South Asians Celebrate Halloween

South Asians Celebrate Halloween

Tribeca nightclub serves up festive and very queer twist on Bollywood

Last Friday night, two nights before Halloween, Pepper, a lounge bar and club in Tribeca, saw exaggerated emotions, extravagant costumes and dramatic dance sequence—vital ingredients to any successful Bollywood film.

Bollywood, the colloquial name for the Indian musical film industry, provided inspiration to “Bombay Screams,” a Halloween party organized by Sholay, a South Asian gay and lesbian event production company.

The company was conceived in 2001 by Atif Toor, a 33-year-old publishing house art director, Ashu Rai, 36, who works in marketing and Rajesh, 34, a Bombay-born, financial services firm employee, who declined to give his last name.

“We were looking for our own space—there were so many queer South Asians,” Rai said. “It was an element missing from the nightclubs of New York. And it was conceived shortly after 9/11—at a time when we really needed it.”

The event’s organizers see Bollywood as a way to link the South Asian cultures.

“It brings together people in the Diaspora, and especially for queer South Asians—there are elements of glamour, escapism and fantasy that they can relate to,” Toor said. “Queer South Asians reinvent Bollywood to adapt to our values and culture.”

The organizers named the party series Sholay, which means “spark” or “blaze,” but borrows its name from the most famous movie in Indian film history.

“It also refers to the classic ‘Sholay,’ and Bollywood is the theme for our parties.” Toor said. “Also, the underlying eroticism between the two male leads of the film which only queer South Asians can appreciate, and the whole camp aspect to it.”

In the last two and half years, the trio has conducted about 50 successful parties. Starting out as a weekly event, they reduced the frequency to once a month to “make them more to the scale and style that we want,” Toor said.

On Friday night, both the style and scale were grand. The party, which about 500 people attended, was a huge success, according to Rajesh.

“A very diverse population came to the party,” he said. “About 60 percent were South Asian, 40 percent non-South Asian, there was a healthy mix of straight and non-straight people.”

The highlight of the evening was a drag dance show, performed by queens Zeena Divani, Babra and Salma. Dressed in exotic fabrics and jewelry, they twirled with diyas, earthen Indian candles, to a song originally filmed with Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood’s latest muse. The audience cheered and whistled as the queens moved from traditional Bollywood-style-meets-Indian-semi-classical to somewhat of a hip-hop mood, reflecting the cross of cultures there that night.

Judging by the packed dance floor, the music, which Rai, who also DJs the party, described as a “mix of Bhangra, Bollywood, house and ‘80s music,” definitely appealed to the crowd. The costumes ranged from traditional sarees and kurta pyjamas to conventional Halloween angels and devils, adding spice to the event.

When it was over, Rajesh’s comments on the party and Sholay’s success seemed apt. “It gives them a space where they can be free—a place where they can be themselves without being judged.”

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