — all with equal ease. Although she had little success as a leading lady, her seductive dancing made her a star and is still respected today for her contribution to cinema. Long before the concept of item dancers was established, the coquettish Helen had etched herself in the Indian cine-goer’s mind as the eternal item girl. As beautiful as her namesake from Troy, Helen was graceful, but never lewd; sexy, but never vulgar. She lent the concept a level of artfulness and sensuality that all the other item dancers who followed her, can only aspire to reach, but never really can. Evergreen Helen, the queen of cabaret, remained for more than three decades an essential part of almost all first-rate movies, with at least one hot dance and song scene, that was invariably the star attraction of the movie. Her role in Don will ever be remembered for the depth of emotion and the height of characterization the 'vamp' could reach in a movie. She has worked in over 200 films, starting from Awara (1951) to the recent production Marigold. Dancing all the way to unprecedented heights of popularity in her half a century of career in Bollywood has baffled many, including the renowned producer director of documentaries in Canada, Eisha Marjara, who has produced a full length movie on Helen, Desparately Seeking Halen (1999).
In the early part of the 1970s actresses Aruna Irani, Bindu, and Padma Khanna entered into what was Helen's monopoly. The range extended from the likes of the sexy Asha Sachdev and Prema Narayan, to out-and-out garish Kalpana Iyer and Jayshree. Between them, these beauties had the item song market cornered, and many a famous tracks were picturized on them. If Jayshree had songs like ‘Naach Meri Jaan’ with Mehmood from Main Sunder Hoon, then Asha Sachdev had the suggestive ‘Jis Kaam Ko Dono Aaye Hain’, from the Jitendra-starrer ‘Ek Hi Rasta’, while Kalpana Iyer had the disco genre cornered through the ‘80s and Prema Narayan sizzled her swimming costume with a host of other beauties in ‘Mausam Mastana’ from Satte Pe Satta…
After Sushmita Sen, beauty queen turned popular star, was roped in for the sensational super-hit item number of Fida, “Mehboob Mere...”, the vamp and the heroine merged into one figure and the lead actress had begun to perform the bolder numbers. The vampy item girls were thus outpaced by the heroines performing item numbers. The most beautiful actress in Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai showcased her seductive moves in Bunty Aur Bubbly super hit item number “Kajra re...”.. , followed Bipasha Basu's hit number “Bidi jalaile...” in Omkara. The super hot Bebo turned an item girl in Shah Rukh Khan starrer ‘Don’. The actress looked extremely hot and sensuous in ‘Yeh Mera Dil…’ which was earlier done by dancing diva Helen. Deepika Padukone in a rainbow of bikini tops and leather pants danced on 'Love Mera Hit Hit' with Shah Rukh Khan in 'Billu Barber’. Deepika and Shah Rukh looked amazing in this one. Priyanka Chopra did a sexy item number for Shah Rukh for his Billu Barber. This foot tapping number showcased Priyanka in her super hot avatar. The super hot Lara Dutta did an item number for Khakee. Her super sexy moves in Aisa Jadoo drives you crazy. Shilpa Shetty flaunts her figure on a sunny beach in ‘Shut up and bounce…’ song in Dostana. Bollywood is no longer about the Shah Rukh Khans and the Salman Khans, but rather the tantalising twirls and twists that the Sheilas and the Munnis are bringing to the big screen. Now, everyone's hooked, hawking out their shakin' skills in exchange for the instant fame a hit song can bring. The female superstars seem to be having cat-fights over bagging an item number in a Bollywood film, but it is doubtful if they can ever match the mesmerizing dancing moves of the early icons of item numbers.