Outside da Club

A night out with Delhi’s bouncers

Guests being frisked before entering Kitty Su, a recently opened "exclusive" nightclub at The Lalit New Delhi. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRES IMAGES
01 January, 2012

IT WAS THE SECOND WEDNESDAY in October, and Jitender Chaudhury was at his post: standing in the plush lobby of The Lalit New Delhi, a luxury hotel just off Connaught Place. Chaudhury was positioned across from the wall of glass doors common to the entrance of nearly every five-star hotel; over his shoulder, on a wall just above the concierge desk, hung a large painting by MF Husain. To his right, a short flight of stairs led down into Kitty Su, the hotel’s recently inaugurated “exclusive” nightclub—whose exclusivity, if you will, Chaudhury was being paid to protect.

On this particular evening, the club—which ordinarily opens its doors only on weekends—was playing host to an invitation-only private event, the final after-party of Delhi Fashion Week, hosted by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). For the first hour or so, beginning at 11 pm, the guests had trickled past in ones and twos; the club, whose gala opening night in August (or so I was told) played host to 1,200 revelers, was still less than half-filled to capacity. But now the crowd waiting to be granted passage through the velvet ropes had begun to swell, and Chaudhury and his fellow bouncers faced a minor but pressing dilemma: they had run out of those paper wristbands that mark each guest with the approval of the gatekeepers.

As a little crowd of restless fashionistas filled up a kind of holding area—delineated by the usual plush ropes and gold-coloured waist-high poles—where they were to wait for their wristbands, Chaudhury stood patiently with another bouncer named Sharad, who had the strong-jawed, pencil-mustached look of a wavy-haired South Indian film star. Together they were to ensure that nobody tried to sneak down the stairs.

Chaudhury, a 26-year-old from Ghaziabad whose friends call him Jeetu, resembles a tall and toned cartoon bear. He has sunken, sparkly eyes, heavy cheeks and thin lips that emerge after a prolonged gap under a short nose. His black hair is neatly parted from the left to right. About six feet tall, he stood with his left hand clutching his right wrist near the buckle of his belt, his 17-inch biceps stretched across his barrel chest. He was dressed in polished black leather shoes, a black leather belt on his black trousers and a black golf-shirt—which, on the back as well as on the front, screamed ‘Kitty Su’ in bright red cursive letters.

The crowd of about 30 that had amassed in the previous five minutes exhibited a rather dramatic contrast in sartorial sensibility, which one might uncharitably call an aesthetic of attention-seeking: they were wearing shorts, Jodhpurs, hats, bandanas, retro sunglasses inside at night, polka-dotted bow-ties in bright and vivid colours and exuding class, sophistication, bling and glamour. Models wore body-hugging clothes; men walked hand-in-hand; men walked with two or more ladies in hand. There was confusion, complaints, cheer and chaos.

At around this point, a tall dark-skinned man wearing a grey suit and an ascot walked up to the entrance, accompanied by a blonde woman in a short dress and stiletto heels and exuding a sense of considerable wealth—not the kind typically on display among Delhi’s nouveaux riches, but something redolent of a faded era of  Indian royalty. Jeetu, however, halted him at the gate. Unfazed—and almost without even acknowledging Jeetu’s rather large presence—the man skipped over the rope and motioned to his female friend to do the same. Jeetu stopped her as she lifted one leg, and the man told him, curtly, to take his hands off. The brief moment of tension came to a quick resolution when Jeetu glanced towards his boss, who indicated that this gate-crasher was in fact a VIP member of the club, whose status transcended even an “invitation-only” event. The rope was unhooked, and the VIP and his lady sauntered down the stairs.

In a society where it now seems commonplace that every conversation should open with one party flaunting their influence, bouncers like Jeetu straddle an awkward line: such transactions invariably revolve, like so much else these days, around status. And at places as upscale as Kitty Su and as downscale as local bars and clubs in Delhi markets, the bouncer is supposed to be an arbiter of status without possessing it, passing judgment on the status of those who would otherwise (and often still do) regard him with unvarnished condescension.

As the assembled members of the capital’s party elite milled about inside the velvet-roped pen awaiting the wristband re-up, it was easy to imagine that they weren’t used to waiting, and especially not at the whim of a country boy making a lowly R10,000 or R12,000 a month. With a few rare exceptions, the crowd on this particular evening was a polite one: the worst thing I heard all night was when a fashionable white man, angry that his friend’s son couldn’t get into the party, called the general manager of the FDCI “a dick” before storming off. By the standards of what Jeetu and the others are used to, this was practically gracious—and whatever the verbal abuse, the first rule of bouncing seems to involve standing there silently with a poker face. The second rule, you might say, is that you shouldn’t notice the bouncer until you do something you shouldn’t: he’s a barrier you’ve got to cross to get into the club, and if you behave yourself, he won’t be dragging you out by your collar later on in the night.

UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES—apart from swanky invitation-only soirees—the main job of a bouncer involves “screening” guests at the entrance, whether in the interest of maintaining a certain air of exclusivity or simply keeping “unruly” elements from causing trouble inside. As for what criteria determine who gets in and who gets blocked, all the bouncers I spoke to used almost exactly the same phrase: guests must have a “decent profile”.

“Profile” is the industry jargon for the screening process—though nobody could tell me with certainty what made a “decent” profile and what didn’t. On a previous evening at Kitty Su, the week before the fashion week party, I had arrived wearing old, faded jeans, a grey shirt and loafers without socks. By Delhi’s glam standards, I was dressed in rags, and I asked the bouncers if they would have let me in. Thakur Joginder Singh, the head security officer or top bouncer for Kitty Su, let out a mildly uncomfortable chuckle. “Arre sir. Of course.”

I tried to argue that I was clearly underdressed for the occasion: how had he determined that I possessed the requisite “profile”? But the process at work—and the complicated business of determining who has status and who lacks it—clearly goes beyond the clothes on your back. Most bouncers I spoke with tossed around words like educated, presentable, sober, shehar ka (urban) and baat cheet mein sahi ho (decent to talk to). As a rule, women are rarely stopped from entering, unless they seem to be prostitutes. (“We can see who’s a call girl—we recognise them,” one bouncer in Vasant Kunj told me when I asked how he knew.) Groups of men without any women are always a red flag, though an unruly bunch of fellows can’t guarantee their entrance merely by having female companions.

The most precise description—if that’s the right word—of the ‘profile’ came from Joginder at Kitty Su. “Generally the hanky-panky ones are allowed in,” he told me. “We do not let the locality enter.” Hanky-panky, in this case, meaning anyone who is smartly or stylishly dressed—who looks “educated” and “sophisticated”. I got a further lesson in these terms later that same evening, when a trio of men came up to the door seeking entry. The largest of the three, and the first one to approach, had an unkempt henna-coloured mullet, at least three or four gold chains and rings, and paan-stained teeth. From a short distance away, Joginder had them tagged: he turned to another bouncer and said “yeh andar nahi jaenge (they will not go in).” Sure enough, they left after a small argument with Joginder, whose mind was unswayed by their aggressive challenge to his decision. He walked over to me, satisfied with this demonstration of the system, and said: “Dekha, isse kehte hai locality (See, this is what we call locality).”

Thakur Joginder Singh, head security officer at Kitty Su, has the final call as to who is allowed into the club. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRES IMAGES

While the “locality” tend to attract more obvious scrutiny, the hanky-panky create their own share of problems for the bouncers: arriving drunk at the door, often with a large entourage of friends and with sensitive egos unwilling to countenance the authority of the bouncer—who is himself, after all, much more “locality” than hanky-panky.

At places like Kitty Su, nestled inside five-star hotels, violent confrontations at the door are exceedingly rare, but at stand-alone bars and clubs elsewhere in the city, facing its consequences is a part of the job. At Urban Pind, an upscale lounge in the N-Block market of Greater Kailash 1, I spoke to a few bouncers who were involved in one such incident back in August 2011: a man who was already drunk, and therefore denied entry, began to abuse the bouncers and the manager, so much so that they called the police and a sub-inspector arrived—at which point a scuffle ensued, and the man slit the policeman’s ear with a sharp object, sending the sub-inspector to the hospital and himself to jail.

By 2:30 AM, Joginder had ordered his boys to prevent additional guests from entering Kitty Su. In just a few hours, more than 800 people had passed through their watch and into the club, nearly double the turnout anticipated by the initial guest list. Those in the small crowd standing before Jeetu, and vying for entry, were either not on the list or did not possess an invitation. Guests who could present their wristbands were allowed to reenter, but without the promise of obtaining a band, the crowd waiting outside began to thin, their faces betraying both longing and envy.

Three young men in their early 20s dressed in shiny suits—a far cry from designer men’s wear—approached the entrance and confidently flashed their wristbands. Suspicious, the bouncer at the door took a closer look at their wrists and spotted dull metal staples holding together the reused strips of paper. Without a moment’s hesitation, he ripped the bands off their wrists, and the three took leave, their heads bent in disappointment.

Downstairs, bouncer Sachin Chaudhary stood guard at the entryway to one of the smaller bars inside that, although more restricted than the dance floor, wasn’t quite as exclusive as the VIP lounge. A young woman approached Chaudhary and suggestively placed her hand on his arm, stroking it as she flashed him a drunken, emboldened smile. On her tiptoes, she leaned forward and whispered something into his ear before entering the bar.

Chaudhary, refusing to tell me what the woman had said, grinned: “Mera toh kaam ho gaya aaj ka (I’m set for the night).”

A little while later I asked Irfan Ahmed, whose job it is to stand at the club’s main doors and keep a count of how many guests enter, whether he has ever had the urge to approach a woman who entered the club. His eyes widened, a bit astonished that I would pose such a question. “If I ever feel like flirting?” he asked, wanting to be certain he understood me properly. He is not supposed to interact with guests, he explained. There are some lines bouncers just can’t cross.

At one point in the night, a bouncer stood about 10 yards away from two men making out on a couch. A few guests who were standing nearby, clearly uncomfortable, pretended not to notice, but the bouncer was unfazed. Frequent dealings with flirtatious women and men in the club might encourage a certain tolerance for same-sex affection, some might argue, but both implicit and explicit homophobia were commonplace in the social world of bouncers.

Beyond mere public displays of affection, though, displays of wealth are what remind bouncers of where they stand on the ladder of social status. For many of them, the culture they witness in upscale clubs like Kitty Su represents a world far from where they grew up, though not so geographically distant. More than 60 percent of bouncers in Delhi come from rural pockets in and around the city—places like Lado Sarai, Aali Gaon, Paratap Vihar in Ghaziabad, Chakarpur in Gurgaon and Shahadra. Few bouncers relocate for the job.

But just as these keepers of the gate try to adapt to the lifestyles of Delhi’s young nouveaux riches, their acceptance into its world remains less than certain.

A young drunken guest, upon learning what I was doing with a notepad and a pen in the club, went off on a fiery rant: “These guys are air-heads. You should write that. They do not know who I am … They think they own the place and can stop anybody from entering. They are bloody idiots. Pussies.”

Shivkaran Singh, the director of Damn Good Restaurants, a company that runs 34 restaurants and bars across the country, and who was at the party that night, echoed in a phone conversation that we earlier had: “Bouncers are threatened and verbally abused by people every day.” And more often than not, their social status is made the object of ridicule.

The crowd outside had diminished, and most of bouncers had moved into the club where they were trying to maintain some semblance of decorum. The atmosphere on and around the dance floor resembled the irrepressible energy of that last college party before summer break begins—radiating a sense of relief and excitement. Interrupting the darkness, neon-coloured green, red and blue laser beams shot across the room, illuminating faces in the crowd. The who’s who of the fashion world, after consuming several rounds from the open bar, chatted excitedly while photographers made their way across the floor, capturing moments with bursts of flash.

Piyush Nautiyal moved around the room with a hunter’s gaze. His long hair was swept back into a ponytail and a short beard underlined his wide chin. Doing the rounds, he disappeared into the crowd and reemerged with confiscated cigarettes in the palm of his hand.

It’s common to find guests trying to smuggle in drugs—hashish, ganja and cocaine are most common—under their clothes. “Some of them put them in their bloody cigarettes, so we have to smell and check a lot of times,” he said. Guests might occasionally object to this intrusion, but the bouncers make it clear that smoking is not allowed anywhere aside from the smoking room, without exception.

AS THE ARBITRERS OF STATUS in a nightclub, bouncers are entrusted with enforcing the terms of entry into Delhi’s nightlife. Yet no law exists that requires the use of bouncers in a bar or club in the first place. The industry is unregulated and most bouncers in the city, aside from those on hotel payrolls, are paid in cash. There are no official statistics available for the number of bouncers in India. In Delhi, the closest approximation might be best captured by this informal tally, suggested by Joginder: “Each club needs about 10 to 15 bouncers. And there are at least 10 of these five-star clubs in Delhi. Then you have the other small places that hire five to eight bouncers each.”

But without knowing how many clubs in Delhi hire bouncers, there is no way to know for sure. And to add to the imprecision, nearly 50 percent of the men hired as bouncers work part-time—on weekends or for special events. Who knows, there might be anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 bouncers in the city.

Full-time bouncers, who generally have six-day workweeks with 8-10 hour shifts, are put on a monthly payroll by the establishment they work for. Part-timers, who are often either in school or juggling day jobs, are paid anything from R500-R1,000 for a night’s work.

For many, it’s a temporary gig, a job that can help rake in some extra cash while they pursue other ambitions. But for some, it’s a career: a starting point on the celebrity-lined road to becoming a personal security officer.

Bouncers working in places like Kitty Su, a club that aims to provide a luxurious, five-star experience, receive better benefits and pay compared to those who work in less exclusive bars, lounges and clubs. But a hint of aggression unleashed at work can easily get one fired.

At a club, a bouncer’s role and responsibilities depend both on years of experience and where one is located within the hierarchy. More senior bouncers work at the gates (a bouncer has to spend at least six months to a year on the job before he is allowed to manage the entry of a venue).

To rise in the ranks, many bouncers undergo training, some of which is formal: Joginder has a diploma as a security officer and knows how to manage crowds and fires as well as administer first aid. But in an industry with few regulations, and with little oversight, informal means of imposing order are never too far. That’s where bouncer agents enter the picture.

Bouncer agents ‘supply’ bouncers to establishments. It’s a lucrative job, and one most often filled by former bouncers. Agents earn anywhere from R1,000-R3,000 a month for each bouncer they place. And informal training—including lessons on how to handle drunken, angry people and quash fights—is just one guarantee agents offer to nightclubs that hire their bouncers.

Bijay Pal, or Bijju as he is better known, runs the largest shop in Delhi’s bouncer industry: in August he was profiled by Time OutDelhi, which made note of his star-status in the nightlife economy. Although he refused to give me a reliable figure for how many bouncers he manages (numbers he offered ranged from 80 to 600), nearly every bouncer, manager or other agent I met has interacted or worked with Bijju.

Bijju, 37, started working as a bouncer after his friend got him a job at Ego Obsession in New Friends Colony in 1995. For a bouncer, he is short, just five feet eight inches. A former wrestler, he isn’t exceptionally broad either, with a chest that measures a mere 42 inches.

Bijju evaded quite a few of my questions and, perhaps appropriately for a former bouncer, kept an eerie cool whenever we spoke. “Don’t you ever get angry when people yell those curses at you?” I asked, during one of our many meetings—the ‘you’ intended to refer to his bouncers.

“Bouncers get angry—of course they get angry. But we try to ignore it. We know the consequences of a fight. What’s the point? We know we have strength. But when dogs bark at you, do you throw stones at them? No, right?”

The manager of a small but powerful empire of bouncers, Bijju is also somewhat of an apologist for his profession.

“Most of my boys are over six feet tall and weigh more than 100 kgs. Had they wanted to be thugs, they would be the most fearsome. But they understand the difference between right and wrong. They earn a salary of ten thousand rupees a month, when they could have easily snatched ten lakh rupees from someone had they wanted to.”

Boasting of the gallantry exhibited by those standing at the gates of Delhi’s clubs, Bijju continued: “Only that person can become a bouncer who has the heart and guts to stand up to save somebody else.” No bouncer would ever willingly harm the establishment they work in, he told me. “Just like the manager or the waiter, the guest is god, even for the bouncer.”

But as far as guests go, some who make their way to Delhi’s nightclubs exhibit less than pious behaviour. And standing up to drunken aggression can occasionally backfire.

One such unfortunate confrontation occured on 30 July 2011 when, around 9:45 pm, Jayant Yadav came running down from the third floor of Sahara Mall in Gurgaon. He, along with four friends, entered the Big Bazaar retail store on the second floor. Within seconds, they were followed by more than six muscular men who, after having entered the store, cornered Yadav and his friends, threw a few punches and dragged them back up to the third floor. The aggressors took Yadav’s entourage to a small passageway between Last Chance and Ignite, two of the six pubs on the top floor of the three-storeyed mall. At some point during the skirmish, both Yadav and the attackers called for backup.

What ensued was a 45-minute-long no-holds-barred throbbing of Yadav and his buddies by the burly bouncers of the mall’s clubs. Halfway through, bouncers from neighbouring malls had shown up as well. While Yadav received brutal blows outside the toilets at the end of the passageway, his backup, desperately trying to escape to different floors in the mall, were pounded with punches, kicks, clubs and metal rods. The mega-brawl ended with nine serious injuries, all to Yadav’s kin, and the arrests of Sunder Singh and Vinod, two of the bouncers at Ignite.

Newspapers reported the cause of the violence to be an altercation over Yadav’s entry into Ignite, but witnesses in the mall shared a different story. They claimed Yadav—who belongs to a powerful family from the nearby Chakkarpur village—entered Ignite sometime after 8 pm and, while drinking with his friends, began to harass a woman inside the club. When a bouncer at Ignite objected, a slightly inebriated Yadav, encouraged by his friends, began threatening the bouncer. When the confrontation became especially heated, Yadav took out a country-made pistol from his pocket and fired a shot in the air. He and his friends immediately rushed out of Ignite, only to later realise that a bouncer had alerted his colleagues elsewhere in the mall. Frightened, and acting without much caution, Yadav fired another shot outside Big Bazaar, again pointed at the roof. The bouncers grew furious and ferocious, and by the end of the night, one of Yadav’s friends ended up in the Intensive Care Unit of a nearby hospital.

For all parties caught in the fray, adrenalin had rushed faster than sensibility. The two bouncers who were arrested are now facing charges of “half murder”.

Ajay Chauhan, a Delhi University student who has worked as a bouncer since he was 19, says that most such cases are settled out of court. He has heard of bouncers paying up to R100,000 for similar charges. And just a couple of years ago, Chauhan himself was forced to pay R40,000 in damages to a victim of nightclub violence.

Chauhan had been on a day shift at Kuki, a bar and club in Greater Kailash 2. Following an order from management, he, along with two other bouncers, shut the gates for entry. When five boys approached the entrance and unsuccessfully demanded to be let in, they started beating the three bouncers. Chauhan called a few friends and took the boys inside, bolting the door shut. Retrieving baseball bats kept hidden near the kitchen, Chauhan and friends thrashed anyone who dared attack them. One boy was rushed to the ICU after suffering injuries to his head. As for Ajay, the brawl resulted in 12 stitches to his forehead and a half-murder charge filed against him.

I met him in September, when he was working at Urban Pind. At the time, he called himself Pawan—his bouncing alter ego. For precaution, he does not tell guests his real name.

Chauhan’s family bore the legal expenses of the lawsuit, but he has had to face a regular dose of admonishment from his father who disapproves of his line of part-time work. After all, even though these men might not be aggressive by nature, incidents like the ones that occured at Urban Pind and in Gurgaon would make any father shudder with fear.

BY 4:15, the last of the guests had staggered up the steps and crept out the gates. I was standing with Irfan at the bottom of the stairs, where he was posted to make sure no one left the club carrying alcohol.

Gradually, the bouncers began to let down their guard. With their stoic facades abandoned and their watchful eyes relaxed, they lightheartedly shared stories from the night.

When Sachin Chaudhary came passing by someone asked what happened to the girl who had been flirting with him.

“I forgot to take the number, man. Lost such a great opportunity,” Sachin announced loudly, flashing a regretful smile.

By now almost all the bouncers had gathered around us, and for the first time they seemed less than formidable. Muscular arms that had been flexed all night now hung freely around their loose bodies. No longer the burly, barrel-chested crew posturing at the entrance to the nightclub, they were now just a group of men hanging out after work with nowhere pressing to go.

“How do I snatch a cigarette out of a girl’s hand if she takes it behind her back?” one of them asked, trying to defend why he let a girl smoke.

Mauke par chauka maar yaar. Dekh, iss se seekh (Act when you have the opportunity. Learn from him),” another said, pointing playfully to another bouncer.

On the job, they’re often told to make sure no one under the age of 25 is allowed to enter the club, but the large majority of the bouncers I met were only about 24 years old. Still, without exception, they can get a hassle-free entry into almost any club in the city. Bouncers take care of each other, they insisted.

Bouncers keeping a close watch on the dance floor at Kitty Su. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN / DELHI PRES IMAGES

Their camaraderie was just one demonstration of a temperament I found in nearly every bouncer I spoke with: a breezy, courteous, genteel but confident sensibility. Vijay, the tallest bouncer at Kitty Su, standing a full 6 feet 5 inches, has a surprisingly soft voice. But while on the job, he  hides his true character.

Jawaharlal Nehru University sociologist Vivek Kumar compared the gap between a bouncer’s private and professional personalities to that of a receptionist in an office: “She always has to smile.” In a similar vein, a bouncer needs to maintain a menacing presence. But when no one is looking—or at least no posh, privileged revelers—they support each other whole-heartedly. Their artificial identities, Kumar explained, crave social acceptance.

Together, we walked inside to the dance floor. The music had stopped and the lights were turned up. The club had transformed into a mere shadow of what it had been just an hour before. You wouldn’t have imagined that Delhi’s party-going, fashion-consumed elite had filled the cavernous space to capacity.

Now unwound, the bouncers slowly cracked their outer facades, divulging parts of their personal lives. Some were students, a few were aspiring models. Two had jobs with Indian Railways and worked at the club only on weekends. Nautiyal had even taken part in Gladrags Super Model Hunt a few years back, and had also tried his luck for MTV Roadies.

The club had become a kind of airport waiting lounge for soon-to-depart careers. Either they were waiting to board another flight to a more glamorous or better-paying job, and were stuck here in limbo, or they had arrived for a weekend getaway.

Although they all chose to join the profession, they still had their share of complaints. A young bouncer with soft, boyish looks chimed in as we stood by the dance floor. With a furrowed brow and a disappointed twinkle in his eyes, he said that for the kind of work they do, they are severely underpaid.

Krishan Kumar, a 38-year-old bouncer and agent at Turquoise Cottage in Vasant Kunj who also juggles a day job in “administration” at Star Gaze, an entertainment firm in Noida, told me in an earlier conversation that none of his jobs can support his family independently. If not for the money he wouldn’t be doing this. “We have to listen to so much dirt sometimes that one starts wondering ‘Why am I even here?’”

Though they stand on the right side of the velvet rope at the club, these bouncers plant their feet in two worlds, straddling a line they are compelled to maintain.

It was nearly five in the morning. The night was officially over, and the day would soon be given over to sleep, or so I assumed.

In the lobby, Joginder stood briefing two other bouncers. He was smiling, a first for the night. With his thick moustache well trimmed, he looked like an army general plotting the next move after a victory.

Joginder turned around to face a bouncer standing behind him.

“Sir, can we go now? There is nobody in the club,” the bouncer asked.

Joginder glanced down at his watch. “No, no. The duty is for nine hours. Everybody came around 9 pm.”

“So do we have to stay till six?”

“There might be nothing to do in there, but still, go and sit in the club. No bouncer will leave before six. Okay?” And they shuffled their way back into the club.