A Bollywood actor’s podcast is telling the stories of unconventional young Indians

Trying something new.
Trying something new.
Image: Photo by Grant Pollard/Invision/AP
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India is home to the world’s largest youth population, and with technological advancements and changing social norms, many of its young are living dramatically different lives from those who came before them.

But what is it actually like to be young and Indian today?

A new BBC podcast titled My Indian Life, hosted by Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin, attempts to answer this question by narrating the stories of a variety of individuals living unconventional lives. These people have often redefined their roles in a conservative society while struggling against everything from parental disapproval to sexual abuse and caste discrimination.

The first episode features the story of Eshan, a 25-year-old whose life-long love for dancing, and eventual career as a notable male belly-dancer, sparked disapproval and even rage from his orthodox Muslim parents. Over the course of the episode, Eshan recounts a childhood suffused with the pressure to “be a man” and reveals that he once feared being killed by his own father, who to this day doesn’t approve of his son’s way of life. His explanation for this, as he tells Koechlin, is simply: “What’s wrong is wrong.”

This generation gap is only one of the issues that young Indians are facing. In a conversation with Quartz, Koechlin explained why it’s important to hear these personal stories, and how her goal is to get Indian listeners to pay attention to a different way of thinking.

Edited excerpts:

Why did you decide to tell the stories of young Indians of the 21st century?

It’s because certain people are very, very insistent! Jon Manel, who’s a big podcast editor for the BBC emailed me last year some time and said I want to do a podcast with you. I must have glanced through the email, passed it on to my manager, and left it. Every two months I would get an email from him, saying we’re still waiting to know if you’d like to do it. Finally, I said, listen, I don’t have the time right now, it’s not possible. He still came back to me two months later, saying, do you have the time now?

Basically this story went on for about a year, and finally, I was like, okay, I’m going to look at this. He sent me all the content, what the podcast was going to be about, what kind of people we were going to interview and all of that. I thought that it was very interesting. I think in the beginning I was reluctant because I’m not experienced in this and I thought I may not have the time for it either. But eventually their insistence and the content they were sending my way was very interesting so I buckled!

What was it like working in the audio medium?

The first thing that I noticed was the privacy that you get in an audio medium. You obviously don’t feel camera-conscious; you don’t feel you’re being questioned constantly. There’s an immediate ease. And the way we went about it was, really, we just pushed the record button but we just talked about the traffic on the way or what we had for breakfast. And from there continued into the podcast. So it never felt that, okay, I’m sitting down for an interview with this person and I must ask relevant questions on the topic of sexual abuse, the very heavy topics… In that way, I think audio is wonderful because you’re just listening to each other.

The first episode is an interesting introduction to the inter-generational conflict in conservative India. Can you tell us more about the episodes to come?

You can expect a vast range of different kinds of people. We have a young boy who’s a Dalit leader in college, all of that caste discrimination that he faced growing up in the slums in Nagpur. We have an episode with an ice hockey player from Ladakh and the odds of a woman playing ice hockey. She used to borrow equipment from her elder brother. They used to spend all night making the rink because there was no ice rink. So they would throw water on a piece of land at night, wait two hours for it to freeze, and then throw another layer of water and wait for it to freeze etc. till 6am when it was ready for practice. There’s a rocket scientist, one of the main women to be involved in the Indian mission to Mars. There’s really a whole range of different kinds of people.

Why do you think these stories are important for people to hear? 

I think for the same reason they’re of interest to me. No matter how open-minded I think I am or knowledgeable I am, I still have a very limited version of things because of the people I follow on Twitter or Facebook. All our technology kind of gears us to see the world as we already view it, so this really forced me to start researching.

I knew nothing about Dalit politics, I had to go and research that before I met (the Dalit leader). Each of those people comes from a very different perspective and not necessarily political. Yes, all of these subjects are political but first they’re personal. It comes from a personal journey which then led to a political movement or whatever. That for me is the interesting part, that whatever political opinions we may have, we forget that they come with personal stories. It makes you question your own personal stories, and there’s space for discussion and debate rather than just, like, firing at each other, you know?

Was there a particular story that most surprised you?

We have a wonderful story of a transgender woman who comes from a pretty conservative middle-class background and her journey, and actually how she won the support of her parents. From parents who were totally shocked and destroyed by the fact that she wanted to change her gender to now really supporting who she is as a person. When you hear a success story like that, I think it’s really beautiful.

And what do you want listeners to take away from this podcast?

I don’t think there’s some major transformation, it’s just that you pay attention to a different way of thinking. You finish listening to the podcast, and look out your window, and see a person in front of you and think, what is their story? It makes you consider the human being and I think if we manage to do that it’s a great success.