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The Plight of Mumbai?s Dancing Queens

May 2003
The Plight of Mumbai?s Dancing Queens


In Mumbai, India's movie land that churns out countless films for misty-eyed millions, evenings throw the covers off quite another show... for men only.

At the end of the day's work, many men head for gaudily lit bars, where flashing neon signs beckon them into the dim, air-conditioned, smoke-filled interiors. Inside, the air is thick with liquor fumes and cheap room fresheners and the stage is set for forbidden pleasures.

On a runway-like platform that is the focus of the all-male crowd, a number of scantily clad, heavily made-up women sway to the beats of a popular Hindi film number. They seem to have stepped out of a scene from the Arabian Nights. They 'perform' through the evening, almost till just before daybreak. Moving their lips to the song, smiling suggestively at one customer, winking at another, they work hard to please, and not for nothing. The tips mean the world to them.

Mumbai and its suburbs are home to some 1,500 'dance bars' where girls and women are the sideshow to accompany whiskey, rum and beer.

'No other means of supporting my family'

Among the estimated hundred thousand 'bar girls' in the city is 16-year-old Reena, the sole breadwinner for her family of five. Forced by poverty to drop out of school, she joined the bar after her father, Prabhakar Birje, died last year. He had been unemployed for months before that, sacked by a garment factory in Mumbai.

Reena works at the ?Karishma Bar? at Dadar in Central Mumbai. She leaves home at eight each evening and is rarely back before eight the next morning. It takes her an hour by a crowded local train to reach her workplace from her house at Bhayander in the suburbs.

'I work at the bar because I have no other means of supporting my mother and young siblings. Who will give a decent job to a school dropout like me?' she sighs. 'I will do this till the day my brother becomes a pilot and my sister a doctor. Maybe then I can do something better with my life...'

?My father thinks I work in an office?

Most bar girls are between 14 and 30 years of age, and nearly all of them are the sole breadwinners of their families. More often than not, they have not completed high school, which comes in the way of getting more 'respectable' jobs.

'I had to drop out in the fifth grade as my family could not afford to send me to school anymore,' says Farha, 26. 'Besides, I was not a great student.'

Farha works at the ?Monica Bar? in a Mumbai suburb -- Ghatkopar. She supports a large family in her native province of Uttar Pradesh in North India, but no one back home knows the nature of her job. Her eyes cloud over as she thinks of her family. 'My husband died a few years ago and my father thinks I work in an office.' She does not dare to tell him the truth.

Licensed to exhibit ?Indian classical dance?

Dance bars thrive in Mumbai and its suburbs, but it is not easy to operate these establishments. Owners have to obtain more than a dozen licenses from the police and various municipal departments to start a dance bar. The most important of these is one allowing the bars to exhibit ?Indian classical dance? -- a euphemism, of course, for the Bollywood (as the Mumbai film industry is known) style bump-and-grind routine, which draws men in hordes every night.

The dancers are rarely given salaries. They survive on the tips that come their way. And customers make sure they get their money's worth before showering rupee-notes. The girls are allowed to keep just 20 percent of the tips they get. Each girl is assigned a numbered box to store the day's collections. The boxes are placed near the dance floor and opened by the girls after work.

The spectators routinely exchange thousands of rupees for wads of ten-rupee notes, to tip the dancers in a style reminiscent of courtesans and nautch girls dancing for a male audience.

These girls do their stuff on brightly lit runways, usually in the center of the room. Their patrons are seated in chairs arranged around the platforms, their privacy protected by the dim lighting. Men from all walks of life, all sections of society visit these bars -- factory workers, executives, students, gangsters, cops, businessmen and tourists.

There are different dance bars to suit different wallets. Customers willing to pay a little extra sit in the VIP sections where the dancers are younger.

'All kinds of people come here'

'All kinds of people come here,' says Kavita, who works at the ?Jharna Bar? in Malad. 'Teenage boys who say they have fallen in love with me but have no money, men with guns, village folk, businessmen with wads of cash.

'I know how to identify and dance for men who have the money and are willing to part with it.'

They dance for more than eight hours each night, taking only brief breaks in the changing rooms. These cramped, grimy and hot little rooms offer no privacy, and are sometimes shared by up to 30 girls every evening. But the rooms are also their refuge from danger. 'I rush in here when a client starts acting funny or when there is a fight.'

'You can't blame us, we need the money desperately'

The lure of extra earnings, or sheer desperation also drives the girls to go beyond their brief to please the customer. Says 23-year-old Meenakshi matter-of-factly: 'Clients beckon when they want to tip us. Many of them ask me to spend the night with them. I go sometimes -- many girls do.

'You can't blame us, we need the money desperately,' she shrugs. Meenakshi came to Mumbai with dreams of making it in films. Now she just hopes to save enough money to return to her native Bengal province in a couple of years.

Many a times, bar owners augment their profits by encouraging prostitution. The dance bars even have attached rooms that can be rented by the hour.

Food and drink at these bars cost more than double that in regular bars. Conservative industry estimates put the revenue of dance bars in and around Mumbai at over ten billion Indian rupees (over 200 million dollars) each year. Only a fraction of this ever goes to the dance girls, who are central to the trade. They earn an average of a few thousand rupees, just enough for a family to survive in one of India's most expensive cities. Some dance girls at bars in better localities earn a few hundred thousand rupees a month, but they are a miniscule minority.

'I will never let this happen to my children'

'It is tough to put a smile on your face and look happy on the dance floor when you are worried about the future of your children,' says Rani, 29, from the ?Saikrupa Bar? (!) at Ghatkopar.

There are days when Rani gets no tips, possibly because her worries show on her pensive face. 'I have to pay fees, cover my mother's medical bills and put food on the table. But I have to hide my tensions from clients at work and my children at home. Some days I feel like my head would explode.'

Rani only wants to see her two daughters and son well educated and speaking fluent English. 'I am stuck here because I could not study, but I will never let this happen to my children. I will sell myself to give them a bright future.'

If this was not enough, the girls have to contend with hostile neighbours, snide remarks and prejudice.

'The government views us as milch cows'

Dance bar owners say they cannot give the girls a better deal as they have to contend with high taxes, heavy utility bills, steep rents and hefty bribes. Vivek Prabhakar Shetty, the owner of ?Monica Bar?, expresses helplessness. 'The government views us as milch cows. More than 25 percent of our income goes to paying taxes. And, apart from annual license fees, there is the sales tax, floor tax, entertainment tax, municipal tax, rent, bills, salaries... the list is endless.'

Not to mention bribes of obscene amounts. According to the Dance Bar Owners' Association, an average dance bar pays over a hundred thousand rupees every month as hush money.

'Many dance bars have become pick up points for prostitutes and dens for other illegal nefarious activities, because they have to make money somehow,' admits Manjeet Singh, president of the association. Besides running dance bars, Singh owns a cable news channel that airs investigative programmes. The channel gives him the courage to talk freely against corruption in the police and civic bodies. He also carries a loaded revolver strapped to his belt, to protect him from threats from the underworld. Many dance bar owners are also forced to pay protection money to various gangs in the Mumbai Mafia.

Sridhar Wagal, Joint Commissioner (Crime), Mumbai Police, predictably denies that his department is corrupt. ?If they pay bribes, how come we conduct raids, make seizures and close down bars? That is a contradiction.? Wagal claims the raids take place only on the basis of specific information, and no other interest.

It is a cesspool that almost all the girls want to escape. Unfortunately, they are chained to the profession by circumstances and their need to survive.

(Names of girls changed on request)

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