The picture is very clear. Gulaab is looking up at the sky one minute, a happy teenager, and the next minute losing the grip of her mother's hand in a crowded street. A woman is pulling her away from the crowd - it is not her mother. Gulaab realises she is being abducted, but her cries are lost in the mad city rush. Somewhere else in the city, Virat Nariman is mad with rage. Someone has killed his daughter, another teenager. His has been a life of crime, but his daughter was innocent. He has to avenge his daughterâs killers. All he has is a vehicle, a gun, a man to make tools for him, and a complete lack of fear.
You don't see any of this, every detail is narrated to you, in a podcast that Google will throw up as one of the most popular ones from the country - Indian Noir. Nikesh Murali, who created it, narrated it and gave voice to every one of the characters, lives in Sydney, Australia but is originally from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.
Gulaab's and Nariman's is the first among the stories Nikesh has told in the podcast. The story, titled His Night Begins, is told over 50 episodes. It has not been easy. Nikesh says in an interview to TNM that podcasting is a medium he arrived at after being a writer first.
"I had an epiphany. I always knew I had the talent to produce entertaining works of fiction. But maybe books were not the best medium for me. After all, oral storytelling has been around for a lot longer than books. So I combined my narration, audio production, and writing skills to create Indian Noir,â he says.
Short manuscripts at thrilling pace
It also helped that he could write âshort manuscripts that moved at a thrilling paceâ.
"It was perfect for a generation of listeners who scanned content at a blitzing pace. There is a tendency to deride the Tik-Tok generation, without acknowledging the fact that they consume content quickly so they can keep up with the demands of a fast-paced world," Nikesh says.
Listeners who loved His Night Begins sent fan mail to Nikesh in the form of art and poetry, celebrating Virat Nariman. Nikesh says he has received more fan mail in the last 2.5 years of the podcastâs existence when compared to the 15 years he spent publishing in print.
Listen to: First Episode of His Night Begins
He like many writers began with poems published in magazines, short stories in literary journals, all fetching awards. He has self published books and won critical acclaim for some of them but 'the poor sales didnât justify investing time, money and energy in that space', Nikesh says. He gave up on writing but could not keep the 'creative voice in his head' quiet.
Thatâs when he got to reciting poems by the likes of Kaveh Akbar, which became viral and got shared in plenty. Recitation gigs and voice acting opportunities began coming his way and Nikesh realised there was a lot he could do with his voice.
"I professionally trained to improve my voice acting and narration skills and continued to refine my work by starring in international audio dramas and through the poetry readings on my blog I also studied audio production for audio dramas," he says.
But creating podcasts meant a lot of work. "It takes 8.5 hours to produce 20 minutes of content for Indian Noir. Anyone who thinks they can just read their manuscript on their phone and post it online, is in for a real shock. The audience, raised on a diet of big budget, creative content, will demand a high-quality production from a storytelling podcast."
Storytelling podcasts have a smaller listener base than non-fiction podcasts, so it became all the more important to produce really interesting content. The script needs to be optimised for the audio medium, Nikesh says. "It helps to listen to professional productions like Sandman on Audible to understand the rules of the game. This however does not reduce the need to write, rewrite and edit the script multiple times - you are still trying to produce literature."
Crime and horror
And literature was where it all began. Nikesh liked telling stories and he liked crime fiction. The first is an interest he developed from his grandfather, the second comes from his obsession with horror and crime movies. He also loved reading these genres in his teenage years.
"I want to produce a body of horror literature that will link up Indian writing to some of the established traditions in international horror. A good example of this is Bhangarh, a recent Indian Noir story which is set in Robert W Chambersâ The King in Yellow universe."
He also puts forward an interesting idea that horror is best consumed through audio, "because on screen once you see the monster we lose the fear factor, but when it continues to live in the shadows of your mind, its potency increases manifold."
He does not rely on 'jump scares', he says. "I rely on planting ideas and images that will core into your soul and stay there forever."
Without visuals, Nikesh relies heavily on his voice modulations and the background score and sound effects. You can hear the fear in Gulaab's voice and the anger in Virat's deep almost baritone voice. Quite a few of the villains, in contrast, have a softer musical tone.
"I am notorious for giving voices to the pets of some of my friends, dogs being my favourite. Before I started Indian Noir I was always in demand to narrate the stories of horror movies to friends who didnât have the courage to sit through them at the cinemas. I would still creep them out with just my narration," Nikesh says.
But when it is a professional podcast, it will need a lot of retakes and then there is the 'mind numbing' process of editing.
Good talent in India
There is a lot of talent in the Indian podcast scene now, Nikesh says. "Monetising is still a challenge, but ad networks are popping up and other monetising opportunities (for example, I was commissioned to do an Audible exclusive show) are opening up for those who want to do this on a full-time basis. I still think we are half a decade away before podcasting full-time becomes financially viable."
Nikesh has a few series already including His Night Begins. There is a horror series called Fear, a mythology story called Dev Asur and some horror anthologies.
Nikesh moved to Australia when he was 20, studied to be an analyst and worked with the Australian government for nearly a decade. He now works as a policy advisor in the future transport technology sector, living somewhere near the ocean in beautiful Sydney.