London club eyes subdued Mumbai party scene

London-based private members' club Soho House is to open its first Asian venture in Mumbai -- but the move comes amid fears overzealous "moral policing" is destroying the Indian city's nightlife.

Announcing plans for five new branches worldwide, Soho House chief executive Nick Jones described Mumbai as the "obvious choice" for the exclusive arts and media club to launch its first subcontinent venue next spring.

"No one can deny that Mumbai is something of a force of nature. The buzz and vibrancy of the city is infectious," he said last week, listing Toronto, Chicago, Istanbul and Barcelona as the other locations.

Yet Mumbai's reputation is currently under threat, with fears mounting that the once flourishing party scene in the home of Bollywood is in decline as police enforce a raft of fun-restricting measures.

"RIP, Mumbai nightlife," mourned a Times of India newspaper headline on Friday, blaming "archaic laws, high taxes and moral policing" for the problems in India's commercial capital, also known as "Maximum City".

The strict regulations include early closing hours, excessive red tape, outdated overcrowding rules and a raise last year in the minimum drinking age -- from 18 to 21 to buy beer and from 21 to 25 for spirits.

On May 20, police busted what they described as a rave -- but what guests said was just a sundown party -- and almost 100 people were herded up and blood-tested including two Indian Premier League cricketers.

Police told reporters they would book not just proven drug-takers but also drinkers without an alcohol permit -- a bygone requirement for boozers under the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 that has rarely before been seriously enforced.

"It's adversely affected the entire hospitality industry," said bar owner Lakhan Jethani of the clampdown.

He opened the venue IBAR in Mumbai's fashionable Bandra suburb last year, for which he said he needed about 20 different licences.

"(Officials) don't want us to be called a party city, at least that's what it looks like," he told AFP. "We just want to tell them they need to improve the rules and treat us better."

Some see the problem as a result of conflicting values between older, conservative decision-makers and India's more liberal youth.

An angry piece on Mumbai Boss, an online guide to the city's news and culture, said police were "encouraged by policies made by an excessively moral state government that views any kind of enjoyment with suspicion".

Police are also accused of misusing the myriad laws to extort cash.

"I don't think the police are driven by their own morals or the need to implement the law, so much as just their own gratification in material terms," said Nitin Karani, editor-at-large of gay magazine Bombay Dost.

Assistant Commissioner Vasant Dhoble, key enforcer of the nightlife regulations, has said he is simply following orders.

"We would not need to do moral policing if the youth understood good from bad," he told the Mumbai Mirror late last month.

A Facebook group set up last month called "Dhoble - Oppressor of the Innocent Public" now has more than 20,000 members. Another, Mumbai Unite, wants to drum up enough support to hold a peace march.

"There's something wrong with the system," said journalist Serena Menon, who set up "SOS: Mumbai's nightlife", a third group. "Bombay was known for its nightlife less than a decade ago and now things have changed dramatically."

Nayantara Kilachand, founder of Mumbai Boss, said any new venture setting up in the city over the next few years would make sure to have the necessary licences and permits in place.

"In that regard Soho House might provide a small measure of relief to its members, but we're talking about a small percentage of the city's party goers," she said.

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