Making It Rain: Notes From A Dance Bar
Time passes like molten tar in Panvel, but slower. The town’s claim to fame is being the site of the first municipal council in Maharashtra. There’s nothing to see, apart from the taluka vegetable market, and after this startling attraction you can’t wait to get home and turn on the TV. Many Panvelites spent their lives yearning for something interesting to happen, and learned subsequently that one should be careful what one wishes for. In the 1990s, Panvel gained notoriety for the number of dance bars that cropped up in the locality. They came fast and in numbers that rivaled those of the major hospitals in town (about seven, I recall).
Panvel is by the NH-17 highway, the only road to Pune and Goa in the days before the Expressway. The dance bars were thus well-placed for traffic coming from both Mumbai and Pune. Big cars slid off the highway, ducking into town for jollies best taken away from home.
As soon as I was old enough, I high-tailed it to work in Mumbai. Here, when people asked me where I was from, some did the nudge-wink routine and said, “Oh, that place!” I cannot tell you how much it miffed me. As, no doubt, it miffed others. It doesn’t strike me as coincidental that a Panvel MLA introduced the bill to ban dance bars in Maharashtra. One of his motivations may have been the restoration of his town’s good, if little-known, name.
Ironically, the first dance bar I visited was in Mumbai. I had moved here in 2004 and had a job as a reporter with the Bombay Times. The paper was planning its anniversary issue around the theme of ‘Slice of Mumbai’. The ban on dance bars had been mooted. Someone thought of doing a mood piece on dance bars. Since the other staffers were female, it was inevitable that I got the assignment. I already knew the basics of visiting a dance bar – the girls will treat you like a king if you blow money on them, so don’t let the attention go to your head; don’t look at the patrons who are eyeballing the talent; and don’t worry about your safety because people looking for a fight go to permit rooms, not to bouncer-guarded dance bars.
Neither particularly enthusiastic nor loathe about the assignment, I chose a well-known dance bar in Dadar East, not far from where I lived. I took along two new friends, who seemed to feel they were corrupting me. We passed the bouncer, entered through the small wooden door and walked past the cabin of the tiny, revolver-carrying bar owner. The bar was a large room with couches and tea tables arranged along the walls. It was dimly lit, but the male patrons never looked around anyway. Their eyes were turned to the beautiful girls whose sari hems levitated in time to a Bollywood song. The girls danced slowly, as if their heart wasn’t in it. The party was only getting started.
There were six girls in the room, three on stage, three off. Five were in saris, one was in a chaniya choli, and all had taken their styling cues from Hindi films. They ranged in age from early twenties to late thirties. Item numbers floated out the speakers. Disco lights rotated slowly. The patrons were dressed casually, in jeans and T-shirts, with the odd man out unwinding in his officewear. Now and again, one of them beckoned a dancer, handed them money, and they performed for him. I looked at a slim girl, who might have been 20 or 21 years old. She had straight, unbound hair and was wearing a chiffon sari, I think it was pink. As my friends and I sipped our Rs300 colas, we watched her sway. One of my friends saw that I was ogling her and asked me to tip her in the interest of my article. I gestured to her, and she came and leaned in close. I could smell her shampoo, and my head whirled. At that very point, I understood the allure of the place, and how a guy could fall under its spell.
With all the testosterone crawling up the walls, I noticed that the bar management wasn’t taking any chances. There were bouncers looking on in case anyone wanted to do more than just look. One guy went to the dancing area and showered a pile of notes on a girl’s head. This was called “paus” or rain. I remembered my childhood friends telling me admiringly that a guy who made it “pour notes” was a high roller. My new friends pointed out that the notes were fives and tens, which we all found a bit amusing.
The girls danced faster as the bar filled. By this time, the girl in the pink sari had moved to another part of the bar, and I figured I had enough material for my story. I never risked another run-in with her. The place we went to in Dadar East is now a family restaurant. However, my tryst with dance bars didn’t end there.
A few years later, I moved to another paper and found myself covering the end of the dance bar industry. I interviewed many bar dancers and filed reports about their despair, and found myself sympathising with them. I learned that many girls who ignited the dreams of their patrons dreamed of middle-of-the-road lives themselves. Few got them. Some moved back to their hometowns, a few became waitresses, and many took to offering all customers what they had chosen to give a few: sex for money.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that dance bars can re-open. However, the state government, for whom this has become a prestige issue, won’t make it easy for the dance bars to get licences. Moreover, election season is coming up soon.
When dance bars eventually re-open, they may have to keep an open space or barriers between dancers and patrons. They will be under intense scrutiny from the police, who will be tasked with checking if they are following the new rules, and of course, being used as pick-up joints. We can therefore expect a spate of police action comprising the arrests of and extraction of bribes from patrons, dancers and bar owners. Things might settle down when the nexus between bar owners, a few venal cops and criminals coalesces again. Whatever happens, one basic rule will remain – the girls will treat you like a king if you blow money on them. So, whatever you do, don’t let the attention go to your head.
Suhit Kelkar is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Open, The Caravan and The Week.