In India, the art of storytelling dates back centuries. From non-verbal to verbal; written to pictorial or graphic — stories have passed on from one generation to another in several forms. Today while we may have a plethora of stories (and formats to narrate/experience them in), there is a dearth of compelling storytellers.
Neelesh Misra is one of India’s most-loved oral storytellers, reaching more than 100 million people every week across radio and digital platforms. He is also the founder of Gaon Connection, India’s biggest rural media platform. He has written five books, and lyrics for over 30 Hindi films. He is an award-winning journalist, formerly deputy executive editor of a leading daily, and South Asia correspondent for The Associated Press.
Misra is at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, to talk about (among other things) his latest book Storywallah.
Misra was born in Lucknow and was raised in Nainital. He shifted to Delhi, pursuing journalism as a full-time career. A few years later, he also started working as a lyricist with Band Called Nine, which had singer Shilpa Rao and composer Amartya Rahut as Misra's partners. The band launched in 2010 as a result of "a sheer series of good accidents", as Misra puts it, that led him to the mic and an audience. Since then, life has offered several revelations and surprises.
"I don’t think I have a lot of knowledge, but I have a lot of experience. I haven’t read a lot of books but I’ve met a lot of people. Two of the greatest qualities of becoming a good journalist are to be a good observer and a good listener. I think I somehow inculcated both growing up in Nainital. The small town and its small town-ness gave me a lot to go with. Then, after coming to Delhi it was the first time I saw big roads, public buses crammed with people…There was no sanctity of touch, no sense of space. It was a far removed world compared to where I came from," he says talking about his early career as a reporter.
His journalistic assignments took him to remote corners of the country, reporting on terrorism, drought, insurgency, floods etc. It was during these travels that he realised storytelling is perhaps his true calling. "I remember I was in Kashmir and covering state elections there. It was very tough for us there because whenever we reached a new place, we always used to look out for a story idea, internet connectivity to send across that story, and food — in that order. One day I received a call from my colleague Poonam Saxena, who asked me to write the cover story for the upcoming issue of her magazine. I was in the middle of nowhere and I wrote a piece on 50 years of Doordarshan, where I talk about my growing up years in Lucknow, watching India vs West Indies matches, Chitrahaar among many other things. I realised that nostalgia is completely untapped in the creative space and since then, it became a part of my thinking."
Around the same time, he entered the field of radio. Misra hosts two popular shows on radio — Yadoon Ka Idiot Box on BIG FM 92.7 and The Neelesh Misra Show on 93.5 Red FM. Misra says, "When I started this journey, I didn’t know the power of radio. I think the mistake is both on the part of the content creators and the radio platforms. They themselves do not know their power and don’t respect their audience. I remember, when I started, we were given three rules: 1. Radio has no appointment listening. People don’t tune in radio to hear something specific. 2. Radio works only for Bollywood songs 3. Nobody wants to hear stories over the radio. But with our show, we proved all three myths wrong. I think that tapped into this whole subculture where there are people who have a lot to say through stories and poetry, but we don’t know about them."
As his journey as an oral storyteller took off, he decided to quit journalism as a full-time career after much deliberation. His Facebook page was filled with comments that said: 'I listened to your story and it changed my life'. "I thought when was the last time I did anything that changed anybody’s life? We live with this arrogance that we change lives, which we don’t. I had been doing many things and I had been at it for quite some time, but when I looked back, I found storytelling bound everything I did. In being a storyteller, I am a journalist, I am an author, I am a lyricist — all of them come in together," he retrospects.
Misra is also credited with co-writing Kabir Khan's 2012 Salman Khan thriller Ek Tha Tiger and its 2017 sequel Tiger Zinda Hai helmed by Ali Abbas Zafar. He has also penned lyrics of the popular Bollywood songs like Jism's 'Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai' and 'Chalo Tumko Lekar Chale'; Gangster's 'Lamha Lamha'; Barfi!'s 'Kyon' among many others.
Misra credits his initial training as a journalist for helping him balance fiction and non-fiction. "I think I have been privileged to lead this double life between hard-nosed, fact-based, often gut-wrenching journalism, and on the other hand I was writing love songs, love stories for Bollywood. And I was often doing them concurrently. I think journalism has taught me to clinically balance out what I am doing at a given time. I have written songs on the highways in Kashmir, while on a deadline. But I also had to reach a mortuary where a man’s face was blown off when he was shot. So both of these worlds have coexisted and I have tried to be honest to both of them. The world of journalism has greatly assisted [me] as I could tell those hard-hitting stories in a better form using my long format style of fiction writing as I would have otherwise. At the same time, my fiction stories have managed to be rooted in terms of emotions and moments which have come from real people I have met."
The tag line of Gaon Connection (a rural newspaper started by Misra along with Karan Dalal) states “Chaliye patrakarita me imaandari laaye” (Let's bring honesty to journalism)". Of this platform, Misra says, "I don’t believe in the concept of citizen journalism because today anybody with a smartphone can put out anything and that is dangerous and can be one-sided. In Gaon Connection, we mentor the same people about journalism and teach them how to do it correctly. Then they are a huge power. So, there has been this leap in terms of content creation; today everybody can be a publisher. Of course, that comes with a risk, but I think the platforms need to work harder to tackle fake news, hate content and work around their algorithms to fix these issues."
Misra told Firstpost that he is soon coming up with a new app named Mic, which will be a part of his Open Mic Tour where he will travel the country across 40-50 cities. He is going to conduct open-mic sessions, live storytelling performances and through them, he will identify new storytellers and writers and get them on board. "There’s no fun if I can’t create new storytellers to carry forward this legacy. An artist comes with an expiry date. For someone like me, to last even 7-8 years is a great blessing. Also, I want to force myself to do reporting again, because I am tired of being a manager. The second season of the Neelesh Misra Show is also about to come in. At the same time, more exciting episodes of The Slow Interview that previously featured Vishal Bhardwaj and Pankaj Tripathi are also lined up. I am also working on two more film scripts and a web series. I just have to juggle all of this and create sense out of this chaos."
Misra's book Storywallah has been written by the members of his mandli that he has been mentoring and grooming for over seven years. This mentoring is sustained through an entire process of receiving applications, selecting the candidates and then admission into the programme. "Storywallah is an opportunity to take their world to a wider audience, now even to the English platform and hopefully to other languages. These stories reflect their own lives from, where they are coming. The stories are bunched together not just with quality but emotions and themes. And that’s how we tried to offer a palette of different kinds of stories within the book which also became snapshots of sorts of our work at large. I am hoping that the Storywallah can become a series of books which we do from time to time," says Misra.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 20:40:44 IST