All that Razz
Mahatma Gandhi liked Juhu. It seems he often walked along the beach during visits to Mumbai in the 1930s, at the height of the freedom struggle. I think about that whenever I pass through the neighbourhood, tasting the salt in the air and dreaming about liberty. Jamsetji Tata liked it too, as did J.R.D. Tata, who flew from Karachi to Mumbai after obtaining his pilot’s licence, and laid the foundations of India’s civil aviation sector with the launch of Tata Airlines.
Today’s Juhu is different, of course, populated by Kapoors and Bachchans and Deols, who occupy large homes on streets that boast of branded clothing and spas rather than unremarkable grocery stores and barber shops. Somewhere between these two versions of Juhu lies a third that, for teenagers growing up in the Mumbai of the 1990s—in a city with no malls, smartphones or Wi-Fi zones—will forever be synonymous with crowded discotheques at noon, dangerous by-lanes populated with drug dealers, and alcohol-fuelled nights where parties often carried over into hungover dawns.
This Juhu is where events like the Battle of the Bands (an inter-college contest) were commonplace. It’s where one could begin partying at places like Go Bananas or Jinx (now closed), save enough for a meal at Sun-N-Sand, then dance until 3am before waking up and doing it all over again. When I think of the 1990s, much of it is a blur. Some moments stand out though: a thousand people moving like a single organism on the dance floor in J49, then the hottest club in the suburbs, long lines of pretty women waiting to get past bouncers, single young men begging to be allowed entry, much coveted ink stamps on sweaty wrists, and the irresponsible consumption of cheap vodka or questionable substances on quiet, leafy side streets.
Sitting pretty in the heart of Juhu during those riotous years was Razzberry Rhinoceros, which opened at Juhu Hotel in 1993. It was loud, dingy, and often stocked to the rafters with skinny, long-haired men moshing to death metal. Now, 15 years after Razz (no one ever referred to it as anything else) stopped hosting live shows, consigning its amateur nights and raucous parties to history, it will rise again, thanks to Neeren Tewari, a veteran in the food and beverage industry who was once a regular there. Appointed as curators of the space by the Piccadily Group, he, along with his celebrated bartender cousin Nitin Tewari, intends to breathe new life into Razz, which opens its doors today.
It’s not hard to see why someone would want to revive it. Back then, Razz was where bands cut their teeth, dusting off home-grown tunes and daring to face live audiences. It encouraged everything from punk to metal, all soaked up by receptive college-goers from across the city. Some of India’s biggest indie bands today got their start there and, rumour has it, the venue was also where a few Bollywood stars got their breaks. Razz was where you could stumble upon performances by bands like Yama and Retrospect, Teenage Angst and Rainvan, or sets by DJs like Tinu and Nasha, Baiju and Ma Faiza.
How did that rhinoceros come into the picture anyway? And why would anyone name a venue after an odd-toed mammal? The Tewari brothers have no idea. “All I know is that it has stuck,” says Neeren. What he intends to do, he adds, is “recreate those memorable nights in a contemporary setting”. This means that the music will be contemporary, as will the food by chef Ranveer Brar (dishes like Chipotle Paneer Tikka Satay and Grilled Kasundi Prawns) and drinks from something called a root-to-fruit cocktail bar. It’s a far cry from those weekly Metal Nights, when Rs150 got one an entry stamp as well as a pint of beer. The new staging area remains the same, as does the mezzanine, although it will now hold a Mustang pool table.
Everyone who visited Razz has memories of what it used to be like. Imran Ladak, bass guitarist of a band called Eggless Lovecake, played there a few times a decade and a half ago. His band liked it because the entry fee was low and they had grown up watching a lot of older rock bands perform there. He remembers the stage, behind which was a lawn that sometimes hosted weddings while aspiring rock stars thrashed and wailed in the foreground. “The green room was pretty dingy, but cool,” he says. “All sorts of things would go on back there.” He doesn’t elaborate, but does point out that “Razz was where you simply had to perform if you wanted to call yourselves a legitimate band”.
Interestingly, Room No. 10, which used to be the green room, is now a storeroom and may go back to playing the role it once did. Madhav Das, a research and development professional in the renewable energy space, now working in Abu Dhabi, remembers visiting as an 18-year- old. “We went because it’s where some of the best bands played,” he says. “It was close to Mithibai College, where I studied, and it used to host ‘socials’ in the afternoons, which were perfect for us. The rock and metal gigs were always on Thursdays, so we would simply hang back on those days and wait for the show to begin.” He remembers watching bands like Pentagram and Naked Earth, Brahma, Threinody, Witch Hammer and Helga’s Fun Castle. “Most of them played covers,” he points out, “until the band Zero came and changed that.”
Thursday nights at Razz were a lot like surfing on Netflix. You didn’t know what you would stumble upon. Bands played 45-minute sets for regulars, friends, supporters and hangers-on. Alcohol was a problem on student budgets, so much of it was bought and consumed on the street outside, giving rise to a buzzed, many-headed beast that the musicians had to try and win over with covers of songs by Slayer and Metallica. Originals were frowned upon, because being drunk made the act of singing along easy only when the lyrics were known to everyone. By midnight, supporters of a few bands would be selling amateur merchandise on tables outside. It was a little like Glastonbury, only without the big names, big audiences or big sound system. Razz, with its shaky sound system and devoted regulars, was a world in itself, populated by people who spoke the same language, hidden from the rest of Mumbai and coming up for air only in the form of a half-glimpsed tattoo on a crowded local train. There was nothing like it, and there still isn’t.
Nothing changed at Juhu Hotel in all these years; it continued to function as it does today, a separate entity unconcerned with this iconic space lying at its heart. Razz survived only as an unremarkable “air-conditioned party hall”, its storied past forgotten for the most part.
“The best performance I saw there was by a band called Amidst the Chaos,” says Ladak. “The nicest thing was the vibe, even though the sound and acoustics were pretty bad.” Allwyn Rodrigues, a 45-year-old software engineer who returned to Mumbai a month ago after working in Wisconsin for a few years, remembers drinking beer on the beach before walking into Razz. “The area wasn’t very pleasant,” says Rodrigues, who was in his 20s at the time. “There were no affordable eateries nearby and quite a few spots in the vicinity were notorious for prostitution, so the police were always around. All our office parties were held at Razz though, because the DJ would play our requests. My favourite gig there, believe it or not, featured an Elvis Presley impersonator.”
Karan Doshi, another regular who now runs a catering business in Khar, remembers visiting Razz for about a year, from 2001. “It had this atmosphere of rebellion,” he says, “and a dark vibe that was different from all the other places at the time. In a city where every club played mainstream music or Bollywood songs, it gave us all a sense of hope.”
These former regulars also remember a different Juhu. Das recalls an old-world charm and places where perpetually broke students could hang out; Rodrigues remembers evenings and nights spent drinking on beached boats. DJ Mohsin, one of the last DJs to play at Razz, has been brought back to oversee the music. “Everyone associates Razz with metal,” he tells me, “but they forget that Fridays were for psychedelic music; they forget the club’s reggae nights and how iconic acts like Infected Mushroom and Apache Indian played here. I remember one night featuring a boxing match outdoors. When it ended, a DJ console was moved inside the ring and a party began. This used to be a cultural hub, and we intend to make it one again.”
As the sun begins to set, the Tewari brothers walk around the place, pointing to cabanas, open spaces set aside for live performances, and the same view of Juhu that Gandhi had access to, a century and a half ago. I ask them if they would like to have the regulars back. “We would love that,” says Neeren. I suppose they will return, if only for personal remembrances of times past. This time around though, I expect them to come with spouses and children, and armed with credit cards.
Rocking the music scene: Bands and DJs that made Razz
Zero: One of the first bands to start playing originals, rather than covers, at Razz.
Bhayanak Maut: The popular metal band played its first gig here.
Demonic Resurrection: The band reportedly played its first gig here in April 2000.
DJ Nikhil Chinapa: Helped lay the foundations for the electronic scene by introducing it here.
DJ Whosane, a.k.a. Hussain Babai: He played a big role in setting up the music at Razz.
Tripwire: Headlined its first proper show—the Smells Like Punk Spirit gig at Razz Rhino.
Infected Mushroom: The Israeli musical electronica duo were one of the first major international acts at Razz in the 2000s.
Apache Indian: The Brit-Asian artiste brought bhangramuffin to Mumbai by performing here in the late 1990s.