21-year-old Vinay Jobanputra is taking the world by storm with their gender-nonconforming and queer approach to the Bollywood dance and music they grew up adoring. Their pop-up series of dance classes called Bollyqueer allows attendees to experience the joys of Bollywood dance without the limits of gendered expectations. They started Bollyqueer while in university and expanded to London, Delhi and even back to their hometown of Leicester. Their passion for teaching dance and creating safe, accessible avenues for self-expression through community and movement shines through. Bollyqueer is even the subject of a new BBC documentary called Bend It Like Bollywood!
I was lucky enough to talk to Vinay about their gender nonconforming (& queer-affirmative) approach to community programming, what dance means to them and what exactly queering Bollywood looks like.
Why is building community at the heart of the Bollyqueer project?
I started creating community spaces when I felt like I needed one, and I felt like there wasn’t a community space made for people like me. Growing up, I needed to be creative and express my identity, especially because I didn’t understand it. If I ever have to say whether I am a man or a woman, I just choose not to say anything. I just say I’m Vinay; I’m queer and gender non-conforming.
See, I grew up in Leicester. My grandparents were born in India. And then my parents were born in Africa, but when they moved to the UK, that became my whole life. But obviously, all these things still come with being Indian. You know, the whole ‘log kya kahenge’ outlook and worry about reputation is very much there.
People even say that British Indian, American Indian or diaspora families sometimes hold on even more tightly to it because they’ve needed to let go of their roots. So they’re even more strict.
And how and when did Bollyqueer actually start?
I was 18. I have always been interested in dancing; I love Bollywood! So I feel like that’s how I ended up doing that, but then I started to get more and more knowledgeable about my gender identity, my gender expression. And there was a conflict between wanting to embrace myself and my South Asian heritage. As if there was a contradiction. Because what was happening was I’d go to dance classes, and it’d be a roomful of twenty girls and no boys in there. Like, women get told to be sexy, elegant, and feminine, and men get told they need to be powerful and strong. There’s such a long way to go with this sort of stuff. I was just feeling like, first of all, I wanted a space where I could just be. And I want to be feminine. I’m paying for a dance class. But why are you restricting the way I dance based on what kind of genitals I have?
And apart from that, how much these moves are based on sexualising women for their bodies, which is fucked up enough. What about the strict division between men and women in these kinds of dance productions where if you’re nonbinary and deviate from the gender binary, you basically don’t exist?
And I feel like this happens everywhere. If you choose Bollywood to celebrate your identity and culture, that shouldn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your queerness. They should be able to fit nicely together. That’s what Bollyqueer was for me. And yeah, it’s just taken off. It’s been fun because I never thought it would do this well.
When did you properly launch Bollyqueer?
16th of October 2021. It’s been just over a year now
What did Bollyqueer start off as?
I was actually in my third year of university when I started Bollyqueer. I was studying, which meant I couldn’t commit to doing it regularly. Whenever I had a free weekend, I’d look into my calendar and see if I could ask a local dance studio if they had a room free. Then I’d get a poster and then just sell tickets. In each class, I’d teach a new choreography. And yeah, that’s the way it worked. So it’s on a pop-up basis right now.
I’ve done a bunch of these workshops in London. Then I did one of them in Leicester, my hometown, and that was in front of my dad, my family, and people I know.
Did you study anything related to dance or performance in university?
No, I actually did math! Honestly, I don’t even know why I did it. I think I’ve learned now that my passion is definitely not that – it was because of a lot of Indian family type of pressure. Like you need to do either medicine or math or something like that.
I ended up doing my college degree in math, but now that I’m finally finished with it, I’ve got a lot more time to focus on this. To just invest more time.
I’m trying to figure out how to make Bollyqueer an active space, like maybe in a dance studio. Especially in Delhi, where I had no contacts. I had to put a lot of money into boosting an ad on Instagram. Which worked out fine even if I didn’t profit too much anyway. I just wanted people to come interested and see if this space I’m creating worked here.
What does a typical Bollyqueer session look like?
First of all, I find the song. My first step is thinking, like, what song can I really play with? And it’s really important because I think I was trying to do choreographies in my head that could be viewed as traditionally masculine or feminine.I am obviously of the opinion that body movements shouldn’t have a gender. But for example, if someone comes in and they feel more confident presenting masculine, I’ll be able to offer them a variation of a move traditionally considered more feminine. So I’ll always try to have multiple variations in my head to give people options. So literally, everyone has a choice, and everyone’s just offered some variation based on the move’s fluidity and certain characteristics, but also the difficulty.
So I’ll say you can try this, but if you want to challenge yourself, you can do that and offer loads of variations. That’s one of the unique selling points of Bollyqueer. It’s like every single person in the room looks different to the other. I’ll say at the beginning of the classroom as well. I’m just here to guide you through the movements. And you can use me as a rough guide. And also what I always say is if you don’t want to do a certain move, you tell me, I will change it, and I can change it. Because I just want it to be like a collaborative space rather than just about me.
Was drag one of the inspirations behind Bollyqueer?
Drag, of course, was. But it’s also linked to my personal experiences because, as I mentioned, I love to do professional Bollywood dancing. I perform at weddings and events with a group. I guess I had a big desire for having these performances, having these gigs, and getting paid to dance but in a way that I feel like I can really push and be myself.
Through performance, I realised that there needs to be an avenue for people who do Bollywood dance to get paid without having to sacrifice their queerness. That’s one aspect of it. But also Bollywood movies as well. For me, it was like watching movies and seeing the actresses – that’s my personal experience again. I loved to emulate them and I just loved the way they dance. I wanted to try but then I felt like I was being told I couldn’t.
There’s a queer dancer in London, I don’t know if you know Shiva, right? They’re non-binary. And that was one of the first times I saw gender fluidity in a Bollywood performance on YouTube for Britain’s Got Talent. And they did well! They got to the semi-finals and they were, like, in a skirt and a blouse. I guess it was actual representation. I did think, I want to learn how to do that. I want to be that. So they were sort of like my first inspiration.
What are your thoughts on diversity in South Asian and queer spaces?
I think what you find in the UK is there are spaces for queer people of colour in general. So that’s just blending everyone in together. I guess when you’re queer and a person of colour living outside of the country, you’re probably a minority within a minority. And you just want to find a community that is distanced from whiteness, so then all these people of colour will just get together and have a safe space. Whereas in India there are all of these differences which play a huge part in like the way people are treated. I think that they should definitely be acknowledged but I think even in the UK there just needs to be way more effort and more conversations on caste, on colorism and things like that, because I think people do tend to get blended into one thing.
It’s also part of figuring out how to try and be mindful of the differences within the community. Like when I do a different type of dance that isn’t Bollywood, and it’s from a different region, I will feel so much more comfortable to invite someone from that region to lead that Bollyqueer session. So that’s why I would like to have the means to do it properly, so that I can pay other people as well. So that is the goal. But yeah, let’s say for example, when it comes to different styles of dancing, I wouldn’t feel comfortable just googling what to do.
And also, this is tiny, and I don’t want to sound like I’m saying this is fixing these issues, but, for example, I won’t just do Hindi songs. Because there are so many more languages in India which should be celebrated just as much so I guess I try to make those little conscious choices where I can.
What’s one thing about Bollyqueer that you didn’t expect to happen?
You can have so many conversations. I spend time talking about what the lyrics mean, where the song comes from, who the people are, and that leads to group discussions, you know? We learn so much from each other as well. After classes, we all hang out for at least two hours. It’s way more about coming together. And also sometimes, I’ll be on Instagram and I’ll see two people that met in the class are hanging out. That makes me really happy when I see that this whole project is leading to actual connections between queer people.
So this is also kind of an opportunity for community building in a way, would you say?
There are people in there who are like my parents’ age. As well as people that are kids. And that’s what’s so amazing about this as well, is that it’s very universal. It doesn’t matter if you drink alcohol or don’t. You can if you want, but it’s basically a sober event. And, like, let’s face it, many queer events don’t account for that at all, especially with the lack of sober spaces. This is like a really good way to bring all sorts of different types of people together. Especially from different religions. Also, when you think about the people who are older, it’s also quite intersectional. And then there are also queer people who are married, who have kids and, like, let’s say, queueing up late at night isn’t so accessible for them. Basically, it’s celebrating your culture and your identity. And I just feel like dancing is something that almost everyone can do anyway.