Inside ‘Hungama’, an LGBTQ+ Bollywood Night in an East London Strip Club
It's rare that South Asian clubbers can come together to celebrate queer culture, but this new night at Metropolis provides just that.
All photography by Bekky Lonsdale
It’s 11:30PM on a Thursday night at legendary east London club Metropolis, and Beyonce and Bollywood music are blaring out the speakers at exactly the same time.
Around 200 people – mostly 20-something queer people and young creatives, dressed in everything from traditional Indian attire to streetwear – have gathered on the dancefloor for ‘Hungama’, east London’s newest – and currently only – gay Bollywood night. While a significant proportion who’ve turned up are South Asian, the attendees appear to span a host of ethnicities, nationalities, faiths and styles. In other words, it feels like an inherently inclusive space, whatever angle you’re coming from.
The brainchild of London-based fashion and art curator Ryan Lanji, Hungama – which loosely translates to ‘chaos’ or ‘uproar’ in Urdu – was born after he noticed the lack of spaces and club nights allowing queer South Asian people the chance for their culture and sexuality to seamlessly co-exist. It’s also one of the only events in London to bring queer Asians together with the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, as they aren’t always one and the same.
“When I first moved to London eight years ago, I was very shaken in [LGBTQ+] spaces,” Ryan explains when I manage to grab a spare moment to chat with him by the bar. The club is heaving at this point, and we find ourselves having to shout over the music. “When you go to LGBTQ club nights, they can sometimes be fetishitic or kinky,” he continues. “The culture is very experiential and experimental. But this can be jarring for someone who’s grown up hiding who they are from their family, only to be thrust into a world where you can be anything you want.”
Hungama, then, is supposed to be the perfect “middle ground,” as Ryan tells me. “It gives people a stepping stone to come into this community. I think it allows people to think they haven’t run from their culture. I can only imagine someone who’s more reserved than me feeling completely out of depth and then becoming isolated because they’ve left their culture for trying to be who they are, then found themselves at the epicentre of debauchery, which some of the LGBTQ+ landscape can feel like.”
But this night feels like a melting pot of both worlds. Bollywood videos play on giant screens as 90s pop and hip-hop hits blare out nearby speakers. Attendees gyrate theatrically on poles and drag queens saunter around the room in 7-inch platforms. At midnight, dancer Raheem Mir takes to the stage in traditional attire, performing a classic Indian dance routine, with the crowd whooping and dancing throughout. In many ways, the frenetic yet celebratory energy actually feels of those seemingly never-ending Indian weddings, while also being tied to what you’d usually find at queer nights across the city. And the result feels pretty freeing.
“I used to be obsessed with Bollywood music but I’d left it to the wayside,” Ryan tells me, speaking about how it often feels like queer South Asians have to leave their culture behind once they come out. Ultimately, he hopes that attendees – a significant proportion of whom have come with their significant others – can dance to the music they grew up with alongside throwback chart hits, only this time with “our boyfriends or girlfriends and not wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to be loved for ourselves.” But he’s also keen to stress that Hungama is just like any other night in that it’s a place to let loose. “The night itself has organically become a party that celebrates being you, who you are, who you love and who you want to be.”
This approach is clearly working. The sticky dance-floor is heaving as it approaches 1:30AM, with no signs of slowing down. And as the night progresses, the crowd gets even more flamboyant, with dancers gyrating across the club space, sweat sticking to the walls and make-up dripping down faces. The rhetoric generally goes that nightlife in the capital – especially queer nightlife – is dead, but tonight, for a moment at least, that feels kind of off-the-mark.
A recent survey from Stonewall found that 51% of people of colour experience racism in LGBTQ+ communities, showing that it’s not nearly as progressive as it seems to an outsider. In a climate where anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia – already rife in public life – persists in the LGBTQ+ community, it stands to reason that queer PoC like Ryan might choose to sacrifice their culture to come out. For many of the attendees I speak to tonight, it’s not uncommon.
“I would have killed to have gone somewhere like this growing up,” musician Leo Kalyan – who identifies as a gay Pakistani Muslim – tells me when we meet in the smoking area. “I was that person who thought they had to pick between their sexuality and culture. But our culture and sexuality don’t have to be mutually exclusive – they can come together. They can bond to create something new and futuristic.”
Sadek Ahmed – who identifies as a Bengali Muslim – echoes this sentiment. “You have all these queer nights but you don’t have one specialised to South Asians. You sort of feel subsided,” he sighs. But Hungama fuses the most vibrant aspects of his culture and sexuality, which led him here tonight. “Both the queer scene and Bollywood are flamboyant and the fact that they’re coming together is amazing. It’s flamboyance times a million!”
Right now, Hungama seems to be part of a new wave of third generation South Asians redefining their self-image and celebrating the multiplicities of their identities. Burnt Roti Magazine, for instance, is a magazine centred on non-binary identities and bisexuality from a South Asian perspective, and they recently celebrated their third issue. Meanwhile, earlier this month, LGBTQ+ charity Imaan played host to the Big Gay Iftaar, bringing both the mainstream Muslim community together with its queer counterparts to observe Ramadan.
This is all cause for celebration. But I can’t help but think it’s a shame that events like this are still few and far between, especially for queer Asian people outside London, where nothing like this exists. On the way out, I ask Ryan if he would consider expanding the night to other UK cities like Birmingham, home to some of Britain’s biggest South Asian diasporic communities. “It would be nice to provide a place of fun and a place of belonging,” Ryan affirms in answer to my question. “You don’t have to be an ‘other’. You can just be you. There’ll be people out there who’ll come support that.”
Although Hungama serves as a refuge for queer Asians, Ryan insists that the night transcends beyond being simply a queer brown space: “it’s about people coming together unconditionally and accepting each other.”