Ryan Lanji’s rediscovery of Bollywood music was the key to reconciling his sexual identity with his Indian heritage, and now he’s helping other queer Asians do the same
How Bollywood helped club host Ryan Lanji embrace his sexuality
Beta [ son in Hindi], why must you go on live television and be in the newspapers telling everyone your story?” asked my mother with concern. We were talking on the phone before the latest instalment of my increasingly popular East London queer Bollywood hip- hop night Hungama. I had just been on the BBC with Victoria Derbyshire, chatting about the importance of sexual- health testing in the South Asian community.
“Mum!” I replied impatiently, “I told you that I need to do this; I am trying to help my people.” I felt my inner shame waking from its slumber, its smile growing as it heard my vulnerability, and its knuckles cracking as it prepared to cast a shadow back over my life.
“Can’t they speak for themselves?” she asked.
“No,” I retorted, “I am helping them find their voices.”
It was in that statement that I realised how much I had grown.
I came out in 2006, aged 19 ( please don’t do the maths). I lived in Canada and was studying film at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. While I was struggling to be the next Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino, I wasn’t struggling to find the only other gay guy in class.
We began dating in secret, and for some reason I decided to volunteer my parent’s house as our second- year filming location. Nothing salacious was seen, but my acutely observant father noticed how kind and sweet I was to the boy during the shoot, and in one of his alcohol- fuelled fights with my mother ( which would usually happen at night while we tried to sleep), he used it as ammunition against her.
She was already trying her hardest to maintain the façade of the perfect Indian family for anyone looking.
I didn’t hear exactly what was said, but it must have been along the lines of “Mark my words, your son is gay,” because I woke to my cell phone ringing at five the following morning. It was my sister calling; my mum used to wake up early to drive her to school then start her shift at a call centre selling lotteries — not only was she glamorous, but she was also a fabulous telemarketer.
My sister jumped down my throat as soon as I picked up: “Mum and dad know you’re gay! You fucking idiot, what did I tell you? Couldn’t you have kept that shit out of the house a little bit longer?”
I felt a chill run down my spine, and my body went numb. I looked over at my bed, where the guy from film school was asleep. My Indian parents had found out I am gay. It was my worst nightmare come true.
That was the beginning of my journey. I remember going back to university to drop off all of the equipment, failing my final exam and immediately pulling the teacher aside in the corridor and telling him that I bombed the test because my parents found out I was gay. I was known to bend the truth to get my way, so I hoped he would believe me.
The professor looked at me with a stern face and said, “Ryan, this is why you’re going to do something great.”
Confused by his statement, I asked what he meant. His face changed into a loving smile, as he said, “I know this, because I have a daughter who used to be my son.”
I didn’t realise how important that statement would be for me until almost a decade later. I ended up dropping out of film school and moving to London when I was 23. I moved for love, with my then- partner, but also to escape my family. I became tarnished and a disappointment to my family name. Only now do I wonder whether they put those feelings on me or if I put them on myself.
Being a South Asian homosexual isn’t an easy journey. Our culture is beautiful, full of magic and enchantment, and our aesthetic is colourful, but it’s no place to be gay. I exiled myself in a way, telling my family that I was moving to London to work and study, but also hoping that my journey would help me find myself, in what we would now label the cis white gay world of East London.
When I broke up with my partner, I felt utterly alone. I remember walking past watering holes such as Dalston Superstore and The George & Dragon, but I was too scared to go in because I didn’t want to be reminded of how lonely I was. By this point I had worked in fashion and art, curating exhibitions for fashion designers and artists, so I knew the cool kids of East
“I felt a chill run down my spine. My parents had found out that I’m gay”
London but was never quite part of their scene. I began meeting people and trying to find my gays, so to speak.
During a trip home in 2017 ( for mum’s second wedding), I found myself listening to my favourite Bollywood songs with her. Nostalgia flooded my mind and I noticed a beautiful feeling: I felt I was home.
Determined to bring that feeling back to London, I asked The Glory to help me host a gay Bollywood night. I had noticed that I was one of a few gay Asians in East London, and I was convinced there had to be more.
I began hosting Hungama ( Hindi for mayhem and chaos), and the response was heart- warming. I received messages from gay Asian men who thanked me for bridging our culture and our community. I had people confiding in me about their sexual health, orientation, and feelings of abandonment.
Hungama has become a home for South Asians wanting to celebrate who they are, among other queer South Asian men, women and non- binary people — uniting to show the world we are here. It’s not only a great night where intersectionality is palpable, but it’s also a space were we support the future of diversity, the beauty of being South Asian and, most importantly, being who you are.
So, even after a slightly confused phone call from my mum, who is gracefully learning to accept me ( she has come a long way, even hosting one of my parties this year), I am realising how courageous one must be to pave the way for their people.
Once it becomes easier for you, you mustn’t stop, because your journey can inspire others who have a more arduous time. I will bring a voice to my people through this special night, so that each one can stand strong and proud, whether around the family dinner table or on a dancefloor full of queers who have found their tribe.
I want to show people that we have nothing to be ashamed of, and that we don’t have to choose between our culture and the LGBT+ community — even if doing so causes some “hungama” along the way.