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Remembering Riyad

Remembering Riyad
by Vikram

Riyad Wadia passed away on 30th Nov 2003. He was only 42.
He made the first explicitly gay film in India - BOMgAY, based on
the poems by R. Raj Rao

Many of you may have seen the news in the papers today, or heard from friends that Riyadh Wadia, India's first out gay film maker, died yesterday. I heard the news at Andheri Station while waiting to go for yesterday evening's Gaybombay meeting, and I still feel shaken. Late at night I went to a cybercafe to try and write something, but I couldn't so I'm trying again today.

There have been so many deaths this year. Bhupen Khakhar, Quentin, Vasanti from Humsafar, Abhijit, others... and now Riyadh. By some morbid coincidence yesterday's meet did revolve around deaths, many deaths, the deaths of the hundreds of men and women who lost their lives to AIDS. Since its World AIDS Day today we had decided to show a film yesterday on the subject - 'Longtime Companion', one of the first major attempts by Hollywood to deal with the subject.

Someone else is writing a report of the film and meet, so I won't do it here, but I'll just say how truly dislocating it was. On screen we were watching the impact of the epidemic, from that first day when the New York Times had a story on a new type of 'cancer' detected in gay men, to the relentless march of deaths that followed and the almost helpless attempts made by those still alive to cope and fight it. And all the while knowing that Riyadh's cremation was taking place in Worli.

It was all the more of a shock since from what I knew Riyadh was getting better. I knew he had been quite sick for the last four or five weeks. That's why he was never able to attend one of the queer friendly nights at the RedLight lounge bar which he had been instrumental in setting up. "Just wait till I'm a bit better," he had told me over the phone. In the weeks that followed I knew he had checked into hospital, but a few days back I was told he was well enough to come home.

And on Saturday morning I got a SMS from him asking for the number of another friend. I sent it to him and asked how he was feeling. He replied saying he had been through a bad time, but now he was improving and was back at home. I messaged him back joking that he'd better be back in full partying form for our New Year's party, or we'd have to hire an ambulance to be on standby for him. That was the last communication I had with him.

I'm told that through the day yesterday he was doing fine and spent much of the afternoon having a long conversation with his mother, on the lovely big verandah in their house that overlooks the sea at Worli Sea Face. At some point his legs started to hurt so he went to his room to lie down, and his mother went with him to massage his legs. And just like that, he died. As deaths go I guess it was a good one, back in the home he grew up in and with someone he loved.

There is apparently going to be an uthamna on Wednesday where people can go to give their condolences. When I know the time and place, I'll put them on the list.

I'm trying to find words to describe the impact Riyadh had on the gay movement in India. I think one can't disassociate his work from his personality, since the two went together, each reinforced by the other. Unlike other gay artists who are often coy or prevaricating about admitting their homosexuality - always excepting the late great Bhupen Khakhar - Riyadh was out and upfront about it right from the time he burst onto the scene with BomGay, his series of small short films inspired by R.Raj Rao's poems.

Everything Riyadh did was done with style and splash, and that is exactly what the gay movement needed at that time. Through the efforts of pioneers like Ashok and others homosexuality in India had registered on the media screens, but it was still facing problems moving beyond the usual easy stereotypes. Riyadh, who was a born media animal (he would not, I'm sure object to being described that way), forced the media to look at a new face, new voices, new images. Like him, laugh at him, loathe him - though I met almost no one who did - you couldn't ignore Riyadh. Thanks to him gay issues took their place on those page threes of newspapers, that we all claim to sneer at, but nevertheless all read.

When I think back on the one quality I remember most of Riyadh it wasn't so much his courage, though that was obvious, but more the huge sense of style and confidence with which he did things. I never saw Riyadh angry or upset with things - he was always ultra cool, always at ease, always on top of any situation. For those of us for whom coming out has been a prolonged and often awkward and uncomfortable process, Riyadh's sheer confidence was always something to envy and emulate. Most of all, Riyadh always seemed to be having fun in whatever he was doing, and that was invaluable since fun is one thing that can sometimes seem in short supply in the queer movement.

I should note that Riyadh's contribution to the gay movement wasn't just in India. In his stint in the US and in all his manic travelling - was there a queer film anywhere in the world he didn't go to? - he raised the profile of the queer movement in India. People who might have dismissed India as a blank spot as far as gay issues went, could do so no longer after meeting Riyadh. I have long ago lost count of the number of gay activists from abroad who, when I identified myself as Indian, have asked me, "oh do you know Riyadh Wadia?"

Memorial statements are supposed not to say negative things, but I will make one small criticism of Riyadh: I don't think he quite lived up to his potential. After BomGay and A Mermaid Called Aida, we waited for his next effort and yet nothing came. Perhaps Riyadh has decided that he wanted to make the most of his life and see and experience as much as he could, and for that he can't be blamed though we are the poorer for it. In recent months he had started talking about new projects, new films in more detail and this sudden death is all the worse for the end it puts to all those.

From Gaybombay's perspective, I think I can say we are grateful to him for always encouraging our efforts and coming to our parties to support them. More recently he was actively helping us by speaking to his friends who owned nightclubs and bars, and persuading them to get in touch with us to have queer friendly events. As I said, the Thursday nights at RedLight were directly due to his influence. This coming Sunday we are scheduled to have one our regular film festivals where we screen queer themed films. This time it will be happening at Mikanos, and we would like to dedicate it to Riyadh Wadia (more details on this will follow).

Trying to find a way to end this, I find myself going back to BomGay. For those who haven't seen it (and if you haven't, we plan to screen it this coming Sunday), its a series of short takes on different aspects of gay life - on sexual fantasies, on dangerous sex in toilets, on living alone. The one I liked best though was the last one which just shows some gay guys shopping for prawns and vegetables, then cooking them and finally enjoying them with other gay friends. The message was that in the end, friends are what we have and what matter. Its something I truly believe in and for that reason I really mourn Riyadh's death,

2nd Dec 2003

The Making Of BOMgAY by Riyad Wadia

Ashok Row Kavi's letter to Riyad


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