Cabaret has a special resonance for me. In the 80's when I was a kid, there was a restaurant-bar called Meghraj a stone's throw from my place; many a weekend, we would head there for family dinners. The main restaurant, a well-lighted family-friendly place with (as I recall) teal and white interiors, was on the ground floor. But a set of stairs led to another floor, whence came the sound of music from behind closed doors. While I never had the opportunity to verify, it was known to be a strip bar. Sometime just before the 90's, the place shut down amid rumors of criminal activity. It was never redeveloped as anything else, suggesting that the property remains under a cloud.
Nair's film enters the Meghraj dance bar when it was still a flourishing concern with a regular strip show. Swaying their hips to live Western music (and trendy Bollywood numbers), the fleshy, heavily made-up dancers slowly cast aside their clothing and shimmy among the clientele, encouraging them to buy more drinks. They walk the tightrope between exuding the come-hither attitude with their movements and expressions, yet keeping a sufficient barrier for their own safety from the not always happy-to-just-stare men. They receive propositions for private encounters that ask for more than dancing; on camera the proprietor declares that he plays no role in such affairs, whether they accept or not is up to the individual women.
Some of the customers are also interviewed: They acknowledge that they enjoy watching the women drop their clothes, and assert that those who protest the loudest are in secret the biggest patrons. One of them says, "Men want to do whatever their heart pleases, but they want their own family women to be Sati-Savitris [pious]" When asked what sort of woman he would prefer to marry, he responds with a grin, "Of course, a Sati-Savitri."
Nair also explores the daytime lives of the women. Some live together in cramped rooms and the neighbors can be unduly curious, even hostile. They are shown as homely people who want to just peacefully get along in society, and to make enough money to better their lives and of their families, many of whom are not aware of their profession. One of them argues that this line is better than being a secretary somewhere because a girl makes far less money in an office and gets groped even there. Some like Rekha are smart enough to buy property and invest their earnings while the going is good, because they know theirs is not a long-term career. Rekha is also interesting in terms of being an independent strong-minded woman that will marry only on her own terms, not out of gratitude to some savior. Towards the end of the docu, she agrees to marry a suitor she has kept hanging for years on end to test the loyalty of his affections.
The film also enters the home of one of the regular customers, a Gujarati businessman with an extended family. His wife with a wry smile deplores her husband's habit of staying long hours in the dance bars, while she must look after his family; he laughs her off patronizingly. Nair and editor Barry Alexander Brown (who later worked for Spike Lee) splice together an interesting mirroring between this 'respectable' housewife discussing her mentally imprisoned state and Rekha's more empowered stance.
The tone of Cabaret is inquisitive, but not sordid. In Rekha's amicable parting of ways with the profession, it ends with an admiring salute to the spirit of at least those women who have learned to survive the ups and downs of the profession and manage to retain control of their self-worth.
The complete documentary is up on Youtube (It is also included as a bonus feature on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD release of Monsoon Wedding and the BFI Blu-ray of Salaam Bombay!):