I asked Mozez Singh, a film producer and director, why in almost every episode of his audio-show, Azaad Awaaz (10 episodes, an hour each), does he ask his guests about the first time they have had sex?
“To break the ice,” he answers nonchalantly.
Tahira Kashyap, a writer and director, who was also present, talking about her audio-show, My Ex-breast (7 episodes, an hour each), said “Normally when I break the ice, I ask about the weather and stuff.”
Guneet Monga, the executive producer on both these audio-shows (I was corrected by a member of the staff; they are not podcasts, but audio shows) whose recent production Period. End Of Sentence won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, was sitting between Kashyap and Singh. This is her first brush with the world of audio. Just a few moments ago she was talking about the intimacy, intensity, and focus that an audio show allows.
“Can you imagine asking this question with a camera to your face?”
Both Azaad Awaaz and My Ex-breast are part of the slate of audio shows that Audible Suno commissioned. Audible, a global giant in the world of podcasts and audio-books, launched Audible Suno, with exclusive content for Indian listeners. Their slate covers a range of themes and genre- sex, mythology, cancer, relationships, and mental health, to name a few.
Azad Awaaz and the Queer Cultural Abundance
Azad Awaaz is an audio anthology. Mozez Singh is in conversation with folks whose desires and identities fall on various strands of the Queer Rainbow. The seasons begins with two women who met a book-club, “a pit-stop for tired lesbians”, and their story of coming together, their courting, or lack thereof. (“The first time she came home I was wearing a blue lungi, and she drank a glass of milk and went home.”)
He speaks with gay men searching for a home, both literal and metaphoric, in this frenetic city, a trans-man who aims to fly, articulating his dreams of becoming a pilot, and even a mother grappling with her daughter’s journey as a trans-woman. The conversations range from accepting and manifesting desire, to the violence subjected and meted out, hopes and dreams, pain and glory. In this midst Singh endearingly alternates between an uncomfortable Hindi and English.
Azad Awaaz is an audio anthology. Mozez Singh is in conversation with folks whose desires and identities fall on various strands of the Queer Rainbow. The seasons begins with two women who met a book-club, “a pit-stop for tired lesbians”, and their story of coming together, their courting, or lack thereof.
Adding “star value”, Singh speaks to Vicky Kaushal and Richa Chadha, both straight, and fierce allies of the movement. Though staunch hetersexuals, they flirt with the imagination, answering questions about potential same-sex hookups. Perched atop all these stories is the last episode where Singh speaks to lawyers about the moments leading up to the historic September 6, 2018 judgment. It was on this date that the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377, calling homosexuality a “completely natural condition”; same-sex sexual relations are no longer illegal. Justice Indu Malhotra noted:
“History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for … they have suffered through the centuries.”
This is very interesting structural choice: The courtroom drama that played out in real life, too, sprung from stories that then became legal arguments. It was about the right to love and lust consensually.
It is on the back of this judgment that there has been an increase in pop culture references, books being written (Milkteeth, So Now You Know, Queeristan), podcasts being made (another being Navin Noronha’s Keeping It Queer), movies being green-lit (Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, Dostana 2), and music videos being rolled out (Netflix’s Valentine’s Day video). This queer cultural abundance also leaks into the corporate world that is asking for policies and benefits for same-sex partners. Indeed, one of the episodes does talk about this- How do you demand same-sex partner benefits? How do you come out to your colleagues? Do you sit them down or just slip it in casually, consistently? What if they ask you about the hickey you have unsuccessfully tried to hide?
My Ex-breast and Grieving Publicly
Tahira Kashyap is deeply spiritual. Her podcast, My ex-breast, is about the journey of being diagnosed with and coming out the brighter end of the dark tunnel that is breast cancer. Each episode begins with her monologue, where with Kashyap’s endearing humour and chatty calm, she takes the listeners through her journey of deep sadness coinciding with her husband, Ayushmann Khurrana’s meteoric rise in the film industry. (A lot of the events described were happening days before the premiere of Badhaai Ho) She never sounds bitter and the retrospective gaze helps. When she is diagnosed with stage zero cancer, her first reaction as the elevator doors close is “Bhenchod lag gayi.” Khurrana and Kashyap laugh like kids who reluctantly, but surely grow into maturity and reason.
The latter half of each episode is Kashyap talking to various people, her husband, parents, friends, doctors, and even her son, to ask them what their experience was, and what they learned, and how they endured. (When she asks her son what he would tell someone else who is going through the ordeal of breast cancer, he sounds bewildered, because he doesn’t know anyone else. After explaining to him what this hypothetical question means, he squirms. “I’ll send them love,” he replies.)
Each episode begins with her monologue, where with Kashyap’s endearing humour and chatty calm, she takes the listeners through her journey of deep sadness coinciding with her husband, Ayushmann Khurrana’s meteoric rise in the film industry.
Monga, who also lost her mother to cancer, speaks about how she and Kashyap would cackle in the studio as they were discussing breast cancer. This is the tone of the show too- lusting over Hrithik Roshan between breast cancer examinations, getting a blow-dry before her mastectomy, complaining about constipation, tackling the stigma associated with cancer, grief and loss of hair head-on, posting pictures on Instagram of her bald head, and her deep scars, much to the chagrin of her very Punjabi parents. Despair is what caused the journey, but joy is what she got out of it. That is the message Kashyap wants to send: get yourself checked for breast cancer symptoms, and love yourself anyways.
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Today is my day! Wish you all a happy #worldcancerday and hope each one of us celebrates this day in an embracing way. That we remove any stigma or taboo associated with it. That we spread awareness about it and that we have self love no matter what. I truly embrace all my scars as they are my badges of honour. There is nothing known as perfect. Happiness lies in truly accepting yourself. This was a tough one for me. But this picture was my decision as I want to celebrate not the disease but the spirit with which I endured. To quote my mentor, Diasaku Ikeda, “Leading an undefeated life is eternal victory. Not being defeated, never giving up, is actually a greater victory than winning, not being defeated means having the courage to rise to the challenge. However many times we’re knocked down, the important thing is we keep getting up and taking one step-even a half step- forward” #worldcancerday #breastcancerawareness #breastcancerwarrior #turningkarmaintomission #boddhisatva Thanks @atulkasbekar for this one❤️
Great Art, Great Sadness
At the end of the day, these are stories of profound grief, and so I asked them if at any point they felt they were exploiting personal sadness to create great art.
Shaheen Bhatt, in her book about coping with depression, I’ve Never Been Un-happier quotes her father, “You must not allow your pain to be wasted, Shaheen.” Bhatt uses this quote as the bedrock to realize that though depression has taken a lot from her, it has also given her a lot of lessons, “but only because [she] eventually demanded it.”
These two podcasts, too, are about that- demanding from life’s trials, lessons and stories to tell. Pain is a mere conduit for those seeking stories and redemption. As Monga confides, “We are storytellers not as a profession, but in our beings.”