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Meet the young guns driving Mumbai nightlife that goes beyond getting high

Mumbai’s bars serve alcohol with a side of culture. You can step in for a dose of theatre or even a serious documentary. Meet the men behind the multi-tasking spaces

When the Paris-based Sax Machine pumped up the energy at Khar's antiSOCIAL on Friday night, that the audience, which grooved, swayed and often jumped to their tune, often the epitome of a house-music guilty generation proved that if the show is good, there'll be an audience. 

But, this isn't an anomaly. On Thursday, Lower Parel's Barking Deer temporarily turned into a pop-up theatre with a large HD screen installed in the pub area as well on the mezzanine floor. By 8.30 pm, there was a sizeable crowd — office goers as well as college students — waiting for the screening of Pulp Fiction organised by Sunset Cinema Club, a brainchild of Delhi-based cinephiles, Sanchit Gupta and Sahil Kapoor. Pub owner Gregory Kroitzsh, is surprised by the week-day turnout of around 130 people. "This is the first time we are experimenting on this large a scale, where we have utilised both floors. Moreover, I love the idea of 'movies and chill' because where else in the city can you do this?" he says.

Mame Khan, a renowned folk and sufi singer from Rajasthan, performed at antiSOCIAL last month
Mame Khan, a renowned folk and sufi singer from Rajasthan, performed at antiSOCIAL last month 

Call it VFM (value for money) or need to offer something more than the competition, but across the city, quite a few restaurants-bars have cropped up that are offering a little more than karaoke or salsa nights. By hosting poetry slam nights, opening up the space to new musicians or even classical music, serious documentaries at a weekday prime time of 8.30 pm or even a theatre experience, bars in the city are stepping up to set up the city's cultural agenda, and a diverse one at that.

Curating the show
Among those who were right next to the stage at the Sax Machine gig, was 26-year-old Sumit Vaswani, antiSocial's culture manager for the west region. He complains that often, it's a designation most don't understand.


Anti-Social's Culture Manager Sumit Vaswani will celebrate the space's first birthday this March. Pic/Nimesh Dave

Simply put, Vaswani is curator of the show at antiSocial. That the basement with a capacity of 300 is one of the most watched-for spaces in the city is yet to turn a year old, is testament to work that Vaswani has put in.

Speaking about the brand, Vaswani, a mass media student from Chembur's Vivekanand Education Society who grew up next to Shanmukhananda Hall at King's Circle and counts classical music — he learned the sitar for six months — among his influences, says that the brief for antiSocial was that it needs to cater to an audience of every genre. In the past few months, the soundproof space has hosted screenings of documentaries and has now tied up with Alliance Francaise, which will, every first Tuesday of the month, screen a film at the space. There have also been Sunday afternoons reading sessions in the company of other book lovers.


Owner of Barking Deer Gregory Kroitzsh, where a cinematic experience was held on Thursday, says he does have be careful of ensuring that diners out for a eat-and-drink experience aren't disturbed

Less than a kilometre away, is Tuning Fork in Hotel Uni-Continental, co-owned by Balraj Ghai, 28, and Sohail Gandhi, 26.
While the space does serve both alcohol and food, it's best known for the shows it hosts — its menu in fact starts with its daily plan for performances. A labour of love, it was born out of a want to create more spaces like the now-shut blueFrog. When it was built, it was equipped with a live recording studio for young musicians to record an album at no added cost.

But, not everyone gets a stage. Gandhi insists that those who wish to perform here, send him a video taken on their phone in their house. "I get to know what their real sound is like," adds Gandhi, a sound engineer who has worked MTV unplugged and Coke Studio. Completing the team is 26-year-old stand-up comic Abhishek Upamanyu, who curates Thursday nights' Unfinished Business, where seasoned comics come to test new material, and new comics test their skills.

Experiments
Four years ago, Kroitzsh's initial experiments at turning the pub into a cultural space was a damp squib. "We'd decided to have an open mic comedy night with no cover charge. It was a disaster as not many turned up," he says. But Kroitzsh was keen that the brewery become more than just a pub. "In the US, the small and independent breweries foster craft beer communities. With cultural events, you provide an opportunity to collaborate and share ideas and innovate," says Kroitzsh, who was living the quintessential New York life till 2008, when he was among the thousands in the financial sector to lose their jobs. "It took nearly two years for us to get the licences to set up this place," he says about Barking Deer, launched in 2013 as Mumbai's first microbrewery.


Sound engineer Sohail Gandhi, stand-up comic Abhishek Upamanyu and Balraj Ghai who curate the programmes at Khar's Tuning Fork

But, becoming a cultural and social hotspot — including hosting a mens-only beard club — was an organic movement as patrons approached him with ideas. "We realised we could turn the space upstairs into an area for people to pursue their passion, whether poetry, storytelling, music or theatre. We have been partnering with groups like Chalta Hai Comedy and Tall Tales," says the 50-year-old. Kroitzsh says he approves ideas depending on the passion of the person approaching. "The only time we reject an idea is when we don't have the facility to support it."

Being a part of the scene
If you see the owners and curators hanging out at every gig, it's not just PR. It's also because this is where you meet the creative community, both performers and audience.

It's why you'll find Anand Morwani, the 29-year-old co-owner of Andheri's Brewbot (along with Ansh Seth and Ketan Gohel) either at his microbrewery or at Bandra's Cuckoo Club either scouting for new productions or testing the ones who have approached him for a stage.


Stand-up comic Karunesh Talwar performing at Unfinished Business at Tuning Fork on Thursday night

When Morwani and Co set up the microbrewery three years ago, they wanted to experiment with the 2,000 sq ft space on the first floor. Among the first collaborators was theatre veteran and film writer Akarsh Khurana of Akvarious Productions who staged Bayaan there. Plays are mostly staged on Sunday night. For this, the first floor dining space is cleared and 50-60 seats are set up. "During a play, there's no food or alcohol served," adds Morwani, who soon plans to host recordings of theatre performances at the space.

Following the game
Storytellers, poets, musicians and even painters now have access to a new audience — although Vaswani says there are still people who come to Khar Social who have no idea that antiSocial exists — and the price tag isn't high.

Daksha Puri, a 22-year-old community manager at Doolally — famed for its board game collection — says, "We want people to spend more time here and books and board games are a way to do that." She adds that, as part of a five-member team of community managers, they routinely look into the newest board games or book releases.

The three outposts of Doolally (Kemps Corner, Bandra and Andheri) have also grown into spaces where workshops, right from heritage cycling to knife painting, have been held. "We host a pub quiz every Wednesday and chess championships through the month. We have also seen that cosplay workshops and pet-related events do well," Puri said.

Not one-size-fits-all
Khurana, one of the first performers at Brewbot and who often holds theatre pop-ups at Bombay Canteen, feels these venues work only for carefully curated content. "There's a mindset that people come with and you need to cater to that. What also works is the accessibility of these pubs. If you don't have a theatre around, these places become your go-to spots." He also feels that these venues have a certain casualness about them which tends to dispel the oh-so-serious vibe of theatre.

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