Mumbai's dance bars make a surreptitious comeback as orchestra bars
The contemporary history of dance bars changed course in 2005 when then-home minister RR Patil ordered a ban on them saying they were exploitative
MUMBAI: More than two decades ago Mumbai’s dance bars were a crucial part of its nightlife, expressed in the much-acclaimed 2001 film ‘Chandni Bar’ by Madhur Bhandarkar. At the time in one of his interviews, Bhandarkar had said that he had barely scratched the surface of the grime that infested the lives of women who entered the trade. He had filmed only as much as the audience could stomach. And even that was hard to watch, regardless of stunning performances by Tabu and Atul Kulkarni.
The contemporary history of dance bars changed course in 2005 when then-home minister RR Patil ordered a ban on them saying they were exploitative and that efforts should be made to rehabilitate the women who were driven into Mumbai’s underbelly due to abject poverty.
Patil’s move was quashed by courts; and now five years after the Supreme Court in January 2019 re-emphasized that the state cannot take exception to staging dance performances in bars, dance bars have made a comeback, albeit in a new form – orchestra bars.
These hubs of entertainment are less glamorous; they operate surreptitiously and the women who don glitter and step under the bright lights, do so of their own volition. The city now has around 250 licensed (and some unlicensed) orchestra bars.
Old wine in new bottle
Though under the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurant and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working therein) Act, 2016, orchestra bars are supposed to have separate stages for the orchestra and the dancers, in reality, these establishments are not dissimilar to the erstwhile dance bars where skimpily clad young women danced in front of patrons, who showered money on them, and had one-to-one conversations with clients.
HT did the rounds of some high-profile orchestra bars and found their functioning reminiscent of the golden era.
All major establishments have a front entry mostly on theground floors, which house a regular bar and restaurant, but the real entertainment that attracts the rich ‘dardi’ crowd assembles on the first floor. (Dardis are men who root for the fluid moves of dancers.) Getting in is not easy – a patron has to undergo major scrutiny at the ground floor, a newbie does not get smooth entry; he has to be accompanied by a regular patron of the bar.
Bouncers guard another entrance – the passage behind this door leads you to the stairs to the first floor. At some bars -- in Dadar and parts of South Mumbai – there are separate entrances for regulars.
Inside is a new world – a large room bathed in flickering laser lights fitted along upper and lower portions of the walls move with ’90s Bollywood hits playing in the background. There are two small sofas by the orchestra on the stage for the bar dancers to rest while big, comfortable sofas are lined up along the sides of the walls for patrons. Special patrons are seated at small tables in the middle of the room – they are known to splurge sizable amounts, that go up to lakhs in one evening, on the bar girls.
The bars warm up after 11:30pm. If you enter at any time earlier than that, you will see barely two to three of the 25-odd tables occupied, with a singer belting out Bollywood favourites.
As the evening proceeds, dancers aged between 20 and 30, togged up in shiny lehenga cholis and sarees, emerge. Most tables become occupied close to midnight. Eventually, patrons ask for small change and bundles of ₹20 or ₹50 currency notes are provided by the staff at the bar.
The stage eventually becomes crowded with a swirl of girls with patrons showering cash on them. At peak hour the floor of the hall is covered with currency notes as young members of the bar staff hurriedly scoop them up to stack them in bundles to be deposited with the manager of the bar. The booty is eventually distributed among the performers.
The bar is never cash-strapped. As patrons run out of their desired denominations of cash, fresh bundles are brought from the bar. Women urge the new patrons to join them on the dance floor as if to break ice. The dancers keep a close watch on the patrons and lure the customers who watch them closely.
As the night progresses, alert men are stationed outside the bar to keep a watch on patrolling cops. As soon as they spot men in khakhi, they send the word inside. The dancers stop their performances and quietly sit on the sofas near the stage. Money strewn on the floor is swept up in bags. Suddenly, the inside of the bar is back to being what it was designed for – an orchestra bar.
The constables take a look around, click a few selfies from different angles, reportedly to send to their bosses as confirmation that no prohibited activity was going on in the bar and everything was according to the rules.
Good looks are a predominant criterion for young women entering this space. They are all within the age of 30 and speak fluent English. One of the dancers at a Central Mumbai bar said she chose to be a bar dancer as her sister needs to undergo a surgery that requires over ₹6 lakh. Another 20-year-old, who has been pursuing a course in fashion design, said, “I wanted to pursue a career as a designer, but my family is unable to support my education.”
Varsha Kale, president of the Bhartiya Bargirl’s Union, said with the restriction of dance time and number of women allowed to perform, many dance bars have refused to get back into business. “The ones that are functional are not the dance bars but orchestra bars or ladies’ bars where the girls sing. I am told that the bar owners prefer hiring good-looking girls for singing instead of the professional good singers who may not be good-looking. When there is a raid, these girls switch roles to become singers,” she said.
What the law says
Dance bars were banned in Maharashtra in August 2005 by adding Section 33A to the Maharashtra Police (Amendment) Act, 2005. This prohibited all kinds of performances in eating houses, permit rooms and beer bars. The objective was “to secure public order, morality, dignity of women, and reduce exploitation of women including trafficking of minor girls.”
The state government then shut down all the bars though many of them continued to flourish till as late as 2011, in a clandestine way in the city and its outskirts. When the ban was imposed the city alone had around 700 dance bars at their peak in April 2005, though only 307 of those were legal. In other parts of the state, mostly in Thane, Raigad and Pune districts 650 more dance bars flourished when the amendment to the Maharashtra Police Act came into force. (See box.)
The bars provided employment to around 1,50,000 people, including about 80,000 bar girls, many of whom moved to Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries, apart from Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad where dance bars continued to operate illegally.