THE venue: A well-fortified suburban ladies bar in North Bombay. The time: the early hours of a long evening. The low lighting on the dance floor provides a respectable anonymity. The night is young and double deals could always be worked out in the greying hours of the night. Till that time, the show must necessarily go on.
But dancing till dawn may soon be a thing of the past for those who seek it as a profession and those who chase it for pleasure. And wine, women and song—which have contributed much to Bombay's nightlife—may soon be extinct, with the morality brigade of the Maharashtra Government's Cultural Affairs Ministry leading pub and ladies bar owners on a merry dance.
The decision to revoke licences for "cultural activities" in bars and restaurants in the state came after a series of surprise raids conducted by Anil Deshmukh, minister of state for cultural affairs. Apparently, Deshmukh's derring-do was the logical outcome of a cache of complaints protesting the congregation of unsavoury elements and shady activities passed off as "cultural dances" in the mushrooming ladies bars of the extended Bombay-Thane belt concentrated mainly in Mulund, Kandivli, Borivili, Malad,Bhandup, Vikhroli, Amernath, Ulhasnagar, Chembur and New Bombay residential areas. "Classical dance" had supposedly been twisted for the convenience of customers into movements completely divorced from the cultural scheme of things.
The meeting, which was convened by Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde and attended by Cultural Affairs Minister Pramod Navalkar, his junior colleague Deshmukh and Police Commissioner R.D. Tyagi, sought to ban the renewal and issual of licences and to enforce a closing time on pub and bar owners, waitresses and dancing girls. While the 12.30 am closing time will be applicable to all bars, restaurants and five-star outlets serving alcohol (except for coffee shops in the latter), women employees will have to pack up at 8.30 pm. It's also proposed stipulates that dancing girls be provided with identity cards and transport back home as a precautionary measure.
But gratitude for the Culture Ministry's concern about their plight is the last thing on the minds of the 20,000-odd bar maids and dancing girls employed in over 1,000 bars in suburban Bombay. Threatening to move court over the restrictions placed on them, they allege that the Government is neither in step nor in tune with the times. "The Shops and Establishments Act should be amended and permission given to these woman to keep late hours. They cannot be deprived of their fundamental right to work," says Anand Shetty, convenor of the Maharashtra Ladies Bar Association.
"The timings for the 'ladies only' bogies in trains have been extended because women have started working late. Why are we being singled out? And has Bal Thackeray forgotten that he himself inaugurated a ladies bar in Chembur in July 1979?" asks Parveen, who works in a bar in central Bombay.
The girls cite drunken fathers, deserter husbands, economic compulsions and lack of education for their forays into the field. The money comes easy, the cheques almost for free and for the girls it is a substitute slice of socialite evenings and starry nights.
Besides, as a restaurateur notes: "These joints attract the nouveau riche and orthodox businessmen who have the money but not the means to have a swinging time openly. In fact, it is cheaper to drink in a five-star hotel than in one of these places. Also, some of the showgirls make enough to travel in Maruti 1000s and carry cell-phones. Precautions and safeguards for the safety of women are important but you cannot condemn all pubs and discotheques."
It is no wonder that hoteliers are mourning the loss of Bombay's nightlife. The prospect of sagging spirit sales has not made it any easier. "The real crowd comes in only by 10.30 pm and this decision will affect our business by 65 per cent. If the timing for the last order is extended up to midnight, the losses will be down to 30 per cent. Themain drive is against ladies and dancing girl-bars and to that extent the policy is right but you can't drive everyone with the same stick. It will kill the charm of Bombay," says Ashok Chavda, general manager, Juhu Hotel, which houses Razzberry Rhinoceros, a popular discotheque. It is an opinion shared by the owners of most of the high-flying hotspots in the city.
But Navalkar feels that the crackdown would not pull pub owners down by more than a peg or two. "Nightlife in Bombay comes to an end latest by 1 am. What is the need to be out after that? Those who frequent five-star discos could always unwind in the coffee shop afterwards. Our action is directed towards curbing anti-social activities, not the social life of the city," he stresses.
On the one hand, pub-hoppers feel that the outcome would boost back-door entries to bars besides slowing down the pulsating rate of the city. On the other, waitresses and dancing girls insist that the dose delivered is literally one for the roads. Only, they are not willing to be relegated to a role they have never played—that of silent spectators—and are all set for a showdown.