Girls are imported from the subcontinent to keep alive the mujra nightclubs in London
Ishara Bhasi in London investigates in the traditional dance of Lust: Mujra in India, Pakistan and abroad.
It was a night that London socialite Sonam Manchanda (name changed) wanted her guests to remember forever. What better than to have a Meena Kumari lookalike light up her wedding anniversary celebration in Pakeezah style? With this pretty image in mind, Manchanda set out to realise her novel idea-a mujra (a traditional form of Indian dance) party.
But several days of scouting for her dancers-in forbidden clubs with dubious customers in the underbelly of London-dashed her hopes and brought her back to reality. What she came upon were large numbers of vulgarly dressed Asian women offering titillating jerks to raunchy Bollywood numbers. There was neither musical tradition adhered to nor any classical dance steps to speak of. Disillusioned, Manchanda settled for a kathak performance from a reputed dance school for the anniversary soiree.
Manchanda may have spurned the mujra performers in disgust, but obviously these young dancing girls-mostly exports from India and Pakistan-attract a different kind of clientele. Besides performing at mujra clubs that dot the road in the Wembley area of west London and along Rumford Road in east London, the girls also dance at private parties at posh homes. Their popularity spreads by word of mouth. For the girls, the dance form is a means of livelihood but for those who run these clubs it is lucrative business. Says Imran Ali, who used to run such a club for years: “Mujras are big in Pakistan. When we realised that Asians here also wanted to go to mujra parties, we started getting girls from Pakistan and India. You can make a lot of money … there is a lot of demand.”
Girls from India and Pakistan, hoping for jobs, are brought to the UK on entertainment visas usually valid only for three months. Official documents show that the girls are dancers by profession. Sometimes a group of girls may be sighted at London’s townhalls where they also act in “dramas” of dubious taste. While some girls hail from places where mujras are traditionally danced, others take the flight to these clubs, operated by organised gangs, with a dream of making it big in the entertainment industry without comprehending what they are getting into. In Pakistan, where acting in films is not considered respectable, girls seeking a break in showbusiness perform in these clubs as a first step. Some actually get the break they are looking for. “The girl who performed a mujra at my wedding later became a pop star in Pakistan. They all want to make it big in show business,” says Ali, who decided to close shop because of frequent fights between gangsters at the parties. Soliciting customers is not unheard of at such venues. Ali is blunt about it: “They are not forced into prostitution, but if they want to no one stops them. It is their personal business.” Club owners reportedly prefer girls with a mujra background as they don’t usually interfere with their business or demand more money.
THE VICIOUS RACKET
MODUS OPERANDI: Girls from India and Pakistan are brought to the United Kingdom on short-term entertainment or work visas. The official documents show that these girls are dancers by profession.
ORGANISED CRIME: Many of the mujra clubs are operated by organised Asian gangs, adding to the law and order problems in UK.
IMBALANCE OF TRADE: The club owners take 70 per cent of the money that is earned. The rest is shared between the dancers and the band that usually plays raunchy Bollywood “item” numbers.
CAREER DREAMS: Many girls travel to the UK to get a foothold in showbusiness. They consider the mujra clubs as the first step in their careers. Some of the mujra performers have actually got the breaks they were looking for and have ventured into music and films.
Mujra clubs have thrived in London, Bradford and Birmingham for several years but only came into the limelight with the discovery of businessman Tahir Butt’s body in his burnt-out Mitsubishi Pajero in March 1999. At first it was thought his murder was linked to a drug war, but a probe revealed a mujra connection.
According to Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of Specialist Crime Operations at the Metropolitan Police, the growth in Asian prostitution has been part of a general expansion of the sex trade in London. The city, he says, was seeing a significant rise in the number of saunas and brothels partly in response to a decline in street prostitution. Though a large chunk of the women involved comes from eastern Europe, the police are becoming aware of prostitution rackets focused on music groups linked to the Indian and Pakistani film businesses, he says.
In the last few years, London has witnessed a spurt in mujra clubs. Sporting eyecatching names the clubs’ signboards, however, say nothing more. Some just have a number on a banner at the entrance. While entry into most of the clubs is free, a few places charge up to £5 (Rs 370) per head. Most of these entertainment clubs have valid licences so they are legal but they conduct mujra parties under cover.
Young, garishly dressed women sit along the stairs of the clubs smiling and inviting men in. Inside is a large hall with walls of mirror and a raised platform from where the band plays Bollywood songs. A bar in a corner is perpetually packed with merry makers. Men in various state of drunkenness are entertained by girls with heavily made-up faces, false eyelashes, reddened cheeks and long braids. Very 1960s in their looks and dressed in tight cholis and flowing pink ghaghras, they flirt with the customers. The performance reaches a peak when the girls leap about to the Maar dala number from Devdas, then lie flat on the floor to be showered by £10 notes.
In one night, if the business is brisk, a club makes over £29,000, which is usually split in the ratio of 70:30 between the club owner and the performing girls and the band. The clubs have their own classification. Some places are run by women: at one, the owner is a tawny-eyed tigress very protective of her place. She prefers to keep girls from India. Another club-with its bare, whitewashed hall and chairs pushed along the perimeter, a bar, a band and two to three heavily made up girls-draws customers from the working class. Taxidrivers and the like shower coins rather than pound notes. During sessions here, bouncers ensure men don’t get too close to the girls. These girls are also much in demand at private parties. For a three-hour performance with a band and up to three girls, a promoter charges about £700 (Rs 52,000). This is, of course, negotiable, like everything else.
Yasmin Khan, who is researching for a play she is making on mujra clubs sheds some light on how the trade began in the UK. “I used to work for the youth and I often came across disturbed and distressed girls who ran away from homes with their boyfriends only to be forced to perform the mujra in dubious places. About a decade ago, mujra dancers were homeless English or Asian girls,” she says. Knowing how to dance was not a requirement. The girls were put in small rooms, provided food and asked to perform in the evenings. “But the British girls knew they could demand basic living conditions, and soon left,” says Khan, while the Asian girls remained.
Club owners soon realised that bringing in girls from the subcontinent was more lucrative as they would be dependent on them and would not cause much trouble. In most clubs, girls end up living in dingy rooms which makes it easy for them to “entertain” clients in private. Most clubs thrive on conducting private shows where clients can choose a girl for the night. “There are also girls who are wannabe actors or models who perform the mujra when they are in need of cash,” reveals a producer on condition of anonymity. “They earn more in a night dancing the mujra and later offering sexual services than they would in a week on stage,” he adds.
In recent times, the British missions in the subcontinent have become stricter about issuing visas. In Pakistan, the British High Commission has made it mandatory for club owners to prove that the girls are dancers and performers. This means that mujra clubs in the UK may flourish, but hiring girls from the subcontinent may no longer be as risk-free as it has been till now. (published in digitaltoday, AUGUST 25, 2003)
(Unrelated photo used for illustration.)
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