I am of the opinion that the New York Times column, Modern Love, which spurned its own podcast and Amazon web-show answered the seminal question: How do we tell our own stories?
But before that, perhaps, a more basic question remains to be answered: Why do we want to tell our own stories?
Arre.com invited true, lived, and complicated stories from across India. (By lived, I mean these stories are non-fiction, the writer is the one who experienced what they wrote) Stories were selected from there, translated into Hindi and read out to an over-produced background score for Audible Suno’s audio show Ae Dil Hai Complicated (24 episodes, about an hour each). Actress Neena Gupta, who hosts the show, ends each episode with a conversation with the writer of the story.
Where are they today?
How do they feel about what they wrote?
The stories range from a son reminiscing about his mother, a courtesan, to a mother secretly buttering the vegetables of her bulimic daughter, a daughter who found her father with pornography, stories of polyamory, asexuality, and losing one’s parents.
Most of the stories in the podcast come from a space where the writers have absolved themselves of all blame. (The Humans Of Mumbai to the Humans of New York)
What keeps the stories of Ae Dil Hai Complicated from attaining the gossamer heft and tactile beauty of Modern Love is the tone. Many a times you want to tell your story because it will help you. At other times, you tell your story because you think it will help other people. The latter kind are always at the risk of sounding dimensionless, like moral lessons schooling an audience. This tires easily.
True vulnerability is not just talking about one’s complicated relationship with the world, but one’s complicated relationship with the self. Most of the stories in the podcast come from a space where the writers have absolved themselves of all blame. (The Humans Of Mumbai to the Humans of New York)
But then comes Neena Gupta with her unfenced charm. She doesn’t mask her confusion. For example, in the series, there is a story of a woman talking about her experience with polyamory. Gupta was hesitant about the idea of “emotional infidelity”, poking holes in the writer’s algorithmic articulation of love. She tells me that at first, she was shocked when she heard about it. “Mein Neena Gupta hoon, aur mein open marriage mein vishvaas nahin rakhti,” trying to distinguish the impartial host from the opinionated person that she is.
When one of the story’s writer identified themself as a “gender fluid lithio sapio demi hyper homo romantic asexual male assigned at birth”, she sounded aghast. “Baap re.”
But, therein lies the beauty- for her, hosting this show was also an exercise in empathy. “I will confront them without thinking of them as bad people…Mein nahin karti, iska matlab nahin hai ki jo aap kar rahe hai, voh galat hai.” For example, she will ask questions about what is and isn’t allowed in an open marriage- can they get a hookup home when their primary partner is there too?
“When I read their stories, I forget what I think. And because I don’t like it, don’t agree with it, I ask so many questions.” Some of these conversations would go on for an hour and a half. Of course, the final audio we listen to is an edited version.
When one of the story’s writer identified themself as a “gender fluid lithio sapio demi hyper homo romantic asexual male assigned at birth”, she sounded aghast. “Baap re.” (So was I) But this aghastness comes with an earnest desire to learn more. She comes armed with unrehearsed validation.
Neena Gupta, The Reluctant Poster-child of An Unconventional Lifestyle
Gupta is often seen as the poster-child of living an unconventional, ‘complicated’ lifestyle, giving birth out of wedlock in 80s, and deciding to raise her daughter as a single mother. It might be this perception that she feels harmed her career. But it also this very perception that makes her perfect to host such a show. But here too, she is cautious: “I am not what my social image is.” Recently, she has started posting videos on Instagram bunched under the hashtag #SachKahoonToe. This is an effort to tell the world who she really is, and what she has to offer- in both craft and wisdom.
Her advise today, especially for girls wanting to be actors is to pursue their vices in private: “Kabhi kaam ke log ke saath sharab mat pina, ghar mein doston ke saath pee lo. Cigarette bahar bilkul nahin pina. Agar aap ko aise role chahiye, toh vaise kapde pehen ke jao. Apni image banao.”
It sounds quaint, even dated, and I tell her that. But she insists this is the state of the industry and even to this day, how they hire actors hasn’t changed much. I ask her, what about her image?
“Ab toh image ka sawal nahin. Look at my age. Google ke vajah se satyanaash ho gaya.”