Baby Doll podcast: Medium is the magic here

‘Baby Doll’ is the story of a sex worker, a supposedly meek woman who takes on a powerful person. But it’s the way the story has been told through “voice acting” which is the real fun

Baby Doll podcast: Medium is the magic here

Garima Sadhwani

Remember the old days when everyone at home would gather in the living room or the verandah and you’d all sit together to listen to a drama on the radio? Well, that’s what actor Jaideep Ahlawat recalled, when he was recording for his latest project, an Audible podcast, Baby Doll. Except that he remembered sitting in a farm, as he intently listened to Vividh Bharati on the radio.

A revenge drama, written and directed by Pravesh Bhardwaj, Baby Doll tells the story of a sex worker (played by Richa Chadha) who decides to avenge the death of her friend, killed by the son of an underworld don (Jaideep Ahlawat).

Bhardwaj wanted to tell the story of a “supposedly meek woman, who takes on someone who is seemingly the most powerful person around”. With no support, no power, and no choice, she makes a decision that changes the lives of everyone around her.

Bhardwaj says, “For me, the story began when the protagonist is a victim of something unsavory, an accident, something she did not sign up for. From a victim, she becomes a survivor, then an aggresor, and by the end of the story, the knuckle-buster that she is, she goes on to hound the villain.”

The director laughs as he says that podcasts are the personal Cannes of the audience, because it’s “kaan wala cinema (cinema for the ears)”. Very different from the visual medium, Bhardwaj says that while listening to a podcast, the imagination and setting is totally in the hands of the audience, it can be whichever way they mould it to be.

But since there’s no visual to grab the attention of the audience, audio storytelling has to employ numerous other ways to do it. And it’s not just other audio mediums that are competition for podcasts, but a podcast has to fight with every other form of entertainment out there, as well as your surroundings to emerge as the centre of your attention.

Bhardwaj explains that the reason behind this is that people usually listen to podcasts either from the comfort of their homes, while travelling or while working, to distract themselves from the monotony of it all.

Baby Doll podcast: Medium is the magic here
Baby Doll podcast: Medium is the magic here

And so, “Immersive experience is what the whole podcast business is about,” says the director. He adds that since the audience is investing their time, the story shouldn’t just be good enough to hold their attention, but should be “worthwhile”.

So, for instance, instead of seeing people walking about in the visual medium, you’d hear their footsteps in a podcast. Bhardwaj says he creates a similar ambience by incorporating the sounds of traffic, the sounds of walking, stopping, taking a pause, someone calling you from a distance. The team even made a new song to be used as a background score in the podcast.

All of these were written down as cues when Bhardwaj was initially writing the script. Ask him how different the process of writing for the visual and audio mediums are, and he simply says that it all essentially comes down to one thing- storytelling. No matter the medium, a storyteller has the hunger to tell his stories. He smiles, “It’s like cricket, different formats but the game is the same.”

For a podcast, the production part also comes down certain notches. Here, a director need not worry about the lighting or finding locations, or shooting for an action sequence. To put it in terms of the visual medium, audio storytelling is essentially post-production. One has to record the dialogues, record the sound cues, and design the music. For Bhardwaj, the idea is to use what the audiences might have already watched as raw material, and then build on it to enhance their imagination. This also means that every listener imagines a different setting while listening to the same podcast, the director adds.

Podcasts are an emerging medium, where the actors get to try “voice acting”, and perform in an altogether different medium, that’s out of their comfort zones, says Bhardwaj, adding that he believes a lot of other actors will also start doing podcasts soon.

Like Ahlawat said, there’s a certain nostalgia attached to the audio storytelling medium. From listening to family dramas on the radio, to horror stories, there’s a certain charm the era of the radio held. Which is why the actor listened to radio shows like that of Nilesh Mishra’s to prepare for his role in Baby Doll.

Making a show about sex workers and dons, setting it in a world filled with crime at every corner, Bhardwaj says he carefully made sure that the story did not seem like it was a “celebration of misogyny or of the exploitation of women”. It was tough to balance since he did not want to censor his characters as well.

Though the story is grim and dark, Bhardwaj hopes the audience enjoys listening to it just as much as the team enjoyed making it. He says that over long meetings, Chadha and Ahlawat found the voice for their characters, which they ended up preparing and rehearsing for more than the director could have asked for.

Now that Baby Doll has released, Bhardwaj is currently working on a script titled Mashooq. Ahlawat, on the other hand, hopes to do more podcasts now.

(Baby Doll is streaming on Audible.)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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