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July 12, 2014

Remembering Riyad

Text by Parmesh Shahani

This month, Parmesh Shahani remembers his friend, Riyad Wadia, the avant-garde filmmaker, and comes away energised after seeing Maker experiments in Ahmedabad and Mumbai

  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    A paper installation by CEPT Fab Lab manager Henry Skupniewicz
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Riyad Wadia's photograph by Farrokh Chothia
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Henry Skupniewicz at the entrance of the CEPT Fab Lab
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Sharon Flynn receiving the KASHISH 2014 Riyad Wadia Award from Parmesh Shahani
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Ben Gallagher at the X Way workshop in Mumbai
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Vaibhav Chhabra at Maker's Asylum in Mumbai
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    "My 3 Step Bowtie Creating Experience" - Step 1 - Drawing out what I want using pen and paper
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    "My 3 Step Bowtie Creating Experience" - Step 2 - Laser cutting the design printed on an acrylic sheet
  • Parmesh's Viewfinder
    "My 3 Step Bowtie Creating Experience" - Step 3 - And my fabulous laser cut bowtie is ready

As I walked up on stage to give away the Riyad Wadia Award for the Best Emerging Filmmaker at Kashish (Mumbai’s international LGBT film festival) last month, it hit me that it had been ten years since Riyad passed away at the young age of 36. And here we were, flying the rainbow flag at a cinema called Liberty, when just a few months ago, India’s Supreme Court had denied that very basic right of liberty to its LGBT citizens. Riyad died in an India that criminalised same-sex love, and now, ten years later, despite the four year hiatus the Delhi High Court’s decision on Section 377 granted our country’s citizens, the situation is once again the same.

Revisiting Riyad’s films in this context, I realise just how, and how relevant, they continue to be as a collective discourse on gender and sexuality in India. The fierce, yet sensitive politics of BomGay, with Tejal Patni’s wonderful visuals giving R Raj Rao’s poems flight. The sensitive documentation of transsexual Aida Banerjee’s life and dreams in A Mermaid Called Aida. The fabulous intersection of gender and early Bollywood in Fearless – The Hunterwali Story, the 1993 documentary that made Riyad famous worldwide from Berlin to New York, and revived his family’s Wadia Movietone banner during the 1990s.

Riyad was not just an avant garde filmmaker who took his grandfather JBH Wadia’s historic film legacy into uncharted territory; he was a pioneer in so many other ways too. As the first “out” gay filmmaker from India, he paved the way for others, and indeed, as I told the audience that evening, this very Kashish festival that we celebrate in Mumbai each year, would not have been possible without his early efforts. I remembered his CNN interview with Riz Khan from the late 1990s, where he argued so eloquently about not holding back love. I still choke up with emotion each time I see it.

But more than a filmmaker and advocate, Riyad touched the lives of hundreds, if not more, with his generosity as a friend. As I walked up on stage to give the award instituted in his name by his brother Roy and mother Nargis to the young winner, Sophia College graduate Sharon Flynn, I relived some memories of my years as his friend. Driving with him to my first ever party at Voodoo; him writing my letters of recommendation for universities in the US, listening to him lecture to a class of awestruck students at the St. Xavier’s Institute of Communications; his full throated laugh and signature “Hello darling” greeting as he entered any room, instantly changing the room’s force field to centre itself around him… it is this presence that many of us miss, on a daily basis, in our lives.

What might a 46-year-old Riyad have thought about our India of 2014? An India of mixed messages where, in the span of a few months, one Supreme Court decision argued against LGBT rights while another argued for transgender rights? An India where parties and pride marches continue to co-exist with extreme discrimination and violence? I don’t think he would have liked it at all, but he would have continued to be positive, funny and fabulous, and I make a promise to myself, as I read out the award citation, that so will I.

While the struggle for equality continues in our country’s courtrooms, I am quite optimistic about the concurrent progress being made about LGBT rights in the workplace. I believe that corporate India, through enlightened self-interest, can help in shifting the needle in terms of larger attitudinal change.  So for me the most exciting part of Kashish this year was the pre-festival corporate round table at which members of companies like Google, Nomura, Accenture, Goldman Sachs and others, came together with sponsors like IBM and my own company Godrej, to talk about how collective change might be brought about.

I really like this format of bringing people together and ‘workshopping’ change, and it will be interesting to see how our discussions from that day progress – in creating stronger frameworks for diversity and inclusion in our companies, in fine-tuning specific policies, like providing insurance for spouses of same sex employees, and through both our words and deeds, perhaps influencing the people that decide on the politics and laws of our country, that an inclusive India is a stronger India.

Some weeks later, I attended another change workshop called The X-Way, at Studio X Mumbai. This was a Microsoft-sponsored innovation mash-up. Ever since taking over Nokia, Microsoft has been thinking of how to get creative people worldwide to use their devices. The X-Way is one of the exercises that they are going to run globally via the London-based creativity consultants Ben & Andrew Ltd. The idea is to go to different countries, gather various sets of creative individuals in a room, work on ideas and prototypes that could change their city, and then fund one of them via Microsoft Nokia. Less of a marketing exercise, more of a problem-solving thinkathon – it is an approach that quite a few enlightened brands are now increasingly trying to adopt, to stand out in a saturated world.

The proof of the pudding is in the execution in this case, so let’s see how the ideas pan out eventually, but still, I was particularly happy that I knew more than half the people at Studio X that day. Maybe it is nepotism, but I particularly liked the idea that my friends, artist Aditi Kulkarni and architect Rajeev Thakker, came up with a “jugaad machine tool” to help sugarcane juice vendors. Another concept that stood out was by another friend, the Arduino open-source engineer Ankit Daftary’s plan to gamify and incentivise Mumbai’s garbage collection in different ways. Actually, while the point about whether these ideas will eventually be implemented and change Mumbai or not is important, the fact that a community is being built around issues like these is in itself a good sign.

Communities need to come together not just sporadically but regularly and in this regard I am thrilled to see the Maker Movement taking off in India. There has been loads of action after the first Maker Fest, held some months ago in Ahmedabad, with Maker spaces as well as fabrication labs being launched. Maker spaces and fab labs are both essentially community spaces for people to make their own unique products using communal computerised tools, however, fab labs have their own charter and maintain a kind of global connection between each other, while Maker spaces operate more independently.

I recently visited the CEPT fab lab in Ahmedabad and had a great time there, interacting with its manager Henry Skupniewicz, and the different CEPT students using the space. Interior designer Kishan Parikh even printed me an acrylic bow tie – see the pics attached for the different processes that I went through to make it happen. Completely limited edition!

In Mumbai, I visited the Maker’s Asylum in Bandra and came away impressed. Vaibhav Chabbra, the founder, was formerly an employee at EyeNetra – a US-India start-up by MIT professor Ramesh Raskar. He has now decided to focus on building this new Maker space with his savings and the contributions of well-wishers and collaborators. When I visited, I met two architecture students who had travelled across the city in the rain, eagerly inquiring about the 3D printers available for use there. Another student, already tinkering in the space, told me about how in his college, there were long lines to use basic equipment, and even then there was an attendant who would complete the assignments for them – and students were not allowed to touch the equipment in their own lab! In a scenario like this, a free Maker space that allows students and the general public to use equipment like lathes or 3D printers to make their dream ideas into prototype realities is a precious gift. More power to these young Makers of India; may their tribe increase!

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