“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” - Vishal Shetty, quoting Victor Hugo.
Commercial-yet-cult. Burlesque-yet-believable. As Mumbai’s most iconic club till date, Fire N’ Ice, threatens to haunt our nightlife with its ghost, one of its creators tells a tale worthy of chronicling. Between revolutionizing the city’s witching hours and creating the cave that holds its most epic dance-floor memories, the man still found the time to drink eight vodka Red Bulls by breakfast. This is a quest to trace a journey that even 10 years post its closing, sparks an interest in every person that weaved their way into its fabric.
I’ve lived through my share of iconic venues. I was around when Zenzi sheltered the pierced, independent rebels and when Blue Frog transformed the landscape of live music performances in this country. Every generation has their own coming-of-age experience and every generation has their regret. Mine was missing out on the Fire N’ Ice experience.
I can’t pinpoint the source of this void through any particular thing the club provided—all I have are stories. I had the misfortune of having to live the FNI hey days vicariously through my sister and her friends who managed to be there every week even while giving their board exams. This usually meant disgruntled door-opening for her (largely) lifeless body being carried in by rotating regulars like some sort of corpse bride. And while all their stories differ in content there’s a serial theme that makes the experience sound so fucking appealing. Rebellion, sweat-on-skin, the kind of community that can’t be planned; Fire N’ Ice changed the way people danced.
Now, given the sudden deluge of social media announcements that promise a gathering of the old FNI troupes at Tote, a reliving of their peak, what happier excuse is there to call upon Vishal Shetty at his undulating Mahalaxmi office? As one of the club’s creators, I have to admit he looks the part. The pitted skin, the sunken eyes, the remarkable alertness are akin to some sort of war veteran. The kind of man who’s seen it all. Too much, even.
I turn on my recorder to gather his thoughts. Between snippets of revolutionary condom machines, full-blown riots and legendary bouncers (read: Samson) it’s endearing to hear how far the boys from Fire N’ Ice have come. They have real jobs now. They have families. They’ve learned to let go. And they’re still marching the streets to their own beat. But perhaps, best of all, they can always bask in the memories of grimier days.
Read on for a fragmented account of their Fire N’ Ice experience:
I. Begin At The Beginning
“As far as partying goes, we only had a couple of options to go to in the ‘90s and most of them sucked.”
One of the places I remember in that landscape was The Nineteens, which was a membership club, so every time you wanted to go there, you’d have to hunt down the members so it was a real mission. Then there was like this fashion bistro which was a small bar everyone would go to just because it was a new place and at that time, anything that was new was awesome because there was barely anything coming up.
Was there longevity? Sure, because nothing new was coming up to compete with them, and definitely nothing substantial. And because there was no internet, people didn’t even know any better. We couldn’t get on Facebook to figure out what was going on to not, whether it was crowded or not crowded. Then came the pager. Thank god for that, at least then we’d come to know, you know, okay don’t come or whatever.
II. We did start the fire
“Why don’t we start a club?”
So yeah…I think that barren nightlife situation…it was pretty much the time we sort of decided at some tea stall near hanging gardens. All 4 of us (Ketan Kadam, Rajeev Shah, Neeraj Rungta & Vishal) just sat down and said…let’s do something. We went and we got a paper and two of our partners were really good at math so we sort of put the numbers out there and it all made sense on paper. It was the four of us because we were partying quite often; but only once a week because that was the norm at that time. Usually, people go to see a place first, do the numbers later but we went the opposite direction because two of the members were like really harboured business guys, so when the numbers made sense we said ‘ok fine, let’s do it.’ One of the great things that I’ll still stand by was that we had the greatest team. If one guy knew the numbers side of it, we had another like Ketan who understood the permissions side of it.
It was a dynamic team with an extremely dynamic idea in our mind and it was at a time where nothing could go wrong! I always say there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
III. Finding Utopia
“Right before we found our venue, we saw a giant 50 X 70 foot wall right behind it that was completely FILLED with cockroaches. You could hear the buzzing!”
We knew the shit we needed to know. When i’d just gotten out of school, I must have been 14 years old, I used to run a house party DJ providing service where me and these 7 other guys created a group called Ear Damage which would provide sounds, lights and DJs for house parties. We ended up throwing all the Cathedral parties.
At that time, Hussain (Whosane) and Asad (Freeatmah Zaidi) were the only guys who even had Audiophiles to play. Of the seven, one is the director of Sony Music now, the other is my brother-in-law. Anyway, basically we knew the music side of it, we knew the party side of it, we knew what change was required.
And we were very clear on the space we needed for it.
I think from there we took off and just started looking at venues, we must have seen nearly 60-odd venues before we finally got to the last one. We almost closed on the one at Mahalaxmi, under the Mahalaxmi bridge, where they had this big warehouse. I think there’s a car service or something there now. It was under a bridge so no one would know that there’s something actually under the bridge. Anyway, we were about to go there and check it out when someone told us to go to Phoenix Mills and check this place out. So we went. And we saw something that was behind and immediately said no because there was this giant 50x70 feet wall that was filled with cockroaches. When we walked in we could hear this loud buzz but it was dark, so until they put the torch on we couldn’t see the wall…I’m not kidding, it was FULL of cockroaches! We ran out of there…
And just like that, the Lower Parel era was born.
We got so much discouragement about the area. People would say: you can’t go into Lower Parel because it’s industrial. Even the flyovers weren’t there; it was all very hard, dark, edgy. But that’s exactly what we wanted because then we could get away with whatever we wanted to.
IV. Cockroaches bred dance
“I think this is it.”
Two of our guys were like ‘no way do we want a place with energy like this’ and we walked out. That’s when we saw it. It was actually broken down, the roof was off and there was nothing there, but while we were walking out something made us ask ‘is this available?’ We went inside…and it was like..Four of us stood in the centre of this place with no roof and all four of us said, ‘I think this is it.’
V. …And Bombay bred money.
“First three years, everything we touched turned to gold.”
Two of the partners were from successful business families; Neeraj used to run a family business of chemicals and Ketan was from a hospitality background. I was in the jewellery business with Rajeev for about five years where I learned a lot about diamonds and stuff.
Some of us had to borrow on interest and we did it, we ended up going three times over budget. One of the partners used to push really hard to push the envelope, he’d always say we needed to raise the bar. It ended up being really good for business.
Like I said, we were an extremely powerful team. We knew how to manage and we had the first mover’s advantage to do something before anyone else, to pave our own way. You need to innovate, you need to shift things completely; I still love it when I see people doing that. So the first three years, everything was clicking. Everything we were touching was turning to gold.
VI. The Pregnant Pause
”We had a baby.”
In many ways this whole project was very much like a baby. It took nine months to make and deliver. At least we used to look at it that way.
VII. Circle of Life
“We were the first people to install a condom vending machine.”
Fire & Ice gave birth to a lot of things. We had that first mover’s advantage but we still all believe that you have to constantly innovate and challenge yourself. When it came to our nights we had all sorts of crazy programming. We came up with Chandni Bar nights which were a major hit. Yana Gupta actually did a whole Babuji number once. And then Orion Entertainment came to programme a hip-hop night. We were never happy with just one facet, it was about creating an experience so we actually had live rappers like Omar and Kunal take over.
Maroosh actually also started in a way because of the club because we were the only vegetarian club back then. Ketan and I thought it was a good opportunity to start something quick and non-veg around the corner so that’s where that came from. It was just a broken down mill so you could do whatever you wanted! Sometimes we’d go out to Maroosh and put a sound system there, play music while they were eating and some of the people would provide drinks there so waiters would come and serve these kids their drinks and food and they were parked in their cars out there.
One time we thought it would be a great idea to install a condom vending machine in the club and surprisingly it worked! We put it in the men’s loo and convinced KamaSutra to help us out. I think we were all surprised at how well it worked.
Then there were other clubs that tried to imitate, re-create, whatever. Velocity came in, Mikanos also did the same, everyone was hunting for a space that could give that same experience, that high ceiling..they had understood what the necessities for a top club was. Sure, there was a dip in business sometimes but we stood by good music and the brand. By then, we were already a brand and it was bigger than all of us. The only place that opened and really stood out was Athena. But see, they too challenged what was already existing. They created that table system and the lounge model so it was something new, even we used to go and party there!
And that whole mass SMS invite thing? I think that was born with us too. Got tiring to send those 100 messages out a day but we used to do it.
VIII. Shut up & dance
“Screw strategies, there were no strategies. What we created was a culture of dancing.”
Maybe it started well because it had all that media attention. I mean Shahrukh inaugurated the opening night (he was doing Devdas at the time) but none of that was planned as a crowd-pulling gimmick really. It was all too new but honestly, at that time there were no strategies. What we really created was a culture of dancing because today, it’s not about dancing. It’s put your phones up and tape, but there’s no dancing culture as such.
So the thing was, even Shahrukh, he inaugurated the dance floor, not the club. We were very mindful about the importance of the dance floor, where the sound should be. Even when we installed the sound at that time, it was about 30-40 lakh worth of sound back in 1999. We had all sorts of things; we had a laser Pink Floyd used to use, we hired an engineer who had worked on Pink Floyd concerts and stuff like that.
IX. No club for hypocrisy
“We provided everything for everyone.”
Yeah, sure it was considered upmarket at the time because when we started, there were important people who were becoming regulars but not in the way people insinuate . I mean owning a club is every kid’s fantasy. Other industrialist’s kids had tried clubs and failed, so when four guys come and build this massive club, one has never seen anything like it, what do you expect? For us, the reference points were very clear. We wanted something massive, something with intelligent lighting, sound and music. So we were never as a ‘certain’ kind of club because we provided everything for everyone.
There were definitely crazy occasions, like one time this big industrialist came and told me, ‘I want your club. The entire club.’ I told him I couldn’t because it was a Friday night and I couldn’t shut down a new club, so we gave him the full top section till 10 and then after 10 I said let people inside.
Then I remember there was this couple who used to come in an AC cab from The Oberoi because we had a deal going with them and they used to party like crazy. Then I found out that they were Kuwaiti Royalty!
Another time, the entire Indian cricket team was up there and Adnan Sami put the volume down and sang for Sourav Ganguly, so yeah it was crazy!
X. Tune out
“Overall, we were known for our music; we knew we had that right.”
Man, the brand was bigger than all of us. We knew that. I think it had become so big at one point that people just wanted something, anything they could get from us. What we sort of became was the music place and that wasn’t there at that point. “Give me the Fire and Ice music,” people would tell us. There was no radio then; my brother-in-law was the only RJ at the time I think and we became the fastest source to the biggest hits across the globe. So we pushed all the club stuff that wasn’t being released then, not the retro rock shit that had always been there.
There was this one guy BOB, Israeli guy, I don’t even know how we got him to come down because we didn’t even transfer the money beforehand, he came, saw the club and just like that he was like,“let me be your booking agent.” A lot of the Ministry of Sound guys came after that. Everything was always packed. Did a hip-hop night? Packed. Retro night? Packed. Trance night? Packed.
XI. Pricks, Power, Prison.
“It turned into a riot.”
I think a lot of people didn’t like us because we had the hottest club in the country. Things, business was all moving really fast and I guess we hadn’t accepted that shit could turn around very fast too. There was a case that put us in Arthur Road jail for days and 3 nights in 2000 and it only got over last year.
XII. We are family
“We’d take a bullet for each other”
We’ve all seen a lot of shit together. Even when the BMC shut us down (because a building behind FNI fell down), we went all in together. We went all the way to the High Court, Supreme Court in Delhi and had top lawyers fight the case. It took us a month but we retained all our staff. We’d play cricket outside on the holidays and we even took a couple of journeys to Nashik to the church where we’d all go pray together because most of the guys were Christians. We did everything like a family.
XV. This is the end, Of our elaborate plans, The end.
“If the high is that good, then the low has to be that bad.”
Eventually, we decided to shut down because the mill was getting too commercial. Big Bazaar had opened just opposite and it was not the best place to have a club anymore. It was around mid-2003 that we began getting feelers that it’s about to sizzle out.
It was just too close to us because we didn’t know anything else. We were a bunch of 23-24 year-olds, our whole lives had been turned upside down. I left my day job for this. I was doing jewellery around ’96/’97 and just left it all behind. And when it shut down, I didn’t know what to do then. I mean, the lights went off. And when the lights go off, it’s not a good feeling. We did shut on a high as a brand, but internally it was incredibly sad.
Suddenly nobody wanted to know you, nobody wanted to be with you, the hottest club of town was no longer hottest club of town, and anyone who spoke to you didn’t speak to you anymore. You do certain things to stay in the news to when you’re being written about every week, even TIME magazine had done a piece on us once. What I said earlier, applies to us too, you know. If the high is that high, then the low has to be that low too. There’s no other way you have to deal with it.
9 months of planning, 5 years in business. We started on 15th October 1999 and shut on 4th January, 2004. I think 2/3 of our people cried, and more than a few of the regulars. It was really emotional. But you know what? I think we were strong enough. We knew our roots, we knew where we came from. And we did it all.
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