In 2005, a government notification spearheaded by then deputy chief minister of Mahrashtra, RR Patil, introduced a complete ban on dance bars. The ban was implemented on August 15, Independence Day, that year. The minister felt that under the guise of dance bars, women were being exploited. What he never understood was that there were hundreds of people who relied on these very dance bars for their daily bread and butter. In the immediate aftermath of the shutdown, most of the women dancers who were employed by these bars had no option but to resort to prostitution to earn their livelihood. Some of these dancers went back to their hometowns and continued living an impoverished life.
But the situation changed within the span of a few years. Most of these girls were back, but this time as waiters. This concept of girls serving alcohol to the customer in bars continued for a while. Within months, it was back to square one.
The women stopped serving alcohol and male waiters took over. Women became the spectators since they weren’t allowed to dance. The trend survived, and continues to this day, with music playing in the background. 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 the patrons and collect money that is either thrown at them or distributed. Sometimes if a waiter is lucky, he also gets a small proportion of the booty.
One of the most famous dance bars in south Mumbai, Good Luck is located in Mumbai Central, minutes from the railway station. It opens around 6 pm. But patrons start walking in only after 7 pm. By 8 pm, it’s crowded and by 9 pm, it’s packed from wall to wall. As you enter, the doorman gives you a grin that extends from ear to ear. He opens the door very slowly. The idea is to see if in that time, the customer hands him a ten-rupee note, or more if he’s lucky. As you enter, you see about a dozen women in an area of about 500 square feet. There are 10 tables, with seating capacity for two on each. There is an orchestra comprising three singers, a drummer and a piano player. As you watch these singers closely, you realise that they only lip-sync, at least most of the time. We are told this is the cheapest section. Further inside is the expensive seating area with sofas to rest on. But that’s packed too, so we move to the first floor. There is no orchestra here, but only speakers blaring Sheila ki jawani… as we walk in. In the next 20 minutes, we hear this song at least three more times.
Nothing comes free
This cluttered space is packed with about 25 girls, standing next to the mirrored walls. The saris, ‘cholis’ and ‘ghagras’ of the early years have now given way to jeans and skin-tight pants. Most of the patrons sitting next to us are in their late forties or fifties. A couple of them look as old as 60. Beers are priced at Rs 150, so are the soft drinks.
Only water is free. And yes, there are bowls of complimentary groundnuts, slices of cucumber and carrots too. Almost everyone in the bar sits with bundles of ten rupee notes. The usual scenario is that each customer has his eyes fixed on a girl who receives his bundle of cash. None of these women participate in the singing or even dance. At 9.30 pm, they leave the premises, sticking to the government-prescribed deadline. Thereafter, the patrons gulp down the last sip and make their way towards the exit. Outside the bar, lines of taxis are halted by the bar’s security to ferry the girls home.
Though Good Luck seemed fairly innocent, there are numerous bars in the suburbs where bar girls still sway to the music. This is confirmed by Manjit Singh Sethi, president, Bar Owners Association: “Yes, there are dance bars which are openly flouting these rules. You have to ask RR Patil why he’s not shutting them down. May be these bars pay the local police hefty ‘haftas’ (bribe) to break the rules.” According to Sethi, there are 750 such dance bars within city limits and a similar number on the outskirts. Overall, these employ close to 1,50,000 people. “This data was compiled by us back in 2005, when we received the government notification to ban them. We don’t have up-to-date figures,” he maintains.
Leo Gonsalves, a die-hard dance bar patron, has been frequenting such joints for more than a decade. “How does it matter to me whether there is a live orchestra or no orchestra at all? I go there to listen to the music, surrounded by beautiful women,” he says.