Bollywood’s Beat Is Loud And Queer – Newsday

Subcultures and the subcontinent: That’s the intersection where Ashu Rai lives and thrives.

The Indian-born, California-bred party promoter and DJ has been a lightning rod for a cultural scene that might, at first, seem thoroughly under the radar – a niche within a niche within a niche. Yet, it’s becoming one of those rare happenings whose appeal reaches beyond a core audience and becomes something of a sensation.

As one of the founders of Sholay Productions, Rai stages Bollywood-and-beats-themed dance parties for gay and lesbian South Asians, complete with costumes and dance routines – inspired by the outrageous musicals that have long been the signature of the Indian film industry – drag queens and guest vocalists. The events, which have been ongoing for about a year, float from nightclub to nightclub but also have found a home in alternative spaces, and in broad daylight, no less.

Such is the case next Saturday, when the Queens Museum of Art hosts Rai and her crew – including the Pakistani drag queen Zeena Diwani – for the Lesbian and Gay Pride Celebration. “It’s an appropriate spot, says Rai. “A large majority of our audience lives in Queens, a lot of South Asians.” Yet, as she notes, there haven’t necessarily been occasions for young Indians or Pakistanis, particularly those who consider themselves “queer,” to congregate and enjoy their culture in subversive and fun ways.

“We’re all people in our 20s into 40s who are bucking tradition,” says Rai, 30. “We’re not settling down and having kids. We’re in New York pursuing our passions and, of course, being queer.” While various art and dance club spectacles have promoted Bollywood concepts, she adds, “They just don’t work. It’s like, bellydancers.”

Atif Toor, one of Rai’s partners in Sholay, jumps in, using the word every South Asian living in the West most commonly despises. “They think it’s exotic.”

Instead, Sholay’s events explore the culturally coded world that exists within Bollywood cinema. Rai, who became a DJ as an outgrowth of her activism, blends soundtracks – which can often be melodramatic affairs – with harder beats, as well as bits of other music, such as the percussive dance music called bhangra and the sacred wails of qawwali, a hypnotic traditional form exemplified by the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Saturday’s event will also feature a performance by vocalist Imani Uzuri, who has collaborated with jazz great Herbie Hancock as well as underground rap star Talib Kweli.

Rai says she’s still learning her craft; she’s not a freestyling needle-slinger on the wheels of steel, exactly. More like someone who knows how to interpret the delicate psychic pH balance of mood and mix. “I’m not about turntable tricks or anything like that. I’d like to be someone like Danny Tenaglia,” she says, naming a favorite DJ known primarily for spinning hard house music. “He throws a really successful, fun party, and he has a great relationship with his audience.”

It’s a heady mix, to be sure. And it gets headier as the shows progress.

“Bollywood is very escapist, larger than life,” Rai says, sitting in her Chelsea apartment surrounded by books, an expansive DJ rig and Bollywood memorabilia. “Everything is overly dramatized.” Once obscure, it has seeped steadily into American multiplexes. The opening scene in the indie film “Ghost World,” a wild 1960s-style dance sequence that is playing on a tape in a character’s VCR, is one example. Another is Baz Lurhmann’s grandiose musical “Moulin Rouge!” which the director admitted was inspired by endless Indian prototypes.

“It’s very campy,” Rai says, emphasizing, perhaps, one of its main attractions to the partygoers that attend shows thrown by Sholay (the name comes from one of Rai’s favorite Bollywood movies and also means “spark” or “fire”). Many of them, she suggests, latched onto the popular entertainment for its embedded homoerotic elements in an extremely traditional culture.

There’s another factor behind the dance parties that has become increasingly evident since 9/11. It has become a little trickier to be of certain Middle Eastern or South Asian descent in a country where the war on terrorism can also prompt racial bias and harassment. “People in communities of color are feeling very marginalized right now and very vulnerable,” says Toor, 32, a Pakistani who grew up in suburban Connecticut. “So here’s a place – these parties – where people can celebrate their cultural background, can celebrate being brown, and not feel threatened.”

To make that point clear, Sholay produced an event that brought together Arab and South Asian gay and lesbian communities, right in the midst of the pre-Iraqi war search for “weapons of mass destruction” and rhetorical talk of an “axis of evil.” Both Rai and Toor laugh a bit. “We had a great theme,” she says. “‘Inspect This: Axis of Pleasure.’”

Lesbian and Gay Pride Celebration, next Saturday 3 to 7 p.m., Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, 718-592-9700. Free with admission; suggested donation $5 adults, $2.50 seniors and students; members and children under 5 free.

By Steve Dollar, Freelance writer Steve Dollar can be reached at,
This article appeared in June 1, 2003 edition of Newsweek.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

Posted: June 3rd, 2003
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