As gritty as it gets: Nikesh Murali’s Indian Noir podcast

Think Sacred Games, but up close and personal. Think Vampire Diaries, but with an Indian twist. Think the X-Files, but the darkness speaks with a voice inside your head.

If that doesn’t creep you out, then perhaps noir is your style.

Judging by some of the new fare on video streaming platforms, there’s an appetite among Indian digital media audiences for the raw and unvarnished, for stories that plunge the depths of human darkness, even depravity, and tell it like it is, without the judgmental intervention of censors — or gatekeepers of any kind.

Nikesh Murali’s Indian Noir podcast, launched in early 2018 and still in its first season, is a set of stories, unfolding in four to seven-minute bursts every couple of days, that attempt to offer the podcast audience with a different kind of dramatic experience. These are not tales for the fainthearted, or for those who want to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon being entertained by harmless humour and frothy romance. They are, as the web site describes, “fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat crime, fantasy and horror stories” set in India. The Indraprastha of Murali’s imagination could be Mumbai, and the baddies could be your neighbourhood strongmen.

Story for a season

Murali, who responded to questions on email from Australia, asserts that “the book is dead.” He chose to use this format for his stories for two reasons. One, he found that his writing in legacy formats (read: print) was winning awards but not readers. And two, he “did not want to bore people to death.” Most other fiction podcasts sustain a single story through a season, or tell one story in a given episode, but Indian Noir takes a different approach, choosing instead to unleash (that’s an apt term, given the ferocity of the plots) three stories in its first season. This makes things a bit confusing, depending on which podcast app you’re using, and you have to pay attention to which episode of which story is next on your list. When I first subscribed to the podcast, I found my player jumping from one story to the next, which meant that just as I was getting into one storyline, and understanding the cast of characters, I was thrown into a completely different one. This meant that I had to create a playlist and ensure the episodes played in order.

Three stories, three genres

“I am going to trust the listener to use the playlist function in their podcast apps or read the titles for the episodes to follow along. If they are really confused, they can always go to my website to follow along,” explains Murali. “Crafting and recording three stories in three genres also keeps things interesting for me,” he quips, “Writing after all, can devolve into a lonely and boring endeavour.”

The three stories currently running on the podcast include a true crime serial told through from the perspective of a hired killer, which takes us on a deeply disturbing ride involving a sex-trafficking ring; an oral history of Indian vampires; and a horror anthology featuring an out-of-work software professional’s encounters with the demons inside — and outside — his head. Murali is the narrator, and his voice, ideal for the medium, fluidly takes on the many characters that populate the stories — now raspy, now smooth, now angry, now afraid. “Indian audiences want gritty, sexy, thrilling stories in all genres. They want stories populated by people like them,” says Murali.

One episode at a time

Another way in which Indian Noir departs from many successful serialised podcasts is its “sustained release” model — the first season did not drop in its entirety at one go, but continues to be delivered one episode at a time, every two or three days. While this works well in terms of getting people to return to the site (if you’re listening on a laptop or from the browser) regularly, it can potentially lead to some falling off of listenership.

But the stories themselves — so far anyway — are gripping, even if they make your stomach turn at times (confession: I am one of those fainthearted). I would definitely not recommend listening to Indian Noir on a family road trip with children. But there’s something about listening to horror or crime that draws you in and shocks you with its ability to plumb your own imaginative depths. Film noir is after all someone else’s imagination presented before you. In a podcast, the writer asks you to collude with them to co-create the darkness. You just have to make sure you are not engulfed by it.

(A fortnightly series on podcasts.)

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

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