Picture this: It’s a weekday evening in a dance bar in Mumbai. Patrons sit in booths arranged around a stage, monitored by male and female bouncers and CCTV cameras. Instead of ‘making it rain’, they hand over tokens to waiters, to be deposited in the favoured dancer’s tip box. All dancers must be over 18. Each gets a minimum wage, a cap on maximum shift duration, and a contract. The bars themselves are situated in commercial or recreational zones and attract tourists too, earning revenue for their owners, employees and state.
Here’s what we have instead: A government that has declared bar dancers evil and immoral. Claims that the women were often victims of trafficking, which the state later admitted it had not investigated and could not prove. About 1.5 lakh women rendered jobless across the state, many of whom have since become prostitutes and earn a fraction now of what they earned as dancers. A sector operational for about 25 years snuffed out overnight. An underground web of illicit dance bars that continue to operate unregulated.
Now here’s why the Supreme Court stayed the ban on October 15: The government said dancing by women in eating houses and permit rooms was vulgar, obscene and degrading, but similar dancing in three-star and five-star hotels was fine.
It all began in 2005, with then deputy chief minister and home minister RR Patil announcing dance bars would no longer be allowed to function. “Till then, we had a say on what we wanted to do with our bodies. If we didn’t want to sleep with anyone, we could tell them off. But the ban made us desperate and the tables turned,” says Nutan*, 25, who now works in an illegal dance bar in Navi Mumbai.
The families that the ban was meant to protect, meanwhile, continue to suffer as men became besotted with dancers.
Radheshyam Kulkarni*, for instance, began his relationship with a bar dancer in 2010, five years after the ban was enforced. He was married, with three children, and ended up losing his job and home. “How did the ban make any difference,” he asks.
“The smaller bars perished under the weight of the bribes authorities demanded, but the stronger ones draw as much as 50 lakh a night even today,” says Priya*, 24, who works at a dance bar in the island city. She rattles off the names of these stalwarts, but you don’t need an insider to tell you this. A random google search will throw up blogs and first-person accounts from people who have visited Mumbai’s post-ban dance bars.
Even among those who support RR Patil’s decision, the primary concern harks back to the lack of norms. “There was a deliberate attempt by many bar owners to keep the women vulnerable by offering no benefits or job security. This pushed many to get involved with men for their money, leaving behind broken homes,” says Anand Dandekar of Citizens Against Human Trafficking, which has been campaigning for the ban.
For those who have studied the situation, the Supreme Court ruling signals a chance at a fresh start, at balance via regulation.
“The first thing we must do if we are to make this profession respectable is to de-stigmatise it by empowering a group of stakeholders to make decisions about how they want to see the industry evolve,” says Sonia Faleiro, journalist and author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. “The whole ecosystem exists because of the bar dancers, but they languish at the very bottom of the decision-making pyramid.”
Sujata Gothoskar, a researcher and member of Forum Against Oppression of Women, which conducted a study on the lives of bar dancers before and after the ban, would agree. “Instead of judging them, the state must protect these women against their vulnerabilities. Create a minimum wage and norms for safer working conditions,” she says.
For Varsha Kale, the head of the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union, the window of hope in the SC is a chance to implement many long-pending demands from a charter the union has framed, drawing on best practices from the world over. If Bangkok, Las Vegas and a host of other international cities can market their adult clubs as popular tourist destinations, why can’t Mumbai, she asks.
This is where bar owners see their future too. “Dance bars contributed over 3,000 crore in revenue to the state in the year before the ban,” says Bharat Thakur, head of the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association’s subcommittee on dance bars. “People go to adult clubs abroad and splurge. Why not here? Why should the government mind this?”
‘Why are we obscene, but not the filmstars we imitate?’
As a schoolgirl, Pooja* dreamed of becoming an IAS officer. Then her father died and her lower-middleclass family plunged into bankruptcy.
Pooja, the elder of two siblings, was 12. “For a year, we managed by selling my mother’s gold bit by bit. Eventually, we could no longer afford school and we both had to drop out,” she says.
That’s when her mother, at 38, became a bar dancer. A year on, the ban was imposed and her mother lost her job. With the bars now making losses, there was no place for her mother, even as a waitress. So Pooja, 14 by now, began to work at an illegal dance bar in Koparkhairane.
“I put my brother back in school. And I took my Class 10 exam through a private exam, and passed,” she says. “I now have a BA. The people opposing dance bars should know that we are not prostitutes, just people with fees to pay, rent, debts to pay off. These bars supported our education. If not for them, I’d probably be rotting at the bottom of the ladder.”
Women are vulnerable everywhere, Pooja adds, in an office or even at home. “In bars, I realised that women have the right to say no.” Now 24, she describes her workplace as ‘nothing but a theatre stage, with women playing roles’.
“We are putting on a show and people come to see it. How is that different from an actress?” she says. “Why did we become obscene but not the stars we imitate?”
(* Name changed)
‘I lost my house and my job, five years after the ban’
Radheshyam Kulkarni* had a wellpaid job handling electrical logistics on cargo ships and offshore oil rigs.
He had a wife and three children, a home in central Mumbai. Then, in 2010, a friend took him to a local dance bar. It was five years after the ban, but the bigger bars still flourished.
At the bar he met Priti*. She was 18, he was 35. “She was the prettiest girl to have ever smiled at me,” he says.
Kulkarni started meeting Priti outside the bar. “She’d look at objects and say she wanted them — jewellery, trinkets, household appliances.”
To spend time with her, he began turning down offshore gigs and eventually lost his job. To indulge her fancies, he took a loan from a moneylender.
“We cared for each other. She made me feel loved,” he says.
Eventually, Kulkarni decided to buy Priti a small house, so they could live What use was the ban? If they do reopen, they should ensure that the patron-dancer relationship is better regulated. together. He borrowed 8 lakh for a flat in a faraway suburb. She promised to move in with him but kept putting it off.
“As she saw my pockets getting emptier, she started avoiding me. Eventually, she rented out the house I bought her and stopped taking my calls,” he says.
Kulkarni had to sell his family’s home to pay off his debts. He survives on odd jobs. His wife works as a domestic help to support the children’s education.
“I wish I had never met her,” he says. “What use was the ban? If they do reopen, they should ensure that the patron-dancer relationship is better regulated.”
(* Names changed)