Anniversary Special #20YearChallenge: ‘Chandni Bars’ Of Mumbai
The dance bars were a peculiarly Mumbai institution, a vital part of its culture and underbelly before they were hamhandedly shut down a decade ago. They were still thriving when we wrote this story, named after Madhur Bhandarkar’s popular film from 2001, which gave these bars their national notoriety
Excerpted from MW Nov 2001
‘A’ had this girl who had eyes only for him. She stood in front of him, twirling lightly, teasing. The waiter kept bringing him wads of tenners, they lasted longer than some of the hundred-rupee bills afloat in the incandescent air. I saw my friend blow seven thousand rupees (I must have lost count) that night trying to bathe his favourite courtesan in green, all to my dismay because the urchin who swiped the floor beneath the girls’ feet for the scattered money seemed to have a more promising career than mine — a door-to-door salesman in a fraud web company whose maniac CEO had promised to make me the country head of our non-existent operations in… (drumroll…) Botswana. One whisky that night cost me about Rs 250, a tenth of my salary.
I asked my friend if these girls also slept for money (if yes, how much?), and he said they did not, it was dangerous even bringing the subject up, but if you had the money, connections, and courage to ask, find out, then it was a different story.
Through it all there was an unsaid code of decorum. Patrons could not enter the floor and sway with the girls, they could not hold them or the hands. It made sense, the men were raging and drunk, and something had to hold them back, even if the illusion that they were nawabs, unbecoming of a certain conduct. In an action that has an uncanny resemblance to dusting one’s palm, or to sharpening a jungle twig, the Suckers flung money like dirt. They may have been bleary-eyed honest accountants with a less than satisfactory life at home, or actual hit-men celebrating a successful supari, but I immediately classified them as some sinister underworld species. Little did I know that nobody came in a Sucker, but all walked out as The One. This was Carnival at Worli on Mumbai’s busy Annie Besant traffic artery, one of the many ‘dance bars’ in town, and the first one I had ever been to. For a moment I wondered if an equally lucrative option existed for a young man like me, reasonably endowed with… skills, but hanging on by dirty fingernails to the thin parapet of life. I mean — broke and willing.
Sanam is a dance bar with a difference, here you can wave a tenner and call a girl to sit next to you. You can negotiate for a bit and then you can disappear from the back of the modest restaurant into a row of minimally furnished rooms. A young boy throws a condom through the curtain and walks away up the corridor. You pay, do the deed and walk out, perhaps for another beer. A while later the girl resumes her swinging place in the cluster. The price for hiring the girl for a full night could be upto Rs 3000, and for a ‘short-time’ from Rs 500 to Rs 1500, depending on her popularity, desirability, or both. For twenty rupees you can even play your favourite song. While the number one song on the dance-bar circuit is RabbaRabba, they also sport a good techno collection, but I won’t recommend it. There’s a time and place for everything. Oh yes, here you could also join the girl on the dance floor for a twirl. I stood up and propositioned a girl to dance with me, we did this strange spinning jig that was some distant foster-cousin of the tango. She was a little disappointed that I did not want to make out. She wanted some boner for her bony, the night’s first earning. I could have, but hey…you know the icky stuff. I slip her a discreet hundred and learn that her real name is Mumtaz. She is twenty years old, and came in from Calcutta about two years ago to try a career in films with her boyfriend who used her to make some money through his friends and then disappeared.