Rishi Majumder does some cutting chai at Bharat Coffee House, once a haunt of ace theatrewallahs, now Kamathipura’s one-stop-shop

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

bharat coffee house

Ye zindagi ke mele,
Ye zindagi ke mele,
Duniya mein kam naa honge,
Afsos, hum naa honge…

This is what’s playing in Bharat Coffee House now. Movie: Mela; Music director: Naushad Ali; Singer: Mohammed Rafi; Lyricist: Shakel Badayuni; Year of release: 1948. Which was when Bharat Coffee House set up shop. The semi-circular cafe built on a corner marks the beginning of Pila Haus. Then, a hub for theatre folks, this café would burst intellectual debates and animated chats on the nuances of drama. Today, with Pila Haus a metaphor world over for ‘red light area’, those nuances go unnoticed. Local populi sip their ‘cutting’ casually, as the café’s primary customer base—prostitutes, pimps and johnnies—cut their deals. Sitting at the café’s far end (its choicest seat) one can observe life on three streets which converge to meet the Pila Haus lane. One also observes a red light on the traffic signal at the crossroads, symbolising a ‘no exit’, on the otherwise two-way street for its hapless residents. For women who’re too old to leave the flesh trade, or too young to be allowed to, Bharat Coffee House is their last stop for the day, every day, every year. Oh! One also observes the Pila Haus Police Chowki 100 feet away. No tragedy is replete sans irony.
Pyaar deewaana hota hai, Mastaana hota hai…
starts playing from Kati Patang, released, 1970. The end of the ’70s signed off the absolute conversion of Bharat Coffee House’s clientele. Besides the decrepit walls, the period motif on the building’s exterior and aged wooden tables and benches, the music—refusing to extend beyond the ’70s—remains the only living connection between the past and the present. “Har khushi se, har gham se begaana hota hai…” hums a man, at the next table, smiling at another across him. A conversation ensues over chai-samosa:
Man 1:
You liked? Rs 500.
Man 2:
I have only 200.
Man 1:
You can’t pay for me for Opera House if you want me to take you till Juhu.

Man 2: 300.
Man 1: (Points to our table and then his plate):
You can’t have Mutton Curry for the price of a samosa.
Five slot machines coloured yellow, blue and silver line one wall, with names like Super Bonus, Hast Rekha, City World and 7 Star. A man in a faded crème shirt strides in, confidently drunk, to a painted blue desk dispensing cheap slot tokens for believers in fate. He’s dark, reed thin and balding. His only distinguishing facial feature, is his moustache. Clipped, so there’s a half-inch gap between it and his nose; it stands out like a comical inverse to Hitler’s (and Chaplin’s) toothbrush.
“Kaanton se kheench ke ye aanchal, Tod ke bandhan baandhi paayal.”
1965, Guide. Three youngsters approach a woman sitting at a table, heavily made up. They appear to agree to what she says, but indicate by gesture that all three of them will be involved. She walks away. The man in crème staggers to the slot machines. He inserts a token.
“Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, Aaj phir marne ka iraada hai.”
He waits for the result. After a minute of silence, he goes to the next. Then the next. His speed of slot-machine coin dropping increases with the song’s tempo.
“Kal ke andheron se nikalke, Dekha hai
aankhen malte malte, Phool hi phool—zindagi bahaar hai, Tay kar liya aaj phir…”

Jackpot! ‘Super Bonus’ has dealt him a super bonus! He dances to the song’s refrain.
“I was an excellent dancer and singer,” a drunk and elated Farooq tells us later over coffee. Now he’s a car mechanic, peddling his services on the road. Having lost his wife and children, who’ve left him to go back to their village, he had today lost most of his weekly income—before making it up at the slots. “Par bhagwaan ne diya na?” He insists and launches into a mimic of Mukesh’s voice, drowning the current track. Slurring, he asks us for a singing assignment. Close to us sits a man marketing a woman who can do an Umraao Jaan, “Rekha or Priyanka – you choose.”

farooq, the winner...

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:

I saw Farooq around about a year after this article, near Metro Cinema. He was as drunk, and abusing and punching the air. Was late for something, so couldn’t catch up with him…


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