Bars, Ban And After

  • 1980s: Dance bars begin to operate
  • 1990s: They thrive. There’s sleaze too, and exploitation of bar girls.
  • 2001: Chandni Bar depicts the trapped life of a dance bar girl. Wins a national film award.
  • 15 August 2005: Home minister R.R. Patil gets dance bars banned
  • April 2006: Bombay HC strikes down ban. State goes in appeal.
  • July 2013: Supreme Court vacates the ban, upholds High Court order***

Clip_37Munmun is not just a seasoned, self-taught dancer, but a gritty survivor of the harsh, garishly lit and strobed underbelly that is Bombay’s dance bar grind. It shows in her composure during interviews. It shows in the way she dresses and makes up impeccably, hides a giveaway accent by speaking in short sentences, leaves her long, lustrous hair open and awaits her turn to sing—not dance—at the Elora, an ‘orc­hestra bar’ in a western suburb. There’s an ordinary bar-cum-restaurant too, in the building, and, on the second and third floors, a guest house with a few rooms. Before the state government crackdown made it take the ‘orchestra bar’ tag, the Elora was a ‘dance bar’.

Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, it will soon be a dance bar again.

News of the court vacating an eight-year-old ban on dance bars has brought cheer to the 1,000-plus bars in and around Bombay. The licences, stamped with orchestra permits, now need to be restamped with dance permits. Given NCP minister R.R. Patil’s commitment to morality, it may take more than a few days before bar owners can put together troupes of dancing girls. Before the ban, they’d swayed, emoted and flirted with their eyes to entertain drinkers and took home decent incomes from wages and admirers’ currency note showers.

The court decision means profits for bar-owners, mileage for some politicos, a victory for activists. For thousands of bar dancers, it means a right to a livelihood from what skills they have, free from the consciously prudish judgements of society and state on what’s good enough for which social stratum to be entertained by. It will mean much more to the girls if the ruling leads to a rational reassessment of laws and the framing of new ones to protect their wages and prevent this borderline business from pushing them into prostitution, as often happens. That may not happen soon, though.

For now, the customers—people, just like us—aren’t complaining. Neither are the girls. “I never thought I was doing anything wrong. Dancing comes naturally to me. There was a system in place and we were doing well,” says Munmun. The customers were neither allowed to dance with nor touch the dancers. Apart from a salary, the girls would retain 70 per cent of the tips; the rest would be divided among the bar staff. “Some days, we’d make `10,000, some days `1,000,” she says. “But it evens out, and we were able to provide decent lives for our families.”

Arvind, a corporate employee and former dance bar habitue, says, “Those days, I’d visit dance bars once a month or so and don’t regret it at all. It was fun. You’re tired, alone, you have a drink, watch the dances, blow up a couple of thousands. Where else would you see waiters sweep up 500-rupee notes from the floor! It’s fun to watch other men make fools of themselves. The dancers weren’t prostitutes. If you don’t want to go, don’t go. Why stop poor girls from running their families?”

Munmun had to pull her sister’s children out of school. Her own son is yet to join school. She looks after her mother, widowed sister and children. She doesn’t mention her husband. Most former bar dancers are sole breadwinners for their families. They’ve little schooling. “I studied till Class VII in Hindi. What use is that?” says Munmun.

The other girls in the green room with Munmun, striking in their make-up and dress, nod in agreement. This is their space, and the girls, who keep coming and going, are comfortable and loud in it. There are mirrors, there’s a platform where chai is brewed non-stop, there’s a Sai Baba picture frame with four currency notes stuck in the corners for luck. Next to a tiny bathroom is the passage to the bar. It explodes to music as four girls take the stage, waiting to sing a Hindi song or two. They can’t yet dance on stage; this is still an ‘orchestra bar’. They sing, smile a lot, and walk up to customers, who mostly hand out ten-rupee notes. Dancing would get them 500-rupee notes. The waiters and managers keep an eye on customers. The girls pray before they begin their shifts. There are a few male singers too.

The dimly lit bar can seat some 50 people. Most patrons are alone, sipping beer, munching on nuts, savouries. There are middle-aged men, the kind with wives and kids. Some smile and nod at the singers, but that’s about it. A girl with bundles of 10-rupee notes offers change to those who want to tip. A waitress in her forties, sari-clad and sporting bindi and lipstick, checks with customers if all is well. It is. But it isn’t clear if the air of suspense in this place—as in the 1,000 or so such places in and around Bombay—is real or unreal.

“A few girls are singing, there’s music, there are people appreciating it. What’s the problem?” asks Pravin Agrawal, the owner of the Elora. And Manjeet Singh Sethi, president of the Bar Owners Association—who sports two revolvers and swears by Guru Gobind Singhji—says, “We don’t object to the same thing at five-star hotels. We don’t object to the Lido show in Paris. Families go there. It’s all about perspective.” He emphasises that the association is keen to see that member-bars don’t break the law.

But films like Chandni Bar and pulp fiction set in Bombay have brought out the exploitation that is part of this business. “R.R. Patil says 75,000 girls are on  the periphery of prostitution, but does he realise it was the ban that pushed them into it?” asks Varsha Kale, of the Indian Bar Girls Union. She trashes the impression that the girls earn a lot. “A few, like the well-known Tara­nnum Khan, do—50-60 maybe. A few hundred make good money. But most earn just enough to lead decent lives. Why shouldn’t they? An educated person can earn from his scholarship. Can’t an artiste can’t use his skills?” Acti­vist Flavia Agnes says both the state and bar own­ers have exploited the girls. “We want a committee to conduct random checks and see that bars follow the law. The ban was devastating. Many girls were forced to return to their villages.”

Laxminarayan Tripathi, a transgender and activist who once worked in a dance bar, puts it bluntly: “You only want the girls to do NREGA work or what? Is that rehabilitation? I am against having underaged bar dancers and against trafficking. Isn’t it ironical that dance bars were banned but pick-up points weren’t. Let these girls make a living and give their kids an education.”

D. Sivanandan, former police commissioner of Bombay, is weary of the ambiguity. “Policemen end up following laws blindly. Manpower is wasted on moral policing. Any discretionary power ends up being misused. Let’s have laws applicable to all sections of society.”

But despite big talk about the dignity of all jobs and professions, the stigma around bar dancing is real and heavy. On seeing photographers, customers cringe. Managers become nervous and stern. “The world leaves you embarrassed even if you haven’t done wrong,” says a customer. One girl, covering her head with a dupatta as she rushes out, says, “We have families, we can’t be seen on camera as bar dancers. The media hype has done enough damage…I’ve enough shit to handle!”

On stage, another pretty lass croons a 1970s number. Betaab dil ki tamanna yehi hai,/ Tumhe chahenge, tumhe poojenge, tumhe apna khuda banayenge. Try not to fall for that.