Life Stories: Ryan Lanji - Founder, HUNGAMA
Everything about it is colourfull 🌈. I’m talking about one of the fastest growing and successful nights in London, HUNGAMA. A place for queer people and their allies to lose their inhibitions and dance to the amazing mash ups between Bollywood and RnB music. It’s grown in popularity over the past year, most recently a sold out, tightly packed Diwali extravaganza at Dalston Superstore.
The gorgeous man behind it is Ryan Lanji (Ms Lanji to his followers) who moved to London from Canada 8 years ago to pursue love and his dreams. We get to hear about the beauty of HUNGAMA, but importantly we dive into Ryan’s personal story (and his alleged ability to sing Hindi songs fluently – I didn’t get to test this).
31, male, gay, Canadian-British-Hindu-Punjabi (and also a unicorn)
Life Right Now
Aside from being the Founder of HUNGAMA, I’m a Fashion and Art curator having curated exhibitions for the last 10 years (Ryan’s first solo show in 2011, Nailphilia which focused on nail art was a seminal moment in fashion and art exhibitions). HUNGAMA’s success has been phenomenal and it has grown really quickly over the last year, so it’s just as important to me as my (official) career.
I feel lucky being gay and a person of colour (POC). We’re able to have empathy and sympathy, as well as see the beauty in being different. We are pillars of diversity in that regard.
I remember being at school, playing truth or dare behind the rubbish bins and having to kiss girls, and I instinctively knew I didn’t want to. I knew then I was different, but didn’t quite understand. As technology came along, I used the AOL chatrooms, found the gay spaces and connected with people, asked questions. It wasn’t salacious, it was to help me understand myself better. I even did the same at the library, looking at the LGBTQ section but being afraid to reach out for a book. I eventually did, and read these beautiful love stories. It helped me realise I wasn’t ‘wrong’ and this wasn’t a choice. I’d just need to work through it.
My Family & Culture
When I was younger, I was more effeminate (now not so much). I was taken by the flamboyant nature of Bollywood, the colours, the actresses and the music – things that traditionally Indian boys didn’t care about. The red flags were there! Naturally, my
extended family wanted me to be a good Indian boy and get married – I knew that wasn’t me. So just as they denied it, I lied too and tried to be a perfect Indian boy. Tech was coming up, so I learnt how to use a CD and video player, I would DJ – it meant that I could spend time with the music itself.
Growing up, I spent lots of time with my Mum. Helping her get dressed, picking out her tikka (Indian jewellery), helping her in the kitchen. We had this special relationship, yet in public I had to behave differently. I have a happy relationship with her now, she was even here this summer hosting a HUNGAMA (which I couldn’t have dreamt of). In a gold mini skirt 💅. And people had to have wristbands to meet her. She danced the night away and loved it. I think she vicariously lives through me, my sexuality may have been a curveball, but it’s taken her on an adventure by being a part of my world too.
HUNGAMA helps me stay connected to my culture, Bollywood is a part of my DNA. I love finding a hidden song, unearthing a hit from the 80s or 90s and seeing people go wild. The Diwali party at Dalston Superstore was unreal and the support from the community was amazing. I want people to come together, allies and the queer community, to feel good. If that happens, then it’s all worth it.
I had planned to come out around at the age of 30, once I’d worked my professional life and become independent. It happened when I was 19. I was at Film School and had started seeing a guy at the same stage of discovery. We had a project and decided to film it at my family home as it was the perfect urban setting. My Dad had collected us with our equipment, and he noticed I was kinder to this boy. That evening, he and my Mum had an argument where he said to her that he knew I was gay.
The next morning, my sister was trying to get a hold of me. She was 18 and knew, and had always been cool about who I was. She told me what happened, and said that they were going through a tough time, so I needed to keep this out of the house/private. I understood what she meant. That day I had an exam, which if I failed would meant I would be cut from school. I felt I had bombed and explained what had happened to my professor. He said not to worry and that being gay would be the best thing that happened to me – and told me his daughter was now his son. I went home soon after, bit the bullet and told my Mum. It affected our relationship for about 10 years. My Dad is a loving person, he just wanted me to be safe and happy.
HUNGAMA was sparked by a moment with my Mum. I’d gone back to Canada last year for her 2nd wedding and we were sitting in her car, listening to Bollywood music like we did when I was younger. I’ve always connected with my Mum over music, and we played our favourite songs and remixes. I missed that part of my life a lot, especially having come through some lonely times in London earlier. I approached The Glory to throw a queer Bollywood hip hop night and the rest is history. I always wondered where the other Indian people were, and they are definitely out there!
From a personal perspective, as I grew in confidence (plus I’m a Leo), I asserted myself when I entered rooms. From demanding time kindly, to being confident. Gay men have a reputation for being audacious and sassy, so I used that as a strength in helping me throughout my career.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I’ve been lucky that growing up in Canada, we were put together like shattered glass or a colourful mosaic to make a complete picture. We learnt about each other’s’ cultures, got to know each other and celebrated together. I didn’t realise how powerful that was until I came to the UK and saw people being ostracised or ‘othered’. In my mind, when I date someone, I don’t see them for their race and I see myself as simply Canadian. We just like each other and that’s that.
I have had experiences of being fetishized but I don’t entertain that. I have a vision for my life, which includes self-respect, being loved fully for who I am and I don’t have time for that type of classless behaviour.
Currently, I'm very happy and in a loving relationship that is as exciting as it was when we first met. This person sees me for who I really am (stripped of all the nuances put on me by my projects, social media and my own saboteurs). I’m blessed to have met someone who looks deep in my eyes and sees my dreams and supports them implicitly.
I’ve had so much support since HUNGAMA began. In creating it, I didn’t want it to be tribalistic or clandestine, but a place that was futuristically diverse. The aim was always to bring like-minded people together, whether they were queer or allies to simply enjoy the music, connect and to make sure no-one was othered. It’s amazing seeing people just dance together because they love the music. Ultimately, we’re all the same.
To make progress, honest conversations sit at the heart of this because you never know who it will reach. I am a sexual health ambassador for the Naz Project’s ‘Sholay Love’ campaign (supporting sexual health within South Asian men who seek men), and HIV testing amongst this group has seen a lack of decline. I remember thinking I have to talk about this on live TV, people will assume I am HIV positive which isn’t the case. But I decided that it was important to me, and so posted an Insta story on the whole process of testing from the beginning to end to de-stigmatise it. And the feedback was incredible, from encouraging people to get tested to the stories they shared.
I don’t have anyone person I find particularly inspiring. I do, however, find those who do 20% more than is expected of them to take a stand to tell their story, break down a stigma, and help everyone live fuller and more authentic lives (preach 🙌!).
Words of Wisdom
Find a way to consolidate what is stopping you from being authentic. Build a list, get it out and 'see' it. Denial is the worst thing to do to yourself and it’s important to acknowledge ourselves.
Find a support system. That could be a best friend, an anonymous group. Once you confide in someone you trust; the process of saying it out loud makes it easier to digest.
Find your people. Push through the fear to enter spaces with those who are similar to you. I felt the same way about the LGBT common room at University as well as Dalston Superstore. Don’t be scared to take the leap, and once inside be kind and be loving.
And then Ryan was off – to the nOSCARS no less (a celebration to highlight the programmes and volunteers making a difference to minority communities, hosted by The Naz Project).
There was much in his experience that I could directly relate to, but it was his focus on kindness towards others and a relentless focus on making Hungama a place of love that stayed with me. Next time, I want to hear him sing!
Photo Credits: Anna Sampson and Kiran Gidda