Sunday Guardian: A Walk Down Bombay’s Oldest Pleasure District

Conjuring up images of sensual glances, whispered transactions and gin-soaked breath in djinn-soaked rooms, Falkland Road has captured the curious-from-a-distance imagination of Bombay’s citizens for over a century. Located in Kamathipura — the red light district of the city — the infamous street paints a picture of young, garishly dressed girls in hanging cages (or pinjras), squalid brothels, drunken (read: sleazy) men and surly madams defending their underage whores from the eyes and lathis of the law. Nestling in the heart of the metropolis, Falkland Road is, for many, a symbol of the city’s underbelly: full of depravity, loose morals, and the one thing ‘Indian Culture’ well and truly shudders at: sex.

Lights.

Camera.

Action.

Walking through an arched doorway under a hand-painted poster for the nineties Hindi film Gundaraj, the interiors of New Roshan cinema hall are covered in intricate mosaic, with a monochrome chessboard pattern forming the lobby’s floor. A chalkboard displaying showtimes (10, 12, 3, 6, 9) and a counter piled high with fried snacks and locally branded ‘cold drinks’, speaks of a movie-going culture that is alien for middle class Bombay. In the centre of the lobby stands a weight machine sporting flashing, kaleidoscopic colours and a message that reads, ‘Do you weigh what you should?’ There’s no sign of red lipstick or red lights — just a long line of men queuing up for the matinee, and a clanging bell signalling the show is about to begin.

‘Yahaan sab category ke log aate hain. Peenay vaale, sharabi, UP states se.’ Assad (name changed) is New Roshan’s owner and otherwise-professioned gangster Iqbal Mirchi’s ‘manager’. In his words: ‘Main sab dekhta hoon’. And on a street bursting to the corners with vibrant colours, diverse trades, and curious visitors, a pair of keen eyes that see everything does not go amiss. Lined with photo studios where customers can have their pictures taken against an array of painted scenic backdrops, ghoda gadis ready to be adorned for their daily excursions to South Bombay’s seafront Marine Drive, and a row of Chinese dentists displaying gold teeth in their clinic windows, this street has a lot more on offer than squalor and sex — if only people stopped to look. And ‘looking’ is, in fact, crucial to understanding what the road means to many. Home to eight functioning movie theatres — and at least another six that recently closed down – Falkland Road can be read analogously with the complex and ongoing love affair between Bombay and her most ubiquitous industry — cinema.

In the late 1800s, Kamathipura was developed as an entertainment district comprising a series of theatres, or playhouses, which featured both Parsi productions and Marathi Tamashas. These were interactive, lively events where audiences would show appreciation with loud cheers, and dissatisfaction by throwing food or their hats at the actors. Later, as moving pictures replaced live performances, the spaces for entertainment remained largely the same.

The manager of Alfred cinema dreamily explains how in its heyday, ‘Stage pe asli ghode bhi laate the. Sab raja-maharaja ki baat.’ While the days of real horses on stage are long gone — though the occasional ghoda from the tourist carriage may stick its curious head inside — Alfred, like many other halls in the area, still has a stage behind its screen. In fact, when movies were first shown, there would be a short theatre performance alongside to assure audiences they were getting their money’s worth. ‘Movie-theatres’ didn’t get their names for nothing. Today, with the advent of multiplex cinema halls, easy Internet access and satellite TV (says Alfred’s manager, ‘UFO ke upar distribute karte hai’) the thriving cinema culture of Falkland Road may be on its last legs. But those still standing know that it isn’t curtain call just yet.

The bespectacled accounts keeper of Royal cinema hall — designed with an open courtyard and a large iron gate (which, like others on the street, is inexplicably but tightly locked during a movie) – explains how movie theatres are ranked: ‘A Grade is air-conditioning, B Grade is non-AC, C Grade is like ours, and D grade are tambu [or roaming cinemas].’ ‘Ours’ or Falkland Road’s C-grade halls (with two B- and one A-grade exceptions), price tickets at Rs. 15 for stalls and Rs. 20 for the balcony/dress circle — a striking contrast to the several hundred one shells out for a single multiplex experience.

To avoid overlaps within the set number of affordable films that play on loop across the street, each theatre specialises in a genre: Royal’s speciality is action movies (‘if you show chaaku-pistol, it will run house full’), Nishat shows largely Bhojpuri movies, and so on. All halls keep tabs on the ‘opposition’, and Royal’s meticulously maintained, handwritten accounts book — the size of a small floor stool — has daily records of the other theatres, the movies playing, and the number of attendees. Through this mutually adopted system, there is a variety of cinema, all on the same street. However, none of the logs mention Silver – the ‘last number theatre’, says Assad. When asked why, Royal’s manager says, distaste creeping into his voice, ‘In Silver, only all sexy pictures are running. They are not opposition.’ C-Grade cinemas have standards, too.

Many of Bombay’s cinema-goers, for whom the comforts of plush seats, caramel popcorn and iced drinks are a regular part of the ‘movie experience’, remain oblivious to this animated world of cinema so different from their own. And yet, peering into an afternoon show inside Nishat’s darkened hall, the scene of a captivated sometimes-laughing-sometimes-crying audience illuminated by the running picture looks all too familiar, even to those who frequent an Inox. For the duration of the movie, perhaps, the two worlds aren’t so far apart.

But filmy-shilmy halls aside, the bustling vibrancy of Falkland Road’s daytime takes on a very different hue at dusk. The lights glow dimmer, the steel manufacturers and restaurants close up shop, and for the first time we can see what was curiously missing throughout the day — women. For, despite its multiplicity of trades and busy cinema halls, the unmentionable ‘something’ of the area still means that even in the day-time, Falkland Road is not a reputable area; not where ‘decent women’ go.

As the sun sets, the vibrant saris that were hung out to dry under the day’s heat from every tiny window are now worn by their owners, Kamathipura’s sex workers. Contrary to the rehab-needing, morals-lacking victim so often chosen to represent the face of the sex workers’ movement, speaking with the women who inhabit and make their livelihoods on this road, the reality is starkly different. Muslim-Maharashtrian sex worker Sakina says, ‘AIDS reduced the customers, not the women. Women use a condom and carry on the work…humko sharam nahin aata hai.’ The women of Falkland Road do not feel shame. And why should they? Sex. Cinema. It’s all for pleasure, isn’t it?

The notion of sex being pleasurable may seem obvious, but for many has been carefully buried under a public and religious morality that sees female chastity as virtuous and sexuality as profane. But the association of sex with cinema wasn’t always an onscreen matter of obscenity to be disputed by the censor board. Over the last century, here on Falkland Road they have shared the same physical space of entertainment, of pleasure. As Alfred’s manager aptly declares, this is a ‘time pass ka jaga’. In fact, today the most well-known brothel in the area, Pila House, is the hybridisation of its original word: playhouse. The development of Kamathipura’s sex industry was fostered within a culture of entertainment that was interactive rather than voyeuristic, mirroring the boisterous engagement that theatrical productions once demanded. Their strategic placement together within an area distinct from the rest of Bombay was because entertainers — both prostitutes and actors — were viewed with disdain. Today, only one of these professions has won approval from the city’s moral gatekeepers.

But now things are changing and Falkland Road is running its final show reels. Situated in a prime property location due for redevelopment, the thriving entertainment locality to which law enforcers once turned a blind eye is now becoming a target of regular raids and ‘rescue’ missions (with few genuine rehabilitation schemes), looking to turn brothels into office space, while simultaneously squeezing out movie theatres with a soaring entertainment tax. As big businesses come in to take over small cinemas and a trade that for many is too dirty for our shining metropolis, the next decade will leave little of today’s Falkland Road behind. But in the brief interlude before highrises replace brothels and carefully hand-painted film posters are relegated to the dustbins of history, the show, in fact, continues to go on.

This piece was originally published under the title ‘A Walk Down Mumbai’s Pleasure District’ in The Sunday Guardian on 19 October 2013

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