SONIA FALEIRO'S book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars, a non-fictional narrative based on five years of research, won several awards including the Economist 2011 Book of the Year and the Guardian 2011 Book of the Year.
1. Leela, your book’s heroine, says with brilliant self-assurance that it’s not she who dances for customers but the customers who dance for her — throwing money for false smiles. Can you tell us something about the power equations at play here?
Technically, Leela is right. Customers can get besotted with a bar dancer and spend a lot of money on her. But these obsessions can be short-lived — a customer’s attention and money are quickly diverted elsewhere, towards another young woman. And although the primary reason men even enter the bar is to watch the women dance, it’s extraordinary how little the dancers make compared to the bar owner. The dance bars exist because of them but they’re definitely placed towards the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy.
2. Do you find it ironical that the bar girls, who sell a provocative dance to a male gaze, find in their job liberation from fathers, husbands, and other patriarchal control?
Of course. It’s also a tragic irony that the young women who enter the dance bars to escape abusive situations often end up with abusive partners. It’s another example of their marginalisation and runs completely contrary to the level-headedness with which many of them approach other aspects of their life.
3. Your book is non-judgmental, but how do you feel about the dancers being allowed to work again? Do you think they would have been better off finding other, ‘respectable’ jobs?
Who gets to define a ‘respectable’ job? How someone supports himself or herself is no one’s business as long as they aren’t breaking the law or causing harm to another person. The Court’s decision, while belated, was right and just and I look forward to the restoration of Mumbai’s dance bar culture. It doesn’t matter that some of us don’t like what bar dancers do. What matters is that the dancers perform willingly, that they aren’t coerced into the profession, and that they’re treated with fairness, dignity and respect.
4. Bar dancers are always depicted as being better off than ordinary sex workers. Do they in real life actually enjoy this slightly exalted status, like the tawaifs of yore?
They certainly consider themselves “better” than sex workers, and they are often better off. Most bar dancers earn enough money from bar dancing to support themselves; they don’t have to sleep with customers for money. Sex workers of course do just that. And bar dancers have greater acceptance with their communities. Even back home in their village bar dancing is seen as a huge step up for these young women whose caste-based profession involves offering some form of entertainment — often just a euphemism for sex work.
5. Bar dancers are often described as ‘sassy’ and ‘gutsy’. Has it helped them to avoid being exploited?
They are aware of their rights. But they are also aware that they are dispensable. There are many more poor, illiterate, and marginalised women in Mumbai than there are jobs. A bar dancer knew then (before the ban), as she must surely know now, that unless she accepts what she’s offered she will be quickly replaced. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t stand up for herself, be part of a functional union, or be treated less than a worker in any other profession.