The true test of a podcast lies in how long it manages to keep listeners invested. The absence of visuals means that the auditory stream must work to be especially compelling. My Indian Life, the BBC World Service podcast on “what it means to be young and Indian in the 21st century,” with its compelling stories and interesting choice of subjects, passes this test.
The 10-episode podcast is an ode to millennial triumph. Host Kalki Koechlin and a BBC team travel across India, meeting uniquely talented individuals with troubled lives. There’s Eshan Hilal, a 25-year-old male belly dancer, whose choice of profession has made him the subject of verbal and physical abuse by his orthodox family, 26-year-old Bollywood singer Aditya N, whose stammer has deprived him of opportunities for professional growth, and more. Through interviews, BBC constructs a detailed and insightful narrative, redefining the struggles millennials are often thought to have.
It’s far from a breezy listen – it’s raw, pained and, at times, unsettling. Hilal doesn’t weigh his words as he recounts the humiliation and cruel taunts he’s endured. When he talks about the slurs against his masculinity and how he was called a ‘randi’ at a young age, it’s not for shock value, it’s a window into his everyday life.
There’s a familiarity with 21-year-old Gurmehar Kaur, who has long been a public figure. But when we hear of her attempt to stab a burkha-clad lady in a supermarket – the result of unchecked hatred festering inside her since her father’s death – in her own voice, it’s deeply discomfiting.
It’s not all bleak. Koechlin excels in forming a rapport with the subjects she’s interviewing. The sole brief moment of levity in episode 1 comes from her turning Hilal’s comment on having “three square meals a day” into a sexual innuendo. It’s a risk that pays off – it’s the first, and only time, we hear Hilal break into full-bodied laughter. By finding common ground with Aditya N, she makes him comfortable enough to crack jokes about his stammer. As a host, she’s warm and accessible, making sure we know the correct way to pronounce her surname – “It’s Cake-la” – and riffing about her age – “I’m 34. That’s still young in some places…maybe not in my industry.”
Her descriptions of the subjects are both evocative and precise. When she talks about Hilal’s long flowy skirt, sequinned net blouse, nose pin, bangles and fashionably swept-back hair, we can almost see him in our mind’s eye. The podcast is richly textured in other ways – it includes audio clips of the subject’s dance, music or theatre performances and interviews with their friends and family, who aren’t relegated to the status of one-dimensional characters in their narratives.
Where it falters, or perhaps loses some of its flavour, is when Koechlin translates the subjects’ regional tongues into English. We’re hearing their narratives, but in the actress’ measured tones, they don’t seem quite right. What could have been a moving conversation about acceptance between Hilal and his mother, who speaks a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, becomes clinical instead.
More than what it means to be young, or Indian, the podcast is a glimpse into what it means to be human. Certain moments are bound to resonate with the youth – such as the struggle to hold on to one’s self worth in the face of social media vitriol – but these issues ultimately become part of a framework to discuss stifling gender norms, sexual abuse and prejudice. At its heart, My Indian Life is about a group of young people talking about what they’re passionate about. And who doesn’t love that?
A new episode of My Indian Life drops every Saturday. You can listen to the podcast here.