'Boys of Safdarjung' Turns a Queer Eye on Delhi’s Northeast Community

Watch: A short film by Nikhil D. and Tenzin Tsundue Phunkhang about the glittering lives of a group of friends in an urban village.

Like the urban villages of Munirka and Arjun Nagar, Humayunpur in South Delhi’s Safdarjung neighbourhood has become home to thousands of students and professionals from India’s Northeastern states in the last two decades. With cheap rentals and proximity to work, colleges, and markets, Safdarjung finds favour with young (and young at heart) bachelors from the region. Despite the initial hiccups in adjustment between the conservative Jat landowners and their libertine tenants, the village is symbolic of Delhi’s increasing acceptance of its approximately 700,000 Northeastern residents.


All images: Madishetty Manasa

In 2013, creative director and fashion consultant Nikhil D. moved from Mumbai and took up a flat in the same building as one of the nine gay friends featured in Boys of Safdarjung. Pre-gaming, partying and playing dressing up drew him closer to the bunch, most of whom were working in fashion. “I never really had a group of gay friends who were as much into style and I related to them instantly. There was lots of mascara, highlighters, blush and women's clothes being worn,” he recalled.

Intrigued by the mix of cultures in this burgeoning “China Town”, Nikhil observed his friends getting the rare snigger for their bold fashion choices and big personalities. “But they had formed friendly relationships with shop vendors and neighbours,” he wrote over email. He set out to capture this juxtaposition along with filmmaker and video editor Tenzin Tsundue Phunkhang, and cinematographer Greg Gill.

James Lalthanzuala (the party “chef” featured in Boys) told me attitudes have changed, with local restaurants, stores and beauty parlours catering to Northeastern tastes. “We are not treated as foreigners anymore. Earlier, a local teenage boy would never be seen wearing shorts. We’ve influenced this change.” Lalthanzuala, who works as a freelance fashion stylist, says being openly gay is not an option in his home state of Mizoram, where the church wields considerable influence. “We don’t want to be so flamboyant at home because of parents and religion.” In Safdarjung, he found his posse of queer friends from the sister states.


The other kween from Mizoram, Lalhriatpuia Ralte, or Manoa, told me he’s teasingly called MaTuai (tuai literally means “effeminate” in Mizo) in his neighbourhood in Aizawl. After working for seven years in a tech company in the capital, he moved home last year to be with his mom. However, Delhi, particularly Safdarjung, is where he became comfortable in his own skin.

“When I earlier lived in a place called Harinagar in Ashram, where everyone was either Afghani or Punjabis, I was scared a little bit to wear hot pants outside. Safdarjung, however, gave us that space to find ourselves,” he said. An articulate podcaster and vlogger, the version of Manoah I met in Aizawl was toned down several notches from his appearance in Boys.

“I can’t go ‘slutting’ around here since I could get punched in the face. Nobody really cruises here,” he said. He was prepared to make these adjustments. “I have to respect the status that my single mother has earned in the society. I do it because she accepts me as I am. That’s what really matters.”

Most of the people in Boys don’t have the privilege of family acceptance. One, who wished to remain anonymous, told me he was taken to a school chaplain when he came out to his father over a decade ago. “I would be obviously happy to be out, but I am concerned about what the society will think of my family. Also, I’m scared of any sort of physical harm that I may face because of the hetero-normativeness of our society and anything that threatens to put it down,” he said.

While these underlying issues are lightly touched upon (“So if you were Catholic, you would be a gay Catholic, right?”), the filmmakers didn’t want to make an “interrogative” video. “These guys are our close friends and all the conversations documented were casual conversations,” Nikhil said. The Krishna Nagar flat has since been demolished, but this small memoir of being young and reckless remains.

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