Hungama: Redefining queer nightlife in London

Ryan Lanji Ryan Lanji posing with his DJ set

It was the conviction of a fervent Ryan Lanji who was presented with a debilitating sense of isolation at a club night in East London several years ago that led to one of the most robust Bollywood nights that London has to offer today.

“Hungama”, which is a Hindi colloquialism for “chaos” or “drama”, was the perfect adjective to encapsulate the exuberant personalities and aesthetics that populate the monthly queer Bollywood nights around the capital.

This was a deliberate choice for Ryan as he sought to capture the essence of his fondest memories of a very Indian childhood from yesteryear. “Hearing mom saying ‘that was such a hungama’!” over the phone with friends, and knew instantly that was the energy he wanted to associate with this event.

Ryan, like many South Asians in a modern and globalised world, is a myriad of cultures and backgrounds that fall into place at the arbitrary guiding compasses skewed by the colonists that came before us.

This is a poignantly all-too-familiar narrative for a majority of South Asian people who are presented with the distorted puzzle pieces of a diasporic identity – desperate to design their own identities while paying homage to their eclectic histories.

“I guess the best way to be colloquial about it is, we have spent so much time in the back row, that now is our chance to beat our faces and everyone can watch us.”

Ryan hails from Vancouver, Canada, and moved to London a decade ago in search of a fresh start to recalibrate his disparate identity. As a queer, South Asian male with an affinity for eclectic music and motifs, he struggled to find his footing in London’s largely white-dominated nightlife ecosystem.

He recalls being alienated early on by the musical stylings, aesthetics, and cultural imports from American pop that seemed to eclipse the hallmarks of his synchronic identity.

Having experienced Bollywood music from young and been socialised to disassociate with the rambunctiousness of the genre in order to glide through London’s club scene was “just not cutting it”.

He mentions with gusto, that “nobody hates an Indian wedding”, the festive music is always a key factor in galvanising people to “boogie”, as it were.

The confluence of fragmented identities and the desire to stitch them together in a redefining fashion was the primary impetus for Ryan’s revolutionary take on sound mixing. He begun combining Hip Hop, R&B, and conventionally urban sounds with the archetypal Bollywood beats that have become universally recognised for their boisterous charm.

One of his first events that spun together these unprecedented sounds was the inaugural Hungama night that took place at Metropolis in early 2019. “People had never felt, or seen, what it could look like if Studio 54 was Indian, and that was the goal”, he adds.

Image of Ryan Lanji at the DJ booth during a Hungama night in East London

Ryan Lanji at the DJ booth in a recent Hungama event. [Facebook: Hungama]

The importance of putting Bollywood music on the dance floor and contextualising it for a modern demographic was simply all it needed to become the “next big thing”. Formulas for mashing sounds hitherto, often relegate Bollywood music to automated playlists found online that rarely experiment with dynamism or genre-distortion – Ryan does both, and impeccably so.

“I used to rely on YouTube and Spotify playlists myself too – don’t get me wrong”. Ryan is truly the autodidact that has had to trudge through the inadequately archived histories of Bollywood music in order to find his artistic style, and understand the qualities of jockeying that could enable him to DJ for Hungama’s monthly events.

“Latin music is amazingly archived”, and that “there was bountiful Bollywood music in the 1990’s, but after 9-11, it sort of disappeared”. The cultural repercussions that came from one of the most brutal terror attacks of our generation had unknowingly had disparaging effects on the South Asian community, in its efforts to rebuild an artistic language and database for expression.

Image of 9-11 memorial lights beaming through the night sky in New York City

Ryan Lanji posits that post-9/11, the archival of South Asian music declined drastically. [Flickr: Claudio Schawrz]

It was this lapse in archival and musical documentation that galvanised Ryan into taking musical curation into his own hands. He reminds me however, that the music counts for but a single facet of the entire ethos and broader objectives that Hungama encapsulates.

As much as mixing sounds from “Major Lazer” with iconic Bollywood songs such as “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” is mind-blowingly innovative, it is the entire ensemble of drag queens, entertainers, artists and patrons that make Hungama what it is today.

Ryan suggests that Hungama is the intersection for people to connect, and that it serves as the epicentre for South Asian people in London to network, connect, and to essentially branch out of their comfort zones.

The visuals that one may expect to be greeted by at Hungama are as diverse and multifarious as the pompous sounds that saturate the evening. He stresses that the vibrancy of Hungama’s club nights have to be accentuated through more than just groundbreaking music, as Hungama is a social function that binds people from varied walks of life together in a shared space, via shared experiences.

Ryan’s role as a curator of South Asian descent was initially pigeonholed by the event’s co-organisers, as they requested the venue’s interior to be “decked out like a big Indian wedding”.

Having been flummoxed at first, he recognised the intrinsic preconceptions that continued to linger surrounding Indian aesthetics that have come to be associated exclusively with motifs of religious iconography that have been promulgated by social media. However, he exclaims, “it can be a wedding. If my identity feels so fractured, why don’t I marry the pieces together?”

Although Hungama’s presence in London’s nightlife is rather nascent, it has since its inception tremendously boosted the visibility and queer presence that South Asian youth have in a robust city that more often than not, glosses over the achievements of people of colour when not directly advocated for the mainstream.

“Hungama is a place where we do not adhere to the social media tropes that come to define South Asian culture”, and when asked about how Hungama has ameliorated or enhanced queer visibility for South Asian people in London, Ryan notes that “it needed to be a place where you could be a fashion model or an accountant – and you can be respected equally, without having to worry about whether you belong”.

two patrons of Hungama decked out in campy clothing and makeup posing for a photograph

An example of the campy aesthetics that patrons don when attending a Hungama night in East London. [Facebook: Hungama]

Ryan highlight’s that his sensational approach to mixing traditional Bollywood sounds in an invigorating fashion with current pop and chart toppers has significantly transformed the visibility of Hungama, bringing new life into how people perceive South Asian club nights.

Having been invited to perform at Tate Britain and The Mighty Hoopla, he notes that its this distinct understanding of the chaotic BPM of Bollywood sounds that has catapulted Hungama into the public consciousness. He adds that it is these signature sounds that engage audiences from all demographics, regardless of how substantial their connection to Bollywood music is.

“There could be a night that has a lot of techno, or a night that features a lot of hip-hop”, and even if you have “suppressed your attachments to Bollywood for a long time or have no idea what Bollywood is about, you will feel at home,” he says.

When discussing the visually arresting interiors that one may expect to find at Hungama, Max Allen’s vision for the event’s decorations and posters were the beating heart that inspired many a South Asian drag queen’s upbeat and campy dress sense.

Subsequently, the evolving aesthetics of Hungama have been pioneered by the eclectic variety of patrons who are decked out in traditional Indian garb, mashing them up with contemporary notes of ath-leisure, or streetwear. Highlighting the ever-changing notions of fashion, and decorum and “acceptability for the queer LGBT community.”

An image of the campy, vibrant interior of one of Hungama's event nights

An example of the campy and colourful interior space of one of Hungama’s vibrant East London nights. [Facebook: Hungama]

Having been informed of Hungama’s clear tact with mobilising the community, I posed a pertinent question about Hungama’s ethos and role for the LGBT community at large. Ryan eloquently reads out his colleague’s masterfully crafted mission statement, relaying the following information.

“Hungama has the responsibility to speak up against discrimination. Being queer means refusing to accept hatred and violence. It means to question the need for borders and binaries.” He then pauses to comment on his own work in the entire culmination of this queer experience. “Hungama is about allowing people to be their truest form, and celebrating that regardless of whether [people] understand it.

Allowing that to be the future of culture underpinned by pop culture, taking South Asian culture and nurturing it, cultivating it, questioning it”.

In essence, he argues that Hungama is a platform for underrepresented faces of the South Asian community, namely the queer minority, to be able to shift their conversations about their identity from negatively skewed introspective diatribe, to conversations that enable positive affirmation, self-praise, and respect for all facets of this diverse and multicultural collective.

“It is a family. It is a house – it is about taking care of each other.” He recounts on how his career trajectory has crystallised the notion that Hungama is a platform for young people to be courageous and demand visibility in a sociocultural milieu that is steadfast in xenophobia, eclipsed by Brexit, anti-immigration rhetoric, and an upswing in racially-motivated hate crimes that seek to stoke fear, and antagonise people of colour.

The most striking observation about Ryan Lanji’s erudite acumen that resonated with the experience of being a displaced South Asian was certainly accentuated by the fact that not only does he envision Hungama as being the primo destination for LGBT South Asian youth – it is a safe space for our allies too.

Having been raised in in Canada, and currently thriving in the United Kingdom, unifying people of all backgrounds became an essential factor in forming trustworthy connections.

Ryan Lanji with his arms crossed at the DJ booth, accompanied by a friend.

Ryan Lanji is seen in his natural habitat at Hungama, behind the DJ booth. [Facebook: Hungama]

As much as Hungama was sculpted out of the residual tissue of a biology that was mauled by diaspora, trials and tribulations, connective tissue can only regenerate whence healed.

And in healing, Hungama galvanises queer people to invite their straight allies to celebrate diversity in unison, standing up to archaic structures of oppression that have governed the movement and visibility of queer Indian people for generations.

Essentially, Ryan seeks to build a support system that encourages “young people to come together to create an infrastructure where they can survive, and thrive, via a sustainable platform that equips everyone with visibility”.

When asked where Ryan envisions Hungama going in the near future, he titters sheepishly and recalls that merely a month ago, he could not even fathom them being invited to play in Mumbai and New Delhi, where they are now scheduled to perform in a few weeks’ time.

However, he is optimistic of Hungama’s ability to travel internationally, and hopes to see the event take over renowned clubs in New York, Los Angeles, or even his home town of Vancouver, Canada.

He envisions Hungama as functioning much like a multi-cellular organism. Each component, or each geographical location, serving as a smaller part of a larger social transformation that links people across borders and backgrounds through a common ideological purpose – to celebrate queerness.

Hungama’s reception locally has been that of ultimate satisfaction and mirth. Frequent guest and comrade, Charlotte Khushi says the event “feels like such a family vibe”, and that “this event is not just full of queer brown people, you have everyone there and that’s the beauty of it, everyone is enjoying the same thing but we are actually celebrating the queer Asian culture more”.

“If you are curious and South Asian, or just curious about your gender orientation, you can come to this space, and you will be ingratiated with great company.”

She adds that Hungama fundamentally teases out an imaginative sense of nostalgic unique to the South Asian experience of growing up in a household that is chock-full of Bollywood music and symbolism, “celebrating everyone and brings people together in a way that transcends boundaries”.

As for those curious onlookers who are on the fence about frequenting one of Hungama’s heralded club nights, Ryan offers the following advice. “If you are curious and South Asian, or just curious about your gender orientation, you can come to this space, and you will be ingratiated with great company.”

He openly welcomes newcomers to reach out to Hungama via Instagram or Facebook to walk through any concerns, and even extends the offer of pairing up interested parties with regular patrons, in order to ease them into the night’s festivities.

Ryan reminds readers that Hungama is still a community-led initiative that seeks to remunerate its performers and event coordinators fairly, which is earnest work that requires the committed support of patrons.

Door cover is usually around £10 per night, and all proceeds go directly to the determined people that work tirelessly to put Hungama together on a monthly basis.

The event usually draws an exuberant mix of people that range from 200 to 300 patrons per night, and is sure to thoroughly enthral anyone in search of a break in the mundanity of London’s typical nightlife offerings.

 

 

 

To stay on top of Hungama’s new developments, follow them on Instagram, or on Facebook. You can follow Ryan on Instagram, and on Twitter.


Featured Image courtesy of Ryan Lanji.

Edited by Oliwia Dworakowska.

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