When I place the crown on Ryan Lanji’s head before we start shooting, he assures me of one thing: “I always give good head,” he jokes, flashing me a Colgate smile.
We spend the day in a studio above South Molton Street. Outside, the festive decorations capture the attention of Mayfair’s Instagrammers but inside the studio, all eyes remain firmly on Ryan.
As the Canadian born DJ and curator commands the camera, it becomes clear that he is incredibly photogenic. During the flashing and angle adjusting, I stood on the sidelines watching him contort his body into looks and poses that the average person would struggle to master.
From gentler gazes serving delicate face to fierce experimental looks, some of which can be likened to David Bowie in the renowned Kansai Yamamoto campaign, he handles himself with the special kind of prowess that only comes from someone who truly knows himself.
One of the first things I notice about him is his assortment of tattoos. Just below his grin is the word ‘PYAAR’ inscribed across his neck. “It’s a reminder to speak with love.” Like all good tastemakers, he has come to be known by his appearance – using art to inform his style and his ink. With a particular reverence for Warhol and an appreciation for semiotics, he exhibits himself as a beaming, illustrated man.
When I ask him which artwork on his body he’s lately most proud of, he points to his right bicep, illuminating a blueprint of Studio 54, a former nightclub in New York City. He laughs, saying he’s practically doing a whole PR campaign for it. “Studio 54 completely changed the way people celebrated culture, inclusivity, acceptance and I just became obsessed with it.”
Rightfully so, considering that many have dubbed HUNGAMA, the queer Bollywood night Ryan runs in east London, as the ‘Indian Studio 54’. “I was just really humbled by that description,” he says meekly.
“Hungama is Urdu for the word bedlam, celebration. More colloquially it means lit!” The event should be considered nothing less than a necessary, turbulent force for good in LGBTQ+ nightlife, but it’s origin came from the desire to be much more than just a fun night out. Its genesis was born out of Ryan’s frustration with the status quo.
“After working maybe five to six years in fashion and art, I still felt disenfranchised from the industries. I felt like I was either exoticized or I wasn’t visible. I had worked with some of the best people in fashion, art and culture, and when I went to these places that were supposed to be utopias for queer communities, I just didn’t see myself, ” he explains. “I didn’t see my culture. I didn’t hear the music I wanted. And after a couple of experiences where I felt really alienated and alone, I was like, screw this. I’m going to start something that makes me feel 100 per cent myself.”
Pakistani-born British actor and comedian, Mawaan Rizwan, is just one of many South Asian creatives that consider HUNGAMA a home. After I mentioned that Rizwan gushed over the Bollywood night in an interview, Ryan spoke to me about the visibility of queer South Asians in the media and wider creative spaces.
“It’s exciting because we had never bonded or stood side by side before, and I think now we’re all doing that. It’s really beautiful to see queer Asian men, womxn, and gender non-conforming creatures basically standing up in front of microphones, in front of cameras, saying ‘we’re doing our thing, like deal’.”
But with increased visibility and popularity, comes the concern that the precious space could become oversaturated by those that just won’t get it. “There are moments where we’re like, there are too many straight South Asians coming here to have as much fun as us, rather than heal with us. It’s underneath the strobe lights and the sound systems that we cry, that we mourn, that we long… that we dream. And so it’s those moments when that space and that dance floor is sacred.”
For QPOCs, a group that has been marginalised for decades by society, balls and parties after the sun goes down have become sanctuaries – places they can surrender to the music and experience true acceptance. Their value is increasingly priceless, the only challenge is keeping that sanctity intact. “It’s all about inclusivity and celebrating diversity, but there are moments where we do have to prioritize our people.
The point is for them to learn how to become an ally. So coming to that space, being like: ‘Hi, I’m going to enjoy this space because I know how long you fought to have it, and I’m going to help hold it up and hold it sacred for you. That’s the kind of person I want in this space.”
At 19, Ryan got his first tattoo in his hometown in Vancouver, Canada. It’s meaning is deceptively powerful. “People were just like, ‘why’d you get a Fern?’ I was like, ‘I’m going into training to be the best person I can be.’” The Aya fern is a West African symbol of strength, endurance and resourcefulness. “I knew that I was going to go through a lot and I just really wanted something that was a bit of armour for myself.”
Amazed by his precocious foresight, I asked what brought on such intuition at 19. “I was a young South Asian male who was deeply obsessed with culture, but you’re just not allowed to exhibit that in Indian families. You’re not allowed to be extremely Western or extremely liberal or extremely creative. Then on top of that, I knew that I was queer. I was like, this is a lot of stuff that’s going to either define me or it’s going to ruin me if I don’t embrace it with courage and bravery and fierceness.”
While Vancouver was where he fantasized about his future, London is where he forged it. In 2020, Ryan officially met the decade marker of being a Londoner. When I ask what drew him to the city in the first place, he reminisced about his obsession with the creative hubs of the world. “Being a kid from Vancouver, Canada, I always felt slightly displaced. I was more obsessed with cities and Metropolitan epicentres of the world.”
For many, it can be hard not to get lost in the fog of the Big Smoke, but it seems like 10 years in London has only made Ryan more self-assured. And with fearless footing only strengthened by years of self-exploration, he ensures his drive to create isn’t self-serving. “I think one of the most fundamental and pivotal lessons I’ve learned about understanding my identity, is that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Even right now in India [with] the Punjabi farmers, my identity is not nearly as important as their rights and their livelihood.”
As we pause to refuel on paratha rolls and paneer wraps from Kolkata, a quaint Indian street food stall in Mayfair, Ryan sniffs partly from the nip of the early December air but also from the mirch of our meal. “God, they really did put chilli in here, didn’t they? Usually, it’s like, ‘where’s the spice?’” A fair question, and after watching him compete his way to victory on Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight, it’s clear a little heat won’t kick Ryan out of the kitchen.
The new floristry competition, which aired in March 2020, saw 10 teams creating the most bewildering floral installations you’ve ever seen. Think Great British Bake Off meets the world of botanics. Ryan decided to take it on alongside his former partner, Andrew. Their background did not hold any prior greenery wielding experience – but they took the venture in stride anyway. “I was like, that is going to be my challenge. It’s what I’ve done in London, it’s what I’ve done in fashion and art, and even in club culture. Why not try my hand at floristry?”
The final installation that led them to victory was their Hansel and Gretel cottage, which received high praise from the judges on the show. Thousands watching from home also praised the creative duo over social media, with one Twitter user saying: “My team: Ryan and Andrew truly astounding work and such kind souls,” and another saying they wanted to “marry them both”.
For everyone, 2020 has been a hell of a ride. Not to mention the adverse impact it’s had on creatives. Ryan’s situation was no different: “I found myself homeless during a global pandemic with all of my stuff in storage,” he reflected. “I was going through a heartbreak, as well as complete utter uprooting and didn’t know what to do, other than just go forth.” By the time The Big Flower Fight was broadcasted, Ryan and Andrew were no longer together. “It took a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of drinking, a lot of crying, a lot of trying to come to terms with the fact that the whole world was going to see my past on television.”
There was also the issue of dealing with self-righteous Twitter critics. “Some people thought I was an asshole, and that’s because I walk into situations with confidence and when people steal my flowers, they will find out about it.” Nonetheless, his resilience shone through. “Instead of just allowing myself to be a victim to it, I started to say, ‘No. I’m actually in control of my narrative.’”
As Ryan makes clear, identity is by no means stagnant. It is an ever-changing journey and in an ideal state, progressive. But as second-generation immigrants will know, a part of identity can always be traced back to your roots. Ryan’s fascination with art and culture began with his enjoyment of Bollywood cinema: “Bollywood was my escapism. I just was obsessed with movies because I could disappear in them – it’s a utopia. It’s not riddled in capitalism and it’s not hugely gratuitous or slutty. It’s just fun and beautiful and immersive.”
Upon first moving to London, rediscovering Bollywood music was what made him feel grounded again. “It’s like, you’re born with your culture and you wash it off of you in order to integrate, and then you wonder why you’re different. So, it was during a time where I felt really lonely in London, that I was like, ‘what am I missing?’ And that’s when my mum was sending me music I used to listen to growing up and I was like, I missed all of this. This is my identity. So I kind of hold on to it.”
While lockdowns have brought HUNGAMA to a temporary pause, Ryan’s rich music taste can still make its way to your speakers. With the DJ name Ms Lanji – a nod to Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestant Ms Vanjee, Ryan presents two radio shows, ‘A Dosa Bollywood w/ Hungama’s Ms Lanji’ on Netil Radio, and a monthly HUNGAMA slot on Alphabet Radio.
Perhaps because he is a curator by nature, Ryan has a special knack for exhibiting culture and carving a space to welcome people from South Asian backgrounds and the QPOC community. His shows regularly feature well-known Desi public figures such as Ashish Gupta, the designer behind the marvellously colourful fashion brand, Ashish, as well as model and journalist Simran Randhawa, letting them enthuse over their love of nostalgic Bollywood, live.
Thinking back to his remarks on identity, I thought about the importance of acknowledging what’s going on outside of yourself, balancing inwardness with outward cognizance. It’s clear that Ryan talks the talk because he knows he walks the walk. Excitedly detailing what he has in the pipeline for this year, he says: “I am in the process of starting a platform for the nonbinary, POC, queer communities that exist. I really want to take up more space. I want us to be in charge of our own news and media, and promote our own people and not necessarily have our stories be subject to more white-dominant queer titles.” He leaves me with the hint that The Big Flower Fight is not the last we will see of him on television and the enticing promise that he’ll throw another HUNGAMA when it’s possible again.
After our meeting, I kept thinking about that throwaway comment he made during our meal: “Where’s the spice?” Spice has often been exported from cuisine to be used as an arcane descriptor for all things ‘ethnic’, but hearing its recurring absence questioned by Ryan feels applicable in a greater context.
Creative industries are not exempt from falling into redundant patterns: the same models, the same personalities, the same music. It takes someone who’s willing to ask that question, to cause disruption and create new spaces for those who aren’t satisfied with blandness.
Ryan Lanji is that someone. After learning about his tenacious drive to create, and unrelenting desire to showcase his culture, it makes sense to interpret “where’s the spice?” as an unintentional, yet perfectly succinct maxim for his ideological approach to life. And in Ryan’s case, the answer to that question is “right here.”
View PDF verson here.
Interview & words by Kiran Saggu
Edits by Armani Syed & Kardelen Yuce
Photography & image edits by Shahfaq Shahbaz and Mathushaa Sagthidas