On April 8, a 16-member committee of the prestigious Willingdon Sports Club in Mahalaxmi rejected a membership application by Pesi Shroff, an eight-time Indian Derby-winning jockey — reportedly because of the 92-year-old private club’s unspoken rule barring film actors and racing professionals.
On April 2, the CEO of the 135-year-old Bombay Gym club in Fort, forced transgender activist Laxmi Tripathi to leave the premises, saying the club reserved right of admission.
On the other side of town, the one-year-old Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) Recreational Centre in the Bandra-Kurla Complex counts sporting icon Sachin Tendulkar, TV star Mandira Bedi and flamboyant corporate czar Vijay Mallya among its members.
C’est la Vie, an ‘elite member’s club’ in Bandra, was launched by Bollywood upstart Adhyayan Suman and a group of film celebrities in early 2009.
As pre-Independence private clubs in Mumbai preserve their British-era customs, a new class of clubs in the city are opening their doors to the liberal, hip and successful of the new India.
“We want to break all the rules that the old-fashioned clubs have,” says Busab Paul, MD at C’est la Vie, a single-storey structure on Bandra’s bustling Hill Road. “We don’t shut the pool after 9 pm, or stop taking food orders after 10 pm. We have no dress code as long as our members are comfortable,” he says.
Compare this with the exacting guidelines listed on the website of Cricket Club of India (CCI), founded in 1933: For men, no shorts, sleeveless t-shirts or rubber sandals in the club’s enclosed areas. For women, no sports shorts.
These rules are willingly endorsed by second and third generation members of the clubs.
A 23-year-old member of Bombay Gym, requesting anonymity, says: “I think Willingdon was right, in the late ’80s, when they asked MF Hussain to leave the premises for not wearing footwear. How can people come barefoot… they’ll make the place dirty,” he says.
While another 26-year-old member of Bombay Gym disapproves of the club’s treatment to Laxmi Tripathi, he’s glad that actors are barred from membership.
“I’m happy to discriminate against arrogant film stars and the entitlements they think they deserve. I don’t want to share resources with people who throw their weight around and misbehave in public.”
Ad executive Aditi Shivdasani (23), a CCI member, has no qualms admitting that many members, including herself, draw a clear line between those who belong and those who don’t. “I’m paying a premium of lakhs to be here. I should be able to decide who’s allowed to share this space with me,” she says.
Rajiv Wagh, VP, marketing and business development, MCA, believes the major difference is in the management style — the new clubs are professionally managed business ventures, the old ones are run by members with their own agendas, he says.
Another distinguishing factor is the member profile. “All sections from the trade, business and film society, who fit the criteria are welcome,” says Wagh. “We have film stars and singers as members and they blend perfectly with our ethos,” he adds.
The new clubs’ services also reflect this youthful mindset. While C’est la Vie offers training programmes in water pilates and power yoga, MCA organises new-age games such as pickleball — a combination of table tennis, lawn tennis and badminton.
A 25-year-old member of The Club in Andheri — a 12-year-old private club patronised by the film and television world, says: “After payment and recommendations by one or two guests, you can secure membership here within a year, unlike the old clubs, which have 20-year waiting periods and need recommendations from at least 10 people.”
Pesi’s case has drawn sharp reactions.
A 47-year-media consultant and long-time member of Willingdon says: “What happened with Pesi has shocked a lot of members. It was a wake-up call for them to critically reevaluate some of the club’s long standing traditions and see whether they made sense in today’s time. The world has changed and the members need to change accordingly.”