Mumbai bars face an uncertain future


  • Letters
  • Monday, 02 May 2005

INDIA DIARY BY COOMI KAPOOR

MUMBAI, the commercial capital of India and the country’s most cosmopolitan city, has been thrown out of kilter by a proposed ban on dance bars.  

More than 75,000 young girls working in 1,500-odd dance bars in Maharashtra face an uncertain future as the ruling Democratic Front Government appears determined to close down all dance bars in the state.  

More than a thousand bars are located in Mumbai alone employing over 50,000 girls. 

The prime mover behind the ban, R.R. Patil, the Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister of Maharashtra, justifies the move in the name of protecting “Maharashtrian culture”. 

He insists that the bars are to be shut down because they are “tearing down the fabric of Maharashtrian culture”.  

Liberals, however, disagree. They see an antediluvian puritan streak at work; the state policing the morals of the populace and enforcing its own value system on an unwilling people. 

Predictably, Patil’s move touched off a huge controversy. The more articulate sections in the world of art, culture and media reacted in anger, accusing the Congress-Nationalist Party coalition of embracing the agenda of the pro-Hindu Shiv Sena of Bal Thackeray.  

The Sena chief had for long been railing against what he calls the creeping western culture, arguing that the celebration of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc is bound to impose a “foreign culture” on the Indian soil. 

For the uninitiated, dance bars are licensed eating joints where beer and hard liquor is served. Young girls, mainly in the college-going age group, dance to popular Bollywood numbers, charming customers with their naughty movements and gaudy make-up.  

Mumbai has had these bars since the early 70s. Initially, there were no dancing girls, only taped music.  

Gradually, girls came into the picture. And when they brought in droves of customers, who imbibed hard liquor being sold at highly inflated rates, there was a scramble to open more and more dance bars.  

The Government, in turn, earned billions of rupees in sales and other taxes. 

Curiously, in the wake of reports of lascivious conduct in some of these bars, the Maharashtra Government last year imposed restrictions such as a minimum five-foot distance between the dancers and patrons, a ban on skimpy dresses or tipping by customers.  

Needless to say, all these restrictions were violated with impunity.  

Each dance bar on an average employs six to seven young girls. Depending on the location and the customer profile, daily incomes of the girls can vary from Rs 300 to Rs 3,000 (RM26-RM260) per shift.  

On a day a rich patron gets into the swing of things, girls and others such as the barman and waiters can really strike gold, taking home bundles of money.  

Well-known Bollywood director, Madhur Bhandarkar, who made the hit film Chandni Bar based on the Mumbai dancing bars, weighed in on the on-going controversy with his own insight: 

“For six months I visited dance bars with my scriptwriter? the girls eventually opened up. I noticed how religious they were. They would visit the temple, the mosque or the church before starting work in the evenings. 

“Most of them do not feel glamorous or sexy, they are just doing their jobs. They are extremely emotional and have spats over favourite customers.” 

Bhandarkar confirmed what the Bar Girls Union and critics maintained, that is, “all girls were there by compulsion”.  

One dancer supported 17 family members. Another’s children lived with their grandmother so that neighbours would not find out what she did. She also sent them to a prestigious school. 

A 40-year-old dancer saved for nine years so that her boyfriend could open a factory. The day she handed him the money, he married another woman.  

It is the human factor which the decision to close down the dance bars seems to have been ignored completely. 

Besides the bar girls and their dependents, at least 500,000 others who are dependent on the dance bars would be rendered jobless by the ban.  

For dance bars also employ waiters, watchmen, cashiers, bar-tenders and cooks. Should there be no dancing girls, the businesses would fold up sooner than later. 

But Patil counters, saying these bars are “dens of sin”.  

He is unlikely to pay heed to detractors and vocal liberals since he believes that the moral majority is with him.  

Besides, cutting across party lines every section of the opinion represented in the state legislature backs the impending ban on dance bars.  

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