Desi Queens – HX

The fabulous folks from Sholay Productions celebrate two years of Desilicious funIn the Hindi and Urdu tongues, “Sholay” connotes “flame” or “spark.” There’s certainly something ablaze within New York’s Sholay Productions, an events company behind the popular monthly gay South Asian dance party Desilicious.

The extravaganzas boast Saree-draped drag queens, dazzling visuals and revelers of all ethnicities gyrating to Bollywood (India’s musical movies) and Bhangra beats. It’s all a spectacular nod to the queerness and culture of South Asia, a geographic region that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Of course, the culture is receiving a fresh dose of press coverage due to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new Broadway show, Bombay Dreams. But we’re particularly excited about the Desilicious party, which celebrates its second anniversary this Friday, April 16.

“‘Desi’ means ‘from my country,’” explains Atif Toor, Sholay’s visuals maestro. “People use it as a term to identify other South Asians.” Sholay’s primaries include Toor, marketing/ production expert Rajesh Parwatkar and DJ Ashu Rai. Hailing from Connecticut, Bombay and California respectively, the trio met through Gotham’s South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association group (salganyc.org) before founding Sholay, whose name is also a nod to a 1975 Bollywood camp classic. “A lot of people would call Sholay a ‘Curry Western,’ with men in denim duking it out,” Toor explains. “In the South Asian community, people would joke about how it was a buddy film and it had a homoerotic read, so we thought it would be a great name for our [company].”

Sholay often collaborates with other cultural and queer organizations, such as CurryClubNYC, an Indo-Caribbean group, and Baruch College. Sholay’s expansive array of events, including Laff-O-Rama comedy nights, museum festivals and book launches, also serve as fundraisers.

In South Asian culture, male bonding – such as men holding hands – is common, but homosexuality is frowned upon, if not punishable by law. Men generally live with their parents until marriage, making it near impossible for two men to cohabitate. The “down low” phenomenon of married men clandestinely having sex with other men is very much prevalent. “In the culture, you just don’t talk about it and hope it goes away,” Rajesh says. Even New York’s desi community is uneasy concerning homosexuality – local Indian newspapers will often excise the word “queer” from listings of Sholay’s events.

“People don’t talk about sexuality,” Toor continues. “It’s a very family-oriented culture, so it’s a real struggle to come out. I grew up thinking I was the only one. When I moved to New York in ’92, I discovered there were other queer South Asians out there – which was very empowering. In India, there’s been a lot more gay activism [of late], more films with gay characters. A real recent sexual revolution, and along with that is more recognition of queer sexuality.”

Since Sholay’s Desilicious party was christened in 2002, crowds have been flocking to the monthly parties. Highlights have included the Gay Pride and Halloween events, which drew more than 700 revelers, and 2002’s Axis of Pleasure, which helped diffuse ethnic tensions building thanks to President Bush’s “axis of evil” nonsense. “At least Bush’s rhetoric could inspire us to have a good party,” notes Toor.

For a spell, Desilicious went weekly at the East Village’s Pyramid, but in February, the organizers reverted back to a monthly format, to build up more anticipation and momentum for each party. “People take two weeks just to plan their outfits!” laughs Rajesh. “I’m visualizing a lot of people in really outrageous costumes and dresses [for the anniversary]. Skimpy clothes are encouraged!”

Rai, who got her start DJing at a college radio station, describes her style as “a sort of Indo- Bhangra-Techno-remix.” She explains: “I play a lot of old classic Bollywood numbers set to a faster beat. Like ‘Dum Maro Dum,’ which is a classic ’70s song, then a modern song, like ‘It’s the Time to Disco’ [from the recent Bollywood hit Kal Ho Naa Ho]. I like to break it up, so I’ll throw in some house music as well – an old Junior track or Saeed and Palash. Maybe some Missy or New Order to throw in some English.”

A Punjabi folk music tradition, Bhangra gained Western pop awareness in the 1980s when South Asian artists like Bally Sagoo in England fused the style with dance hall and hip-hop. Nowadays, Top 40 artists such as Jay-Z and Britney Spears have incorporated Bhangra into their songs.

As for Bollywood, its extensive catalog of films and songs date back half a century. “Bollywood is the one thing that unifies the whole South Asian diaspora – they’ve all been exposed to Bollywood,” Toor says. “And they’re all musicals, even if it’s an action film like Rambo.”

“Every film has seven or eight songs – a lot are often remixed by DJs – and they release soundtracks months before the movies come out,” Rai adds. At the parties, musical numbers are often displayed on large screens, which Desilicious’ drag regulars – including Zeena Diwani, Hamida, Bijli, Naina and Payal – bring to life. “I get requests from the drag queens to play a specific number from a Bollywood film, and they get up and act it out, including all the dance moves!”

Text by Lawrence Ferber
Photography by Aaron Cobbett for HX

Published 4/16/04 – HX Issue 659, Copyright ©1996-2004,  Two Queens, Inc. All rights reserved.

Posted: April 16th, 2004
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