Paid to party: Marcellus Baptista knows Mumbai nightlife better than anyone
Six repeats of whiskey on five nights a week
Every teenage boy wants Marcellus Baptista’s life. For one, he wears Hawaiian-printed T-shirts to work. He downs seven large Blender’s Pride almost six nights a week, and gets paid for it. He’s at every party worth a headline — you can’t miss that swathe of silver hair — greeted by everyone from bartenders and bouncers to Bollywood up-and-comers. Even Amitabh Bachchan knows his name. Baptista is the first — and possibly last surviving — party reporter, chronicling Mumbai nightlife for almost 40 years.
We meet at a suburban gymkhana, where he spends the first 20 minutes making Monday night karaoke plans with his neighbours. His glass of whiskey magically arrives before I can even browse through the menu. “This is what the city’s nightlife was like: one big family and no security checks,” he says, reminiscing over the glory days of Mumbai nightlife.
This was before the Mumbai Metro was conceived; when the roads weren’t a life-size GTA simulation and your life’s savings weren’t victimised by Uber surge. When you didn’t need to wrestle strangers to claim that empty spot at the bar or make unwanted cameos in an influencer’s live stream.
Dusk till dawn: the glory days of Mumbai nightlife
Baptista began documenting nightlife on his Remington typewriter in 1981 for Free Press Bulletin. The postman always showed up with at least seven party invites, and he missed none. “The parties were intimate and people were relaxed, they didn’t worry about their shenanigans being splashed in the papers the next day,” he says.
If you wanted to bump into the hottest celebrities of the era like Jackie Shroff or Anil Kapoor, your best bet was Sabira Merchant’s members-only club, Studio 29, with its giant disco ball, red walls and snazzy curtains designed after New York’s party destination, Studio 54. Baptista claims that people carried a change of clothes to avoid repeating looks across events on the same night.
This era of Mumbai nightlife was one long Happy Hour for all. According to the party veteran, dropping acid, snorting cocaine and drinking till sunrise raised no eyebrows. And the fashion police hadn’t arrived on the scene yet.
When Studio 29 announced its curtain call in 1987, the city had to wait for some years until Fire-n-Ice breathed life into Lower Parel’s grungy mill compounds. Baptista remembers Yana Gupta’s surprise performance of her cult-favourite ‘Babuji Zara Dheere Chalo’ at the club. Photos of Milind Soman dancing on the bar made their way into magazines, where they were no doubt cut out and lovingly stuck onto teenage scrapbooks across the country.
But the nights of aggressive pelvic thrusts and gyrating divas on sweaty dance floors could not go on forever.
Newspapers had a Eureka moment; they discovered the new money-spinner in Bollywood stars. After all, people were more interested in seeing Salman Khan leaving his apartment than restaurateur Kishin Mulchandani in leopard-printed kurtas and shiny bell-bottoms. The Page 3 pipeline that provided free coverage to the city’s Swarovski-bedecked socialites began to dry up. Your appearance in the party section, now, came at a price higher than the Swarovskis.
On the other hand, Baptista’s kind multiplied and diversified, but he couldn’t care less. “We have paparazzi now. Photographers patrol for hours outside celebrity residences for one snap. Newspapers only want Bollywood stars—outside gyms, hospitals, restaurants. I’ve been a nightlife reporter in India forever now, and this isn’t nightlife as I have witnessed it,” he says.
Curfew times are restrictive; nobody parties till dawn anymore. Baptista’s favourite taprooms — Talk of the Town, Rock Around The Clock, 1900s and Supper Club — can only be found on the 14th page of Google search. Paperless invitations flood his Gmail, and sometimes, even land up in spam. Events are restricted to launches and movie screenings. I can bet my FD on the fact that I will never see Ranveer Singh bounce off the walls at The Social.
Still, Marcellus Baptista holds an all-access pass that can drown even Carrie Bradshaw in a pool of envy. His hair has turned white, while his shirts have only become more colourful. But Marcy, as he is endearingly called, is still galloping from one party to another, maintaining old friendships and making new ones.
“My work day starts in the night, and if I have to attend a brunch, it’s overtime. I wear a smile, and hold a glass night after night. It’s a tough life, but somebody has to do it,” says Baptista wryly. During our two-hour conversation, it all fell into place: Baptista is to nightlife what CST is to Bombay — with upgraded technology, lit in new colours, but still a testament to simpler times.