Heavily painted, fumigated with cheap perfume, and host to a steady stream of bleary men, Cleopatra is an essay in seediness. Other Colombo clubs evolve, dissolve, and re-invent themselves every season, but the Cleopatra name continues to hold fort, hollered by commission-driven tuktuk drivers, whispered between schoolboys, glorified in the mires of Facebook.
This is the ultimate underground Colombo club - literally. It's tucked away under the innocuous Liberty Plaza Shopping Complex, near the Keells Super. As though this needed to be reinforced, there are a few shopping carts strewn around, casually reminding you that the commodification of women's bodies is a vital brick in the capitalist structure. The walls are slathered in Egyptian-style paintings and faux heiroglyphics, so at least they're serious about thematic continuity, which I respect.
You take some stairs down near the HSBC ATM, enter a tubelight-illuminated car park complete with bouncers and inebriated potential patrons, and leave Rs. 1000, your conscience, and appetite at the door. There were no female patrons there at the time of my visit, only working women.
I would strongly advise against frequenting the bathrooms here, unless you're keen on a bouquet of smells that succintly encapsulate human despair.
It's a supermarket basement, where dreams go to die and libidos come alive. Flush with smashed local men, sloshed foreign men, inebriated low-range businessmen, tuktuk trophy bad boys on tour, and a workforce of powdered and preened young girls, this is possibly one of the most consistently popular clubs in the city.
You enter a large dingy hall with a brightly lit wooden stage in the middle. Much like a human auction, a set of young girls (and usually one or two trans people) come up onto the stage, dressed in heavy Indian garb, and dance to Bollywood tunes. Their steps are lively, their eyes are glazed over.
The women will try and catch your eye or beckon you on to the stage. To dance with them though, you need to enter a complex barter system involving flower garlands at Rs. 500 a pop and a formidable set of matrons with calculators fringing the stage. It's a delicate ecosystem that depends on frustration for its sunlight.
Drinks are on par with any bar in town, at about Rs 900 for a Chivas, while food costs an arm, a leg, and another appendage of your choosing.
With French Fries at Rs. 1900, these prices blow anything else Colombo has to offer straight out of the murky water. But if you're keeping your eye on the prize (and the price), you'd quickly work out that you can buy 3.8 flower garlands for a dancing girl for a plate of French Fries, so it doesn't seem that worth it after all.
They've also got a bunch of unfathomable stuff on offer. Ranging from the obvious local beers and fried rice scenes, to the obscure stacks of Happy Cow Cheese and sparkling pink wine, everything is meticulously recorded and calculated.
I really wonder whether the towers of Happy Cow Cheese somehow work into the barter system, like do 5 garlands equal one box of cheese, and 5 boxes of cheese equal a private dance, or something equally systematic?
It depends. It did honestly appear as though all the men there were having a superb time. With older family men commandeering tables, pouring amber-coloured liquid for young girls draped on their laps, and younger men crowding around the stage grabbing each other and their crotches in gleeful abandon, single foreign men milling about looking bemused and amused in equal parts, all I saw was enthusiasm.
The two men that accompanied me felt differently about the place, possibly because they view women as actual people. We left decidedly enlightened and definitely depressed. You cannot just witness the dead eyed-dancing, the transactional grinding of sometimes pubescent heavily made-up bodies on sweating, groping, leering men, and leave feeling all is right with the world.
It's dingy, it's dark, and it's an intrinsic part of Colombo's nocturnal emissions. Love it or hate it, Cleopatra is going to live on in her underground tomb.