In 2005, a government notification spearheaded by then deputy chief minister of Mahrashtra, RR Patil, introduced a complete ban on dance bars. The minister felt that under the guise of dance bars, women were being exploited. What he didn’t understand was that there were hundreds of people who relied on these very dance bars for their daily bread and butter. After the shutdown, most of the women dancers had to resort to prostitution to earn a living. Some went back to their hometowns, forced into poverty.
Back again But the situation changed quickly. Most of these girls were back, but this time as waiters. Then it metamorphosed again. The bar dancers, unable to ply their trade, turned into silent onlookers. Strange? Welcome to Mumbai’s orchestra (dance) bars.
On an average, these bars employ almost 25 girls, dressed in flashy outfits. But no shimmies here, all they do is stand near patrons and collect money that is either thrown at them or distributed.
One of the most famous orchestra bars in south Mumbai, Good Luck, is located minutes away from Mumbai Central railway station. Open from 6 pm onwards, it’s usually packed by 8 pm.
Inside out As we enter, the doorman grins widely, opening the door slowly prompting you to tip him. Inside, there are a dozen women in an area of about 200 square feet. Ten tables seat two each. There is an orchestra comprising three singers, a drummer and a piano player, though the singers lip-sync most of the time. This is the cheapest section. Further inside is the expensive seating area. But that’s packed too, so we move to the first floor. No orchestra here, only speakers blaring ‘Sheila ki jawani…’ ad nauseam.
This cluttered space is packed with girls dressed in skinny jeans and tight tops, standing by the mirrored walls. Patrons are in their late forties and fifties. Beers are priced at R 150, so are the soft drinks. Only water is free, along with bowls of complimentary groundnuts, slices of cucumber and carrots.
Almost everyone in the bar sits with bundles of ten rupee notes, which they distribute to the girl of their choice. Strangely, the women don’t sing or dance. At 9.30 pm, they leave, followed by the patrons. Outside, taxis wait to ferry the girls home.
Though Good Luck seems fairly innocent, proper dance bars still exist. Manjit Singh Sethi, president, Bar Owners Association, confirms this, “There are dance bars which are openly flouting these rules. You have to ask RR Patil, why he’s not shutting them down. These bars pay off the local police big money to break rules.”
According to Sethi, there are 750 such dance bars within city limits and 750 more on the outskirts. Overall, they employ close to 1,50,000 people. “We compiled this data in 2005, when the government banned them. We don’t have up-to-date figures,” he maintains.