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'Politicians tried to portray Mumbai bar dancers as prostitutes'

Sonia Faleiro's book Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars was named the book of the year in 2011, by publications like The Guardian and The Economist. It received rich praise from Indian and international reviewers for the way Faleiro told the story of Leela, a 19-year-old woman who made a living as a bar dancer. Based on five years of research and the time that Faleiro spent in Leela's company, Faleiro's writing was described by The Sunday Times as, "A tour de force of reportage, whose depth, insight and resonance make it the equal of the best fiction." Faleiro spoke to Firstpost about the SC verdict lifting the Maharashtra government's ban on dance bars.

Do you think agree with the Supreme Court's decision?

The Court upheld a woman’s right to work, stating that "even a bar dancer has to satisfy her hunger". How can anyone argue with that? (Of course, the state of Maharashtra did try). And it made clear than the ban — aimed at a certain type of woman performing at a certain type of drinking establishment for a certain kind of man — made assumptions about her work and character that were not just incorrect, but an assault on her dignity. There’s no argument one can make against the core of this judgment.

Dancers in a Mumbai bar. Reuters.

Dancers in a Mumbai bar. Reuters.

What would you say is required to improve the situation of women working in dance bars?

If we agree that bar dancers are ‘workers’, then they deserve the rights of workers— a living wage, job security, access to medical care, and so forth.

Is it realistically possible to bring about these improvements, considering societal conventions, biases and power dynamic that's entirely against women who work in dance bars?

The bars are run on the backs of these women. They are the reason men even come to the bars. We know this because once dancing was banned, many bar owners shut down their bars. Despite this, bar dancers remain bottom feeders, among the last to reap any benefit from the business they attract.

I wouldn’t count on bar owners to take the women’s rights or needs into consideration any more than they did before. They won’t because they don’t have to. In Mumbai at the time of the ban, there were an estimated 75,000 bar dancers. But there were only 1,500 dance bars. There are more young, poor, uneducated women willing to dance in bars than there are bars. The numbers favour the bar owners, and so unless the law demands it specifically, bar owners are unlikely to do anything different.

I think what we also need is for bar dancers to realise the value of their work, of their worth, and to coalesce around a set of firm demands. It can be done, because women like Leela, and in fact many of the bar dancers I met while researching Beautiful Thing, are smart, tough women capable of standing up for themselves. But they also need to unionise properly. And the public must stop demonising them. They’re doing a job—you don’t have to like it, but you should respect it.

Many dance bars turned into orchestra bars because of the ban. Did that make it easier for the women who worked in them in any way?

The implicit assumption here is that women in orchestra bars — who work as singers or waitresses — are 'safer' than bar dancers. That they’re less likely to be propositioned because they’re more ‘respectable’. Not true.

There aren’t a lot of jobs for women in orchestra bars, to begin with. They may sing, but they rarely play instruments. So there are far fewer women working in an orchestra bar than in a dance bar and, given the assumption of what the atmosphere in a dance bar is like, we can also assume that an orchestra bar offers a woman less security than a dance bar.

Women in orchestra bars also earn far less than the average bar dancer although their careers go on for longer. So the point here isn’t whether a woman singing in a dance bar is safer or better off than a woman dancing in a dance bar. The point is that as long as dance bars merely pick up where they left off, any woman working there is vulnerable, in more ways than one, and will, most likely, be denied the range of protections that other workers count on.

Why do you think political parties, whose cadre frequented dance bars, supported the ban?

There appears to have been a carefully orchestrated campaign to portray dance bars as brothels and bar dancers as prostitutes. The media fed the stereotypes of the bar dancer as courtesan, portraying her as the natural enemy of the moral, middle class woman. Once her portrayal as a subhuman vixen was complete, it was only natural that politicians across the board would lack the spine or the common sense to defend her rights. In the war between women ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the ‘bad’ woman was doomed to fail, not just in the court of public opinion but also in the legislature. I’m proud that the highest court in the land has stood up for her.

Book cover  of The Beautiful Thing.

Book cover of The Beautiful Thing.

The most repeated argument for the ban, particularly by the Mumbai police, is that it would help "clean up" the city. How credible does that sound to you?

If by ‘clean up’ they meant that dance bars would no longer be compelled to pay them bribes then yes, I suppose the ban did ‘clean up’ the city. But what of the demands for bribes they make of other people — from the paanwala to the hijra begging at traffic lights? That hasn't stopped. In fact, an argument against the ban was made by a senior police officer who told me that the ban made his job tougher:

"The moment they had money, they’d go spend it in the dance bars," he said of a local gang. "So we always knew where to find them. Now where do we go?"
NCRB statistics show no decrease in crime figures following the ban. I think we can safely say that the relationship between the ban and a clean Mumbai is a bogus one, manufactured by the same people who told us all bar dancers were prostitutes.

According to you, what role did/does the dance bar play in Mumbai's story?

I don’t think I had a fully formed idea of what it meant to be a bar dancer [before researching Beautiful Thing]. I was constantly taken by surprise [while researching and writing the book]. And I grew to have tremendous admiration for the women — they’re tough, they’re no-nonsense, they have a sense of humour, they believe in destiny and are yet unwilling to accept that destiny isn't exactly what they want for themselves and for the ones they love. Mumbai’s bar dancers are amongst the strongest women I’ve ever met. I have nothing but respect for them. Mumbai allowed me to discover myself.

I wouldn't have become the writer I am if I hadn't moved there. The city allowed me to live freely and to make my own choices, for better or worse. At one time, bar dancers were allowed to do the same. And because they were allowed to be free, to do as they thought best, their children were free to study and to not work, they were free to imagine a future for themselves that was not entirely circumscribed by their caste and class and poverty. The possibilities that made the life of the bar dancer embody what is best about Mumbai. Whether you agree or disagree with her choices, whether or not you wish she didn't have to make those choices, the fact is that the right to choose is what makes Mumbai a great Indian city.

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