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Mumbai’s nightclubs are making a comeback. But can they last?


In our archives, there is a photograph of Milind Soman dancing on a table at Fire N Ice. Those who lived and partied in Mumbai in the early 2000s will tell you that these were the good old days. Soman was young (and he wore shoes). The party went on all night. And Mumbai could dance. On real dance floors.

And then it stopped. Slowly, at first, and then all of a sudden. Some of the crowd grew out of it. Phoenix Mills rose, mythical bird-like, around Fire N Ice. And, eventually, the 1.30am deadline being implemented ended it all.

A few clubs stuck around: Hawaiian Shack in Bandra; Poly Esther’s in Colaba. The latter would drag on till 2014. Shack still stands, but is largely forgotten, a shadow of its previous crowded glory.

Eventually, it was the rise of the modern pub, with its cheaper alcohol prices that lured the millenialls away. Chains like Social and The Bar Stock Exchange (TBSE) made a night out so affordable, it made places with cover charges and Rs600-a-drink menus obsolete.

Yet, in just the last few months, we’ve seen a revival of sorts. Playboy Club opened in Worli in November 2016. Yes, the one with Hugh Hefner’s signature Bunny logo plastered all over. Matahaari, another high-end club, opened in January this year. Let’s call these the rich boys’ clubs. And then you have the more affordable Drop, Bandra (opened in the end of January), and Old Wild West, Lower Parel (slightly older, since December, 2015). It’s like the 2000s again.

Bringing back the velvet ropes

“Whose guest list are you on?”: Famous words that haven’t been heard in the Mumbai nightlife scene for more than a decade were brought back the night Playboy opened. Inside, the décor, too, harks back to an older time: split levels, a massive dance floor, marble bar counters, leather sofas, elaborate chandeliers, and laser lights. Matahaari, sitting on the top floor of a nearly-deserted Atria Mall, is some sort of a 7,000sqft fantasy gentleman’s club: baroque chandeliers, golden sofas sporting ‘reserved’ triangles, a champagne bar in the foyer, and a private room that seems to open through a hidden door in a faux-library. If James Bond were in Mumbai, this is where he would party. Drinks start at Rs1,000, the dress code, and reserved tables on an elevated level, scream of the elitism.

The owners are unabashed about it. Simmi Kent, director, Playboy India, tells us that they work with a team of event partners whose job is to ensure “a list of upmarket party circle (sic)”. Bobby Mukherjee, co-owner and director, Matahaari, says, “We cater to the crème de la crème of Mumbai, the kind that enjoys and can afford luxury. A close-knit elite crowd that wants to socialise, drink and dance, away from a younger crowd that is today found in most of the bars across the city.”

Not for millenials

By “most of the bars”, Mukherjee refers, with more than a hint of disdain, to chains like Social and BSE, places the millenials throng, as much for the décor and the ambience as for the affordability. But an older crowd, aged 35 to 55, is unlikely to want to spend Friday night rubbing shoulders with youngsters or, worse, their kids.

The likes of Playboy and Matahaari, and even the newly opened lounge, Tamasha, in Lower Parel, are hoping this crowd — older, and therefore more high-spending — will roll up in their Audis at their entrances. And since this generation would have partied at the exclusive Athena (it used to be largely invite-only too), Red Light or Fire N Ice back in the ’90s, the nostalgia of the nightclub will bring them back. Add the appeal of music that starts off with deep-house and trance, and ends up at pop classics.

Less night per night

But here’s the catch. The biggest difference between the ’90s and now is how long a place can stay open. Ketan Kadam, the co-founder of Fire N Ice, says they would remain open till four or five in the morning, as would most other clubs. Kadam says, “People would get a drink or two at the subsidised clubs [gymkhanas] first, and then head to the clubs by 10pm, and stay till the end.” The end, of course, came when there was light in the sky.

On paper, the deadline (12.30am, then revised to 1.30am) had always existed. But like Maharashtra’s archaic drinking permit rule, it wasn’t strictly implemented.

That’s no longer the case. And that shrinks the hours of peak business remarkably. Dancing is more exhausting, and demanding on the pocket, than a quick beer with a friend. That takes weekdays out of the picture. So, you’re already seeing these newly opened clubs fill up only on Friday and Saturday nights, for a few hours. “It’s a business model where you see footfall on two days of the week, and pay rent, electricity, and salaries for seven days. How does that work?” asks Kadam.

Besides, by making the places exorbitant, you’re leaving out India’s largest patrons of F&B; young professionals aged between 25 and 35. Marcellus Baptista, a veteran Mumbai reporter who has been attending nearly every important party for the last three decades, also points out that these new high-end places are massive. Which means higher rents, and higher footfalls needed to break even. You can squeeze a little café into 400sqft, or a bar in 1,500, but you can’t do that with a fancy club.

Save the dance

But there might be hope yet. Places like the new Drop, and Old Wild West, offer a dance floor without the guest list, or the inhibitive pricing. In fact, Mihir Desai, the man behind Drop (which replaced Bandra’s Royalty), also runs BSE. And he’s bringing the cheap alcohol model here as well. Think beer at Rs90. “It works as a neighbourhood watering hole, and transforms into a club,” he says. Only, neighbourhood bars don’t have dress codes, ‘girls and couples only’ admission, and a cover charge on crowded nights.

Suhasini Mendosa, a well-known name on the party circuit back in the day, reckons the basics haven’t changed. “Mumbaikars still want to go out and party, and they want to dance,” she says. That’s hard to argue with, especially after the first two beers. So, the appeal of the dance floor is obvious.

Kadam reckons the only way to really revive nightclubs is with dedicated entertainment zones in non-residential areas like BKC or Ballard Estate, that can then have extended deadlines. But that’s a whole different story.

Source: Hindustan Times

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