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Hungama Screen Tests. Vivek Vadoliya and Ryan Lanji (2020)
From Hungama Screen Tests by Vivek Vadoliya and Ryan Lanji (2020)Courtesy of the artists

Filming queer Bollywood club night figures just like Warhol’s Superstars

Vivek Vadoliya and Ryan Lanji have immortalised figures from London’s queer Bollywood club night Hungama in the style of Andy Warhol’s famous Screen Tests

Hungama (Hindi for “chaos” or “lit”) is the Bollywood hip hop club night created by fashion and art curator Ryan Lanji. Originally conceived with the intention of creating a space for London’s South Asian queer community, it’s since been described as an “Indian Studio 54.” “After summers back home, going to Indian weddings, and just spending time with my family, I realised how much bhangra and Bollywood was a part of my identity,” Lanji told Dazed. “So I decided to throw a party where I mixed it with music I usually listen to when I’m out partying.”

Originally commissioned by the Tate in honour of the current Andy Warhol retrospective, photographer Vivek Vadoliya and Ryan Lanji decided they wanted to document the individuals who had become such important figures in those febrile Hungama nights. Inspired by Warhol's Screen Tests of the 60s – in which Warhol captured faces from the mid-60s cultural scene in Downtown NYC – they began documenting Hungama’s own “cache of superstars”. Like Warhol, Vadoliya’s “living portraits” are black and white headshots, captured on film as opposed to a traditional photographic portrait. The result is a mesmerising parade of faces, changing expressions, and shifting behaviour as we’re introduced to what Lanji describes as the “Hungama family”.

We talked to Vivek Vadoliya and Ryan Lanji about forging new friendships, collaboration in the time of Coronavirus, and immortalising their community on film.

How did your connection with Hungama evolve? 

Vivek Vadoliya: I met Ryan some years ago at an exhibition he curated with a section of British Asian artists. We connected over the lack of people creating work in this space and quickly became good friends. We wanted to make work together for some time, and once Hungama started, I wanted to celebrate some of the incredible people who attended the night.

Could you describe the process of creating the Hungama Screen Tests?

Ryan Lanji: After the birth of Hungama almost three years ago, Vivek approached me and wanted to create a body of work celebrating our queer Bollywood hip hop night, and wanted to document those who frequented the night, but could never really find a manner which felt right. The night started as a small party but slowly moved from being about creating a space for gay Asians reconnecting to their culture to a hotbed full of the future of South Asian talent and creativity.

When I was approached by the Tate to create a body of work inspired by the Andy Warhol exhibition, I just knew, especially after COVID-19, that it was time to create a time capsule celebrating the beauty of South Asian creatives through our party. 

Vivek Vadoliya: Originally, we wanted to shoot the screen tests at Hungama itself, but it wasn’t possible, for obvious COVID reasons. Instead, we curated a cross-section of people who regularly attend the night and represent what Hungama is about, and invited them to my studio to contribute their own screen test. 

Stylistically, I want to keep the films very stripped back and raw; tightly-cropped to capture all the beautiful nuances from everyone. We asked everyone to sit, relax, and present their best selves. It was interesting to see how each person interpreted that in their own unique way.

“Stylistically, I want to keep the films very stripped back and raw; tightly-cropped to capture all the beautiful nuances from everyone” – Vivek Vadoliya

You’re inspired by Warhol’s famous Screen Tests. Could you tell us a bit about any parallels you draw between the Factory and Hungama?

Ryan Lanji: Andy Warhol is a constant source of inspiration for my work as a cultural curator and facilitator. The way he saw the power of subculture and the monster that was being famous in the 80s was something he played with and documented in his work. He gave a home to many runaways and showed them their power and creativity. I borrow his architecture for creating a movement – removing the hedonism, drugs, and darkness – and apply it to Hungama regularly. It was such a humbling feeling to have had people call my party an ‘Indian Studio 54’ because that is what I wanted to bring to life within my work as a curator in fashion and art.

Vivek Vadoliya: Warhol’s Factory represents the zeitgeist of America and especially New York during such an iconic time. In a similar way, I think Ryan’s managed to create a beautiful space for everyone to come together and collaborate on and off the dance floor. There are so many new friendships that have blossomed from Hungama, so many relationships that were virtual and have now have become important collaborations.

Warhol himself was supposedly creating his own ‘cache of Superstars’. To what extent is this true of the Hungama Screen Tests?

Ryan Lanji: In the 1980s, Andy Warhol became obsessed with a 16mm Bolex camera that he found at a flea market and began filming all of the people who frequented the Factory whom he deemed had star power. There are over 400 of these silent black and white Screen Tests in existence and include some of the cultures most iconic people such as Edie Sedgewick, Salvador Dalí, Nico from Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, and more. 

I have always felt that it was important to immortalise the faces of our party. Those who came to heal, to create, to live, to belong, and so I chose an array of faces who have all become fundamental parts of the night – whether that be performers, attendees, DJs, faces... I truly believe them to be the future of South Asian creativity and they are an undeniable family and force.

Vivek Vadoliya: As Ryan mentioned, it’s a document and time capsule of today. It’s an ever-evolving group of creative people, some just starting out, some a little more established in their journey.

It’s fascinating to see how the subjects all occupy the screen differently. Did you give them much direction? Or were they just left to their own devices?

Ryan Lanji: We purposely asked them to dress how they wanted and gave them no direction other than to connect with the camera. There was a sense of awkwardness to all of them but we captured not only their spirits but the human connection. I know many who have cried watching them and many who have said they have never seen themselves before. 

Warhol’s Screen Tests were described as a new type of portraiture, or ‘living portraits’. What’s the appeal of moving image as opposed to traditional stills?

Vivek Vadoliya: Video portraits give you a chance to really feel the sitter’s energy and presence. I’m fascinated by the movements and emotions that come through. You get a chance to experience the tiny details in a way that gives you a different connection compared to a photograph.

Ryan Lanji: I view these screen tests as still video paintings. They are unedited, undisrupted, raw files of people being themselves. I think a photograph can say a thousand words but moving pixels say millions. Also, I think about how cool it is that if you were to zoom into their eyes... I like to think you’d see me and Vivek in there.  

Could you tell us about any particularly moving or memorable moments that happened while you were working on this project?

Vivek Vadoliya: I loved seeing people getting ready and feeling slightly nervous beforehand and then witnessing them coming alive on camera. I like that we’ve managed to capture a range of emotions, from more delicate poetic feelings to more confident expressive movements. I loved watching the film with everyone for the first time. I felt proud to be part of a family like Hungama.

Ryan Lanji: For me, it was seeing everyone come to the studio with big smiles on their faces. Due to COVID-19, we had to give people time slots but when people saw each other during the overlap, it was like watching families reconnect. Every time I watch the screen tests I am full of pride and am so humbled by these extraordinary people.