Tarannum mystified me. In the photographs taken after the Income Tax raids on her garishly opulent house in Lokhandwala, she had coyly draped the burkha, leaving just her eyes to be seen by the world. This wasn’t the Tarannum I had met.
That one was a dolled-up siren, in a shimmering “suit” topped with baubles and face-paint, gyrating ever so suggestively to the season’s pop hit in one of the private rooms of the infamous 8,500 square feet Deepa Bar. She moved with an assumed deliberate sensuousness. Crisp currency notes went up in the air followed by the occasional wah-wah; the two men watching her seemed to the bar born.
After two hours, I wondered why they wanted more of it. Middle-aged heterosexual males were perhaps satisfied in ways that a heterosexual woman would never quite fathom. I knew why she did it. She had a family to feed and ambitions to underwrite.
Earlier that year, in 2003-04, I had met Rosie, Pinky, Dolly, Jahanara, and Umrao Jaan. Actually, many by the same names. We are bar girls, after all, they had said. Beyond the dance floors, they had real names, led routine lives, did mundane tasks such as tending to ill parents, seeing siblings or children through “English” schools, haggling for best buys in groceries, negotiating house rents, circumnavigating the alcoholic and/or parasitic husband, criticising or giggling about Tabu’s rendition of their life in Madhur Bhandarkar’s “Chandni Bar”.
Some of them didn’t even enjoy the music they danced to. Many disliked the world of their work but slogged on. If a customer got too enthusiastic, they gestured to a manager who ensured rules were followed. Rule number one, they laughed, was “only seeing, no touching” on the dance floor. Some bars had special rooms where the rule could be broken; some were happy to oblige. They didn’t mind the police; policemen were friends and more. They hated the media for it was the papers that revealed their identities during raids.
“I become the face of this world,” many a Rosie or Dolly protested.
Unfortunately, it’s the face that caught the attention of moral misters such as members of the Maharashtra legislative assembly who first objected to dance bars; it was the face that drew the ire of social pundits who found it a convenient excuse for crimes; it was the face that home minister RR Patil told us epitomised many problems of our flourishing metropolis.
Dance bars, if they were not in four or five-star hotels, had suddenly become the scourge of Mumbai life, peace and order. And, bar dancers the symbol of all that was supposedly “wrong”. Bar dancers carried many burdens; this was another.
In Tarannum, we the middle-classes saw depravity and decadence. Yet, Tarannum was only the front of a deeply entrenched structure that allowed many others – almost all of them men, some with incredible clout and power – to shamelessly profiteer.
Think bar owners, who made a neat pile — reportedly Rs10 lakh to Rs12 lakh a month — off this but installed a Devi’s idol in appropriate corners of their bars, and offered flowers and incense sticks.
Think policemen, whose job it was to regulate licensed bars and rout the illegal ones but preferred to become non-paying customers, used bar dancers to net suspected criminals, became sleeping partners in the bars.
Think politicians, who ranted against these bars in public but did not mind a night out here, extended protection to owners they regarded as friends, counted bars as part of their family’s undeclared investment portfolio.
Think businessmen, factory owners, importers-exporters and other men who frequented these bars to live out their fantasies.
Think filmmakers and script-writers who sought to bring realism to their work. Think writers and poets —very few women here — who were floored or shaken by what they saw here.
Think managers, waiters, bouncers in these bars. Think make-up men, tailors and Men Fridays here. Think taxi and rickshaw drivers who made a killing every night.
Beyond the moral high ground and crime risks was the dance bar economy. When RR Patil effected the ban, the economy didn’t disappear; it went underground. Who lost the most? The bar dancer, the face of this economy, the woman who carried both the burden of the work and the society’s judgment.
The ban was the worst thing to happen to Tarannum, the Rosies and Dollys of this world. They were not the ones responsible for rising crime graphs. Befitting then that their right to work was restored.