Are Mumbai’s dance bars dens of vice as made out by the moral brigade and the political establishment? With the ban on them stayed again, it’s time to improve the working conditions of women there
By Ajith Pillai
IF you are part of the moral brigade, it is easy to run down Mumbai’s dance bars. There is this readymade line of argument: these establishments are sex shops or pick-up joints masquerading as places of clean fun and entertainment. Hence, these “dens of vice” deserve to be closed down. There are a few case studies done to prove that middlemen lure women from villages across India to the big, bad city and they end up in the dance bars which mushroomed in Mumbai in the 90s and the 2000s. When the Maharashtra assembly unanimously passed a bill banning dance bars in July 2005, there were 1,300 of them. And to think that in 1985 there were only 24 of them.
This shows how dance bars grew in popularity. But what about all the sleaze associated with such establishments? It would be a misrepresentation of facts to say that they are squeaky clean and above board. However, it would be safe to say these bars are not brothels. Their managements do not sell sex, although a dancer on her own free will may indulge in such a transaction.
I have surveyed dance bars in my capacity as a low life correspondent for a few publications in Mumbai. Covering crime, drug addiction and the city’s underbelly was one of the beats assigned to me. Since bars with dancing girls attracted much media attention in the late 80s and 90s, I was asked to take a look at them. I found that women who enacted scenes from raunchy Bollywood songs were neither “readily available” as was made out by the moral police, nor were the managements persuading their clientele to take one of the women home. On the contrary, the bars had bouncers who said their brief was to ensure that “customers” don’t “ched chaad” (harass) the women.
The typical client who frequents such bars comes to relive the Bollywood dream. It is keeping him in mind that the bars are designed to resemble a film set readied for an item song—replete with all its garish lighting and glitter. The dancers—a dozen of them—perform on an elevated circular stage with strobe lights flashing and the latest filmy number blasting through the sound system. As one song fades into another, some of them rush to the green room to return wearing clothes to match the mood of the next track on the playing list.
The profile of those who patronise dance bars is a curious mix of office-goers, third-rung members of the underworld, traders and professionals. They are young or at best middle-aged. Many are married. To a man, they will reveal that they have come here to forget the cares of the world and to relax and enjoy themselves. They also tell you they are not here for sex. If that was what they wanted, they would have gone to Kamatipura, the red light district, they say.
To unwind with the noisy music and to imagine yourself falling in love with one of the nubile girls doing her set, you have to be essentially a film-crazed person; someone who remembers the lyrics to the song being danced to and the vibes with it. Unless you are such a person, you probably will not pay through your nose for your drink to watch an item number enacted.
While they dance, the girls are not allowed to speak to customers but they do notice those who tip them heavily. Sonia Falerio’s book, Beautiful Thing, an inside account of Mumbai’s dance bars, describes a typical scene involving dance girl Leela: “…she only noticed those who threw money on her, as was the custom, or asked the steward standing by for this purpose to place a garland of hundred or five hundred rupee notes around her neck. If she was feeling wicked she would accept the money and staring deep into the customer’s eyes silently mouth: ‘Is this all you think I’m worth?’…If the customer was familiar with Leela’s ways, which, truth be told, were the ways of all experienced bar dancers, he’d swat her away with a good-natured laugh.”
MAJORITY IS MARRIED
But what about the women dancers themselves? According to a sample study in 2005 by Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 68 percent of women in dance bars were married. This went against the notion that the girls were mostly minors lured into the racket by traffickers. A majority of those married (71 percent) had children back home in the villages and small towns they hailed from. Many had come to Mumbai to seek jobs and had found dancing at bars a better option than being attached to a brothel in the unofficially demarcated red light areas.
Shagufta Rafique, a former dance bar girl turned scriptwriter says she was forced into prostitution at the age of 17 because of poverty. For the next 10 years, she supported her family through her sex work till some well-wishers asked her to try her hand at dancing at bars. She did this and she says the move liberated her from the demeaning work she was doing earlier. Shagufta has written the scripts for films like Aashiqui 2, Raaz 3, Murder 2, Jannat 2 and Woh Lamhe. When the ban was first invoked against the dance bars, she had this to say: “I know how difficult life became for thousands of women who were their family’s sole breadwinners. They were forced to do things they would not have done if the bars were allowed (to carry on their business). The state government will be responsible for them getting into prostitution or ending their lives.”
There are many myths perpetuated about dance bars and the women working there. At the time the ban was imposed, one official position was that 75 percent of the women were illegal migrants from Bangladesh. This premise was proven false by a study conducted by SNDT University, Mumbai, which revealed that about 50 percent of the women were from marginalized communities in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Around 20 percent were from Mumbai or interior Maharashtra and the rest were from across the country. Only a few were from Nepal and none from Bangladesh. Neither did the dancers earn in lakhs as was alleged. Their monthly income was in the region of `30,000.
ABUSED BY POLICE
More crucially, the report revealed that the women were not forced into sex work. Also, very few spoke of harassment. They, however, said they were troubled by the police who raided bars and verbally abused them. In media interviews after the ban, bar owners spoke of how they were forced to pay hafta (protection money) to the police to continue their business.
Despite several court rulings against the ban, it is unlikely that it will be lifted. No political party wishes to take on the moral brigade. Comments made in the state assembly in 2005 during the discussion that preceded the passing of the bill banning dance bars, were telling. Sample this: “These women who dance naked (nanga nach), they don’t deserve any sympathy.” “We are not Taliban, but somewhere we have to put a stop. The moral policing we do, it is a good thing, but it is not enough … we need to do even more of this moral policing.” But this one took the cake: “Hotels with three stars, five stars, disco dancing, belly dancing, all that is vulgar … everything should be banned, except Bharatnatyam and Kathak.”
To ban is not the answer. To regulate and improve the working conditions of women who dance the evening shift is certainly a more positive option.