It’s last drinks at Monkey Bar.

The young men behind the bar, dressed in black T-shirts, mix drinks and pose for photographs. One of them shakes a cocktail shaker vigorously and pours out a drink with a flourish and a wry grin for the camera. Nearby, a table is occupied by a noisy group of former employees of the popular pub, who have come to sample some of their favourite cocktails—the tart Mangaa or the spicy Rasam Mary—concocted at the first Monkey Bar in the country back in 2012, when it opened in the IT city before branching out to Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.

On this last Sunday of November, the bar has opened for the final time.

Despite the overall cheer, it is preternaturally quiet. There is no music—there hasn’t been for four months. Some of the diners take photographs with the staff and invite them into their booths for a last drink, while others look wistfully at the pop-art posters on the walls. By the end of the night, some of the posters will have been given away as mementos.

Candles being lit outside Monkey Bar on 25 November, the day after it shut down.
Candles being lit outside Monkey Bar on 25 November, the day after it shut down. (Photo: Sharana Basappa/Mint)

The more loaded exchange is happening upstairs, where a booth is occupied by the owners and managers of 10 Bengaluru restaurants and pubs. Most run similar establishments in the neighbourhood and have come to confer with Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner at Monkey Bar. They talk in low voices while drinking endless cups of coffee.

The closure, coming on the heels of the shutdown of several other establishments in the area, has triggered a sense of unease. It is a question of money and livelihoods, and some dreams.

A sign outside The Humming Tree in September.
A sign outside The Humming Tree in September. (Photo: Facebook.com/Thehummingtree)

THE COST OF STAYING QUIET

Monkey Bar is not the first big-name pub in the city to pull the plug, citing losses of up to 40% over the past few months—ever since the crackdown on music in pubs and restaurants started. In the last three months, two other pubs in the area, bFlat Bar & Kitchen and The Humming Tree, both popular live music venues which provided a much-needed platform to indie bands, musicians and DJs from across the country, have shut down. Another popular music and karaoke destination, TAKE 5, closed in August 2018. All these pubs had been in operation for over five years, building their reputation as welcoming spaces for indie musicians.

Over 20 establishments were shut down in 2018 after the Supreme Court upheld the order requiring them to obtain public entertainment licences (PELs) from the police if they wanted to continue playing music. A renewed,vigorous implementation of the PEL began immediately after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by a body of several residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) of Indiranagar in June.

Crowds at The Humming Tree last year.
Crowds at The Humming Tree last year. (Photo: Facebook.com/Thehummingtree)

Only 55 restaurants and bars in the city have the PEL, confirms data from Bengaluru police. And this is one of the issues at the crux of the regulatory challenges being faced by restaurateurs across a city that has been growing haphazardly—and illegally. The impact is greater in the core areas, such as the central business district, Indiranagar and Koramangala, which are under the closest scrutiny.

Riyaaz Amlani, CEO of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which runs F&B (food and beverage) brands Social and Smokehouse Deli across several Indian metros, does not hesitate to call Bengaluru the most difficult city to do business in. Amlani says Social, the first outlet it launched on Church Street in Bengaluru, has lost its vibe because of the no-music rule.

“I have over 20 restaurants in Delhi and Mumbai, and only six in Bengaluru, though I would say that Bengaluru has the capacity to host more than the other cities because of its young and outgoing crowd, good weather, a big expatriate population and many other factors. But I need surety that rules won’t change arbitrarily, that every subsequent government won’t pull up some archaic rule from the rulebooks and start imposing it. It’s an attitude change that’s needed—an acknowledgment that F&B is not a frivolous, elite business but one that contributes hugely to the state exchequer and provides employment in numbers that are at par with IT," says Amlani, who is also a former chairperson of the National Restaurant Association of India (Nrai). “We need to be taken seriously."

Under ordinary circumstances, the closure of one pub or three in a city that has hundreds of them—Zomato alone lists 345—should not be big news or cause for concern. However, owners of pubs across the city say that after a period of high growth between 2015-18, revenue and customer numbers are down and the PEL issue is only the last nail in the coffin. They have weathered many regulatory storms in the past, but this time, something feels broken.

One reason is the closure of high-profile, popular pubs and the other is their bottom line: Pub owners speak of falling sales, having to let go of staff, and not being able to meet the requirements on minimum liquor sales. Revenue is down as much as 30-40%, several owners spoken to for this story maintained. “That level of fall in revenues simply became unsustainable. We do run four other restaurants in the city but it’s not fair to expect them to pull the one that’s not performing along," says Chandra, adding that he is tired of fighting the regulatory issues that keep cropping up every few months.

“We have been demanding a single-window clearance for F&B establishments with clearly spelt out rules and requirements. For instance, there is a rule that says pubs have to provide for adequate parking. Now, most of them are situated in busy commercial areas on small plots of 30x40 sq. ft and can provide parking for a maximum of four-five cars, and not all patrons. This is an absurd requirement," adds Chandra.

He adds that the fire safety department demands that those running pubs provide underground water storage for fire safety, but points out that the onus for this kind of structural requirement should not be on the tenant but on the owner of the building before he is given clearance to put it on the market.

The restaurant industry believes that many such rules are overlooked by the authorities till an event or complaint triggers implementation, leading to confusion.

“The industry is battered, and this is across the city. Even establishments that can play music are taking a hit on sales because the message around town is that there is no music and everything is dull. The mood is subdued and low, and we really don’t see a working solution emerging because of the difficulty many are facing in getting a PEL," says Gaurav Sikka, owner of the popular brewpub Arbor Brewing Company in the central business district. They got their PEL last year. Sikka says the licence has to be renewed annually and the paperwork is “simply enormous".

LICENCE TO PLAY

What is a PEL and why is it difficult to obtain? In 2005, the commissioner of police of Bengaluru (then Bangalore) issued the Licensing and Controlling of Places of Public Entertainment (Bangalore City) Order 2005. According to this, any place of public entertainment would need a licence to play music on the premises.

The order was contested in court by the Karnataka Live Band Restaurants Association. In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the order, stating that the licence is necessary for restaurants that want to “display live band music, cabaret dance and discotheque" on their premises. There is some confusion over whether recorded music is included in this order. For this is how the 2005 order defines a live band: “Live band means music, live or recorded, provided at a place of public entertainment, whether accompanied by any form of dancing including cabaret."

The order was, in fact, an attempt to curb dance bars, which had then just been closed in Mumbai. Bengaluru had similar establishments, and some pub owners allege that while these continue to operate in shady hotels, legitimate and legal businesses are targeted because they are more visible and often more high-profile, and their clientele younger and uninfluential.

When Lounge contacted Bhaskar Rao, the current commissioner of police, to ask if the ban on any kind of music was going to adversely affect the F&B business, he said, “You should be asking this question to the patrons, not to me."

The problem is that a large number of pubs in Bengaluru are situated in commercial buildings that don’t have occupancy certificates (OCs), and you can’t get a PEL without an OC. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has acknowledged that as many as 85% of buildings in the city’s core areas fall in this category. In 2014, the Karnataka government said that over 150,000 buildings in the city were illegal when it launched a scheme to regularize them, perhaps an admission that getting rid of all the “illegal" buildings would mean razing much of the city to the ground.

Besides allowing buildings that flout norms to be put on the market, the city’s development authorities are also responsible for zoning that has become problematic, leading to conflict between the original residents of a neighbourhood and the businesses that have come up around them. For residents, noisy, crowded pubs and bars are the worst offenders.

SPIRIT OF THE LAW

The Monday after Monkey Bar served its last drinks, a small group gathered on the pavement outside, on Indiranagar’s 12th Main Road, around noon. This street has, over the years, developed into a hive of activity in the pubs and restaurants space; recently, New York’s Magnolia Bakery opened its first outpost in India here. The street is flanked by smaller “cross" roads with clusters of two- or three-storey independent houses.

The protesting group was largely made up of restaurant owners and staff, there in solidarity with the now-closed pub, and speaking out against what they described as “high-handed" and “unfair" treatment by the Bengaluru police and municipal corporation. Amit Roy, an entrepreneur and consultant who runs the popular Watson’s chain of pubs in Bengaluru, Goa and Chennai, and is an active member of the Bengaluru chapter of Nrai, stood glowering in one corner. “It’s getting harder and harder to do business in Bangalore," he said. “Please don’t misunderstand me—we want to be compliant with the law. But some of the laws are so complicated, so difficult to comply with…often they contradict each other. For instance, you want to meet the fire department’s directives, but they are in conflict with the BBMP’s or the excise department’s directives. In this situation, this is what will happen in the city," he said, indicating the closed green doors behind us—some people had actually lit candles and left floral wreaths befitting a funeral.

The number of protesters had grown to over 500, among them white-coated chefs and servers, sporting black bands and headscarves. Eventually, the police arrived and the crowd dispersed.

A day after this gathering, a group of RWAs of Indiranagar issued a statement calling for “strict enforcement of the law by government", asking all its departments to “enforce all rules and regulations in spirit and law". Describing the recent protest as an attempt to “gain public sympathy", the statement claimed the authorities had taken action only after citizens filed a PIL in the Karnataka high court.

The tension between the two groups has been growing over the past two years. Chandra has called the residents’ actions “vicious" and “unyielding", saying they have often reached out to the residents to have a dialogue and figure out a solution, but have not been able to initiate one.

The residents say they are fed up of the noise and disturbance. Sneha Nandihal, one of the signatories to the statement and an active member of an RWA group, says it’s difficult for her to get proper sleep, especially on weekends, because of the noise from pubs, customers and valets retrieving cars parked outside her gates, and a general clamour when parties break up late at night. “Having lived in this area for close to 40 years, I have seen its deterioration, and it all started with the mixed-use zoning which allowed commercial establishments to come up. It has now created this monster. We are not saying we are against all commercial buildings, but we want pubs which are flouting rules to be closed down," says Nandihal.

The tension between original and newer inhabitants of a rapidly commercializing area is probably just as messy anywhere in the world, but, in Bengaluru, corruption has added to woes. It is alleged that pubs in the city have to pay bribes of anywhere between 1.5-3.5 lakh a month to stay in business. Several restaurateurs corroborated this but declined to be quoted. Getting a new licence involves money changing hands “under the table", and pub owners allege that every time there is stricter enforcement of an existing rule, there’s subtle pressure to cough up more.

An informal survey done by The Economic Times in January estimated bribes were 3% of the monthly running costs of an establishment that serves liquor in Bengaluru.

A jazz performance at bFlat Bar & Kitchen in July
A jazz performance at bFlat Bar & Kitchen in July (Photo: Facebook.com/bflatindiranagar)

“Pubs and restaurants are always soft targets and this has something to do with the moral attitude towards them. (In a recent interview), the police commissioner said only 1% of the city’s population goes to pubs, so it should not matter whether or not they are allowed to play music. What kind of logic is this?" asks Sunil Shetty, the owner of bFlat, which shut on 2 October.

Shetty and his wife, musician Arati Rao-Shetty, faced other issues too. After the fire at a rooftop bar in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills in December 2018, Bengaluru police cracked down on rooftop spaces. BFlat had a wide fire exit and immediately installed smoke detectors and sprinklers but the fire department withdrew its licence citing the absence of a “setback" to the building in which bFlat occupied the two top floors. A setback is a free space that is supposed to surround high-rise buildings to allow easy access to fire trucks.

Shetty and Chandra believe that the definition of a high-rise by the Bengaluru Development Authority—a building of 15m, or approximately three storeys—is absurd and archaic today. But it’s the law, and the government-operated Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (Bescom) cut off Shetty’s power supply. He managed with generators for a few months till the double whammy of fewer customers owing to the music ban and the exorbitant cost of private power made the operation unsustainable. On top of that, Shetty claims he has had to pay fines— 12 lakh over five years—to the excise department for not selling enough hard liquor.

Audience at the pub during a performance earlier this year.
Audience at the pub during a performance earlier this year. (Photo: Facebook.com/bflatindiranagar)

The last has been one of the most challenging aspects of doing business in the F&B industry in Bengaluru. Over the years, pub owners have had to comply with a complete dancing ban implemented in 2008—it invoked a 1967 rule against serving liquor on premises where dancing is taking place. Simultaneously, they were under pressure to sell more liquor, having to pay “short-lifting" fines for not selling the minimum quantity of hard liquor per month, calculated on the basis of the size of the premises.

In 2012, journalist Raghu Karnad pointed out in an essay in Caravan magazine that “Bangalore’s liquor industry has shaped the city’s destiny for more than a century". Today, the relationship between the city and its booze is uneasy at best. Restaurateurs believe that though revenue from liquor sales may be encouraged, they will never be accorded the respect they deserve for raising the profile of the city and drawing more investment and attention, both national and international. Ultimately, caught in the cross-hairs between lawmakers, law enforcers, residents and businesses, it is the image of Bengaluru as a place of culture, industry and, yes, fun that is suffering.

“A few weeks before we shut down, we were supposed to host an evening of contemporary jazz by the French group EYM Trio, but we had to cancel it because of the music ban," says Shetty. “Over 10 years, we hosted countless indie musicians, from local bands like Thermal and a Quarter—they played a farewell gig for us right before we closed—to many international artists. The government can shut us down, but are they providing alternative venues for music and culture in the city?"

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