Are we human or are we dancer?
Mumtaz has grown up in a Muslim community in Uttar Pradesh with her loving mother and father. Then, in 1985, communal rioters burn her entire neighborhood, killing many, including her parents.
With no home left, Mumtaz and her uncle Irfan join a crowded train heading off on a 900 mile journey from Sitapur to Bombay. Reluctant to abandon her parents and all that she had known, Mumtaz is the last to board, despite her uncle’s yelling at her. But she eventually relents. Let me see where life’s going to take me, she thinks.
Well…out of the fire and…I guess into the frying pan. This is going to be a bit of a rough one.
Irfan and Mumtaz arrive in Bombay City and make their way to a Muslim neighborhood. They meet an acquaintance named Iqbal, who helps them find a home. Irfan says that his belief in Iqbal is why they came to Bombay, but Iqbal responds that that Irfan should not believe anyone in Bombay. He is helping them out of friendship, but everything has a price.
Iqbal takes Irfan and Mumtaz to the shanty that will be their new home. Irfan asks him if he can get some work, but Iqbal says that it will take some time. For Mumtaz, though, it may be easier, if they are willing to get it. The job is as a dancer at a beer bar, and Iqbal knows the boss. Mumtaz is unsure about this, but what can she do? And anyways, Iqbal is talking to Irfan about this, not to her.
That night, they go to Chandni Bar and sit at a table while waiting to see the boss. There they observe the general set up. Men sit at tables drinking beer and watching a group of young women dancing on a stage at the end of the room. When a man catches the attention of one of the dancers, she goes over to him, he gives her money, and she goes back to the stage. It is hardly a strip club, but it is still pretty seedy.
Eventually, Iqbal takes them to the office to talk to Anna, the boss. Anna is not particularly impressed one way or another, but he asks whether Mumtaz can dance. She is silent, but Irfan and Iqbal assure Anna that she can. Irfan even says that she knows film dance. Anna says that Mumtaz can start working the next day.
Back at their shanty the next day, Irfan brings Mumtaz the clothes that she will wear at the bar. Mumtaz tells him that she will not go there. These are the first words that she has spoken on screen since seeing her parents die. Irfan asks why, as if there are not several obvious reasons. She says that she does not like the place and do not know what sort of people go there. He tells her that he also dislikes, but that they have no other options. They need money to eat and to continue living in this shanty. She just needs to work there for a few days. After that, he will surely find a job and then she can quit.
So that is that. Just a few days.
Mumtaz returns to the bar and a man named Pasha sends her to the back room where other dancing girls are waiting. Pasha does not even introduce her to the others by name, just calling her Number 16 and telling her to go to the stage when called. She sits down nervously among her new colleagues, who laugh at her awkwardness. They teasingly try to guess why she has come to work here, not even coming close to the real reason. It is not long before Pasha comes back, ordering her and five others to the stage. That is it. No orientation, no training, and barely any instructions. Work has started.
A visibly uncomfortable Mumtaz does not even leave the backroom initially; Pasha has to yell at her to come out. She slowly makes her way to the stage and stands in the back, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, even though she is taller than most of the others. One of the other dancers nudges her forward and she kind of shuffles back and forth. She is dead-eyed and miserable. And she gets no money from the customers.
After Mumtaz’s session on stage, Anna scolds Iqbal for bringing her to his bar. Iqbal gives the excuse that she is new, and that it will take a day or two for her to figure out how to entice customers. Of course, a day or two and Mumtaz intends to be gone. Anna is unmoved, but a dancer named Deepa tells him that she will train Mumtaz as she had for other dancers. Deepa tells Mumtaz to arrive an hour early.
Iqbal and Mumtaz go home with Deepa in her husband’s autorickshaw. Deepa tells Mumtaz that she has been married to Gokul for four years, and has been enduring him since then. Gokul seems to take it as a joke, but stops at a seemingly random part of the city. He had made arrangements for Deepa to meet with a man, but did not tell her beforehand. Deepa protests, especially as she is two months pregnant and they had already aborted three times. Gokul tells her that they can have children once they have money. Until then, she has to go be with this man. Deepa holds back tears, puts on a smile, and gets into the other man’s car. After they drive off, Gokul takes Irfan and Mumtaz home.
Once again, Mumtaz tells her uncle that she will not be going to the bar. He once again asks her what she dislikes. The first thing that she says is Deepa mistreatment. Irfan says that what happened is none of their concern, but merely a private matter between Deepa and her husband. He asserts that there is nothing wrong with her dancing in a beer bar. After all, he is there to keep watch. She tells him that she feels too shy to dance up there, but he says that top heroes and heroines dance like that in films. And anyways, she should count herself lucky to have gotten a job after only a few days in Bombay. She quietly says that they would never have had to come to Bombay had she truly been lucky.
Well, Mumtaz does go back to the bar, and meets with Deepa. It is unclear whether they talked about what happened with Gokul, but it is implied not, particularly since other dancers are there. In any case, Deepa and others show her the ropes. Many different types of men show up at the bar. A dancer simply needs to recognize a customer and flatter him. And by recognize, Deepa means figure out who has the most money. It is not the most novel idea, but it is what they do. The others provide their own tips on how to extract the most money in a night. Mumtaz wonders if these tactics will cause trouble. Deepa tells her to let any fool act romantic if he wants, as long as she gets his money. Also, she is never to tell customers her real name; just give them any name.
Deepa has Mumtaz get on the stage with her. Mumtaz admits that she does not know how to dance, but Deepa says that none of them do. It is all about styles and poses; shaking, stepping, spinning, and making eye contact with a customer who looks like he has the most money. And she should not put too much effort for those who look like they have less money. So, they do a trial run and Mumtaz is okay, though still shy, which amuses the other women. The lesson ends shortly after that, as it is almost time for the customers to arrive. The women go to the backroom and Deepa adjusts Mumtaz’s outfit to make it more revealing.
As the women are getting ready, they start chatting about customers and sex. One of them, Shabboo, is celebrating her birthday that Sunday. Mumtaz wishes her a happy birthday, and the others laugh at her; this is Shabboo’s third birthday this year. Deepa says that Mumtaz will be celebrating four birthdays in a year soon enough. Then Pasha comes in and orders four women to the stage, including Mumtaz. She is apprehensive, but she goes with them.
Mumtaz is still a little stiff when she dances, but at least she is sort of dancing this time. And it is enough for a customer to notice her and offer her money, though Deepa has to tell her to go over to him. And…I don’t know how much money he actually gives her, but it is a lot of bills. She goes back to the stage and Deepa tells her to put the cash into the box with her number in it. Another customer flashes some cash at her and Deepa tells her to go, but to be careful with him. Mumtaz goes over to him and collects the money, though, he…um…playfully…holds onto the last set of the bills.
After they are done, the women go outside. One of them, Pushpa, is already outside, flirting with a boy named Azhar. Deepa and another dancer named Rani express their dislike of him, telling Mumtaz that Pushpa gives him all of the money that she earns, as if he were her husband. He claims to be using the money to start a business with her, and Mumtaz says that maybe he is telling the truth. Foolish. The dancers are supposed to bilk men out of their money, not the other way around. Deepa tells her that once a beer bar dancer thinks of marriage, she is finished.
Speaking of marriage, Mumtaz and Irfan leave with Deepa in Gokul’s autorickshaw again. Gokul, in high spirits, tells them about a man and a woman who tried to sell a 12-year-old girl to the boss of another bar. It is unclear whether they succeeded, but Gokul suspects that they were lying about being her helpless parents and had actually kidnapped her. He acts as if this story were hilarious, but the others are not laughing.
Time passes. Irfan has been unable to find work, so Mumtaz continues to work at the bar. The days become the same. The nights become the same. Mumtaz gradually changes. She is not necessarily happier, but she becomes more comfortable with her job, dancing in a lively manner with a big smile on her face. Her success has made Irfan feel useless; he eventually stopped even trying to look for work.
One night, a drunk Irfan goes over to Mumtaz as she is trying to sleep and assaults her. It is not shown, but it is pretty obvious that he rapes her. He then leaves her, alone and traumatized.
At the bar, a tearful Mumtaz tells the other dancers. Deepa tries to console her, but eventually loses patience. All of the women here are struggling with trauma. Deepa points to a woman named Meena, who herself seems to be on the verge of crying. Meena’s parents sent her to the bar and demanded that she send them money regularly. Another dancer named Farida had married a man who ended up pimping her out before running off to Dubai. And then Deepa tells it plainly: her husband Gokul is her pimp as well. Everyone here, Deepa says, is miserable, exploited by cruel men who take advantage of their helplessness. The only thing that the women can do to survive is take advantage of these men’s wallets. This does not really make Mumtaz feel better. If anything, it makes all of them feel worse.
If Mumtaz is the broken princess of this story, then it is time to meet the prince. Brother Pothia is a gangster who works for a man named Habib, and his introduction is killing a man in the middle of the day in front of dozens of witnesses, and then speeding off in a car with his buddy Suresh.
Pothia and Suresh arrive at Chandni Bar at night, greeting Anna outside. Pothia takes the necklace that Anna’s friend is wearing and goes inside to meet other members of his gang. Apparently, Anna has been paying the gang protection money, though he says that business has been rather slow recently. Pothia does not care; he just wants the payment.
Pothia and Suresh meet three other men and they get to chatting. Pothia looks at the dancers on the stage and is unimpressed, so he goes to the backroom. He flirts with Shabboo, who flirts back. He tries flirting with Farida, though she is more annoyed. He goes back to Shabboo before noticing Mumtaz. He considers approaching Mumtaz when Shabboo takes him back to the main room…and then to somewhere with a bedroom where they have sex while he flings money at her.
Mumtaz meets Deepa outside in the middle of the day. She tells Deepa that she does not want to live with her uncle anymore. Deepa asks why, as if what he had done to her before were not enough. Deepa warns her that there are other men out there as bad as Irfan, and that she will be an easy target for them if they learn that she lives alone. Mumtaz asks if Deepa can take her in, but Deepa says that Gokul would…she stops herself before saying it, but Mumtaz gets the picture. Deepa tells Mumtaz to make herself strong, for no one here will support her. Until then, she will have to stay with her uncle.
Elsewhere, Pothia meets with his boss Habib and a local politician named Uma. Habib is happy about his murder of that guy from before. Unfortunately, Uma notes that there have been complaints about other incidents involving Pothia’s hooligan tactics, but Pothia brushes these aside. Anyways, Habib had set up “encounters” between police and some former underlings who had tried to break out on their own. Basically, an “encounter” is an extra-judicial killing by police or armed forces against people whom they officially deem to be suspects. These “encounters” have freed up some territory and Habib has tasked Pothia with running it. He must do so calmly and cleverly, though, as this is Uma’s constituency, and they have plans.
One night, the police raid the Chandni Bar. Everyone inside gets forcefully arrested: dancers, other employees, patrons. They all go to the station and have to give their names one by one. Mumtaz goes second, but is too frightened and ashamed to talk to Officer Sheikh, so Deepa helps her out. They both go sit on a bench and observe as Sheikh takes the names of some of the customers. He knocks around a trio of college students and then a pair of professors from…Pune? That is like 90 miles away. Then he talks to a couple of businessmen and threatens to call their wives until they ask to talk with him privately. Deepa predicts that those two will bribe their way out of this. She sees Mumtaz quietly freaking out and tells her that this is a normal occurrence, probably due to Anna failing to pay the bribe on time. She tells Mumtaz that Anna will arrive soon enough and bail them out, which he does.
This is another change in Mumtaz’s life. Before tonight, she had never been in a police station. She and her old community would look down on anyone who had the police come to their home. And now she herself got arrested. At least, with Deepa’s help, she was able to keep from crying.
In fact, all of the women help her. Yes, they bicker and tease, but she feels safe with them; certainly safer than when she is home with her uncle. She looks forward to the being at the bar. Maybe not so much interacting with the customers, but the camaraderie that she has with her fellow dancers, and even other employees like Pasha. She also gets more hardened and cynical towards life and particularly the customers. Yet, she is at ease with her friends. While there are still small differences between her and the others, she is one of them; joking and laughing along with them instead of merely being the object of ridicule. She also hangs out with them outside of the bar. It is a much better alternative to staying with her uncle, and she gets to interact with them without worrying about customers.
Back at the bar, Pothia is looking at Mumtaz. She is too focused on a customer at another table to notice. Shabboo does notice, though, and tries to redirect Pothia’s attentions back to her. It does not work. Pothia gets worked up, pushes Shabboo aside, and assaults the other customer. The dancers go to the backroom, waiting for the drama to settle down. This is not the first time that Pothia has caused trouble. Pothia enters and sits next to Mumtaz. She pretends to be too busy applying lipstick to notice him, but it is clear that she is unsettled. Pothia takes her lipstick and asks her if she will sleep with him. Her answer is to stand up and walk out.
Iqbal and Irfan find out and pester her about turning down Pothia. Iqbal tells her that he is a dangerous man to cross. If he is angry enough, then she will be out of a job and unable to find any job afterwards. Irfan tells her that they will starve if she cannot work; that the alternative will be worse. He then tries to assert his authority as her uncle. She glares at him in response, but quickly relents.
So Mumtaz goes to have sex with Pothia, but her stillness unnerves him so much that he is no longer in the mood. He gives her some money anyways and angrily tells her to go. She takes the money, but then puts it back. Pothia offers her more money, but she does not respond, looking away from him and down at the floor. Pothia makes her sit on the bed and not-at-all-romantically declares his love for her. He asks her about her past, and learns that her uncle had brought her to the bar. He asks whether she had ever had sex with anyone. She starts to cry. Pothia does not understand at first, but he does soon enough. The prince can win the princess, but first he will have to slay Irfan the dragon.
So…this movie…is kind of a bummer.
The world depicted in Chandni Bar is a cruel one, full of parasites and suckers, where the only way for those at the bottom to get anywhere is to cheat each other and anyone else without getting caught. The best that prey can hope to do is negotiate with predators for temporary mercy.
Mumtaz is hardly a rebel striking out against an unjust world. None of the characters are. Mumtaz is someone who tries to push against fate as much as possible, compromising on her terms until she has no terms left. She never stops trying to carve out areas of agency for herself, even if it is only through small moments of inaction in response to commands. That inaction may come from a place of pride or terror. Or both. Mumtaz does what she can to salvage what is left of her dignity and sanity in a world that deems her unworthy of either. She tries to build a life for herself and for those whom she loves, but has to constantly rebuild after the world takes more and more from her. Ultimately, though, she knows that she does not really have a choice in her life; that she is trapped. Men make decisions for her, rarely even consulting her and never seriously. So, after expressing her displeasure at the inevitable, she gives in. Let me see where life’s going to take me, she says to herself, knowing that it is probably going to take her somewhere bad. In a life without agency, she has found a little bit for herself. It is nowhere near enough, but it will have to be enough.
The men of the neighborhood jockey for power, over both each other and the women. And those like Irfan, who have no power in the world of men, take it out on the women in their lives. The poor women have to navigate this world of predatory men, taking what they can when they can while either escaping or best enduring the wrath of men. With…maybe one or two exceptions, all of the men whom they see are shady and creepy to some degree, so the women have to rely on themselves and each other.
Initially turning her nose up at the dancing girls, Mumtaz gradually finds them as her only solace. It is…perhaps a flaw in the movie or a deliberate choice that Mumtaz rarely interacts with other women aside from the Chandni Bar dancers on screen. It could be because other women avoid her. Or almost all of those scenes got cut. I cannot say for certain. In any case, Bombay may be big, but Mumtaz’s world is small, sometimes claustrophobically so.
Mumtaz may never truly enjoy her work at the bar, but she grows fond of her fellow dancers. Even when her circumstances…uh…change, she remains close to them for a while. They may be professional rivals at times, but they are friends always. They may not necessarily be able to rely on each other or protect each other, but they can confide in each other. Being with them is the few times where she can find a piece of happiness.
As the years go by, things change. Some new girls arrive and others leave. Dancing at a beer bar is only for the young. And few other women there have chosen that life. It was just a means to cope, to adapt so that they do not immediately perish. So, just like Mumtaz, they all try to find their way out of that world before they are pushed out. Some escape alive. Others meet fatal ends. As for Mumtaz, she has her own story. She keeps in touch with her friends when she can, but it can become difficult.
It would have been fairly easy to make a standard inspiring Bollywood movie about a woman thrust into an uncaring world who dares to care, where her traumatic experiences either turn into some wizened kick-ass heroine or get rewarded by a heroic do-gooder. But this is not that. It is certainly not a Bollywood masala piece; all of the song and dance numbers are the dancers dancing on the bar stage. It starts with deadly arson and, while it is sympathetic to the characters, it remains bleak and grim. Is it misery porn? Maybe a bit. This is certainly not the easiest movie to watch. I cannot guarantee a good time. But it is a good movie.
WTF ASIA 136: White Sun (Nepal: 2016, approx. 88 minutes)
WTF ASIA 137: Khamosh Pani (Pakistan: 2003, approx. 91-97 minutes)