It was a few hours before dawn in the village of Tosh in Himachal Pradesh. Inside a barely-lit cottage room, Hindol Bhattacharya, a copywriter from Mumbai, sat huddled under a blanket, with two of his childhood friends. The three were transfixed by a baritone voice, emerging from a mobile phone kept in front of them. Nothing moved except the flame of a candle, flickering in a corner, as they listened to the oral rendition of a popular Bengali suspense story, liberally interspersed with chilling sound effects that added to its drama.
“If this is what Bengali literature needs to survive, then so be it,” pronounced Bhattacharya, soon after the voice fell silent.
The baritone belonged to popular radio personality Mir Afsar Ali. He was reading out a story written by legendary filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray on Sunday Suspense, a long-running radio show on Radio Mirchi 98.3 FM in Kolkata. Sunday Suspense involves a dramatised reading of Bengali classics, usually from the horror and crime genre. There have been close to 500 such episodes since the show went on air in 2009. The Sunday afternoon show has also featured the translated works of authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Graham Greene and Ray Bradbury. The episodes have been archived on the radio station’s YouTube channel, making it a treasure trove of Bengali literature.
“We have received [positive] feedback from Bengali families living in other states of India as well as in other countries, whose children don’t have the opportunity to read gems of Bengali literature like Satyajit Ray or Saradindu Bandyopadhyay or Nihar Ranjan Gupta, because they have not been taught Bangla in school,” said Ali. “The show has bridged this gap and has helped connect the new generation to Bengali literature.” In the process, it has won eight Excellence in Radio Awards and the New York International Radio Festival’s best audio book from India, three times in a row.
Not an audio drama
Audio plays have been part of popular culture since radio broadcasting began in India in the early 20th century. From the 1920s till video took over, radio kept playwrights busy, and several original works were written keeping audio presentation in mind. For instance Aao, one of author Saadat Hasan Manto’s most famous series of plays, was written for radio.
But the creators of Sunday Suspense don’t want to categorise the show as an audio drama. “We take a Bengali classic and read it from cover to cover,” said Indrani Chakrabarti, who conceived the show for Radio Mirchi and was directing it till October. “Voice modulations and foley sounds are added to create the theatre of the mind experience.”
Perhaps the most famous example of the “theatre of mind” experience is Orson Welles’ radio drama, The War of the Worlds (based on HG Wells’ book by the same name), which was broadcast on Halloween in 1938 in the US. The story of an alien invasion was presented like regular radio programming: a live music performance and weather updates were interrupted with news flashes about aliens attacking New Jersey. Although the narrative technique did end up having the desired effect – of spooking people – the play caused mass panic. Many listeners had tuned in after the opening announcement which stated its fictional nature, making them believe that the news was real.
Richard Debnath, who designs the soundscape for Sunday episodes, aims for a similar, but perhaps less frenzied, impact.
In Sunday Suspense’s adaptation of Khagam, one of Ray’s short horror stories, Debnath’s sound architecture successfully heightens the drama created by Ray’s trademark visual writing style. The plot revolves around a man witnessing an acquaintance, Dhurjhoti Babu, turning into a snake. When the protagonist (voiced by Bengali actor Sabyasachi Chakraborty) describes how there are consistent knocks on the lower part of the door, interspersed with hissing sounds coming from who he thinks is Dhurjhoti Babu, the foley sounds make the listeners feel they too are standing with him. And like him, they are gripped with fear.
The episode illustrates the versatility of Sunday Suspense’s voice artists. In it, Ali voices four characters – he plays Dhurjhoti Babu before and after a curse turns him into a snake, as well as a sadhu who speaks Bengali with a thick Hindi accent. According to Ali, playing a character that has two age profiles or evolves rapidly in a story can be challenging. It is important, he says, to move beyond voice modulation. “I try to draw the character in my mind mostly based on the descriptions provided by the author,” said Ali. “Does he have a moustache? Does he walk with a slouch? Is he short? I have spoken to mimicry artists and comedians about this and they have similar things to say. When popular mimicry artist Sudesh Bhosle is [imitating] Ashok Kumar, he lifts his arms and shoulders to sound like him. Similarly, for audio, if I try to behave like the character would, it is more likely that I will sound like he is supposed to.”
Even before the archiving on YouTube, some dedicated followers had found ways to hold on to some of Sunday Suspense episodes. Indranil Roychowdhury, a Bengali filmmaker who describes the show as a “Netflix for books”, recollects meeting taxi drivers in Kolkata who had saved episodes on a pen drive, so that they could listen to them while driving around.
Not just pen drives – not long after the show was first aired, people started recording episodes and circulating them as Mp3 files. “What we did to take it out of radio was [to] bring out audio CDs, which were still a thing back then,” said Chakrabarti. “The CDs were priced around Rs 150 each, but within months, copies started being sold for a tenth of the price at roadside stalls.” A while later, several unofficial apps popped up with their content, which were a hit with the Bengali diaspora.
“I think one of the reasons the show became popular was because of this rampant piracy,” Chakrabarti admitted with a laugh. Since December 2017, every episode has been archived on Radio Mirchi’s YouTube channel, which has over 3 lakh followers.
Sunday Suspense started with the idea of only narrating some short stories by Ray. As the show gained in popularity, the repertoire broadened. The makers then experimented with the format: they broke the one-story-per-episode mould and serialised Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novella Chander Pahar, and aired it over six days of a week in 2012.
Soon, the show was a household name. Original submissions started flooding in,but the makers wanted to stick to the classics. It was only when they saw the success that original storytelling content was enjoying across streaming platforms that they thought of trying it on the show. The first original story Roopkotha, written by Abhinandan Banerjee, a young writer and advertising professional, was aired in March. The story was based on Japanese folklore, and the episode has already garnered more than 3.6 lakh views on YouTube.
The broadening of platforms has also pushed the show into pop culture discourse. “Medium and content are two separate things, and when medium dominates the content, it is sad,” said Banerjee. “This is what happened with Sunday Suspense. Radio isn’t [considered] cool and so the urban population would shy away from discussing what they are listening to on it. Now that [Sunday Suspense] is on YouTube and we can stream it like podcasts, [it becomes] fit for discussion.” An episode on a Feluda story by Ray, Joto Kando Kathmadu-te, has over 620,000 views.
Payal Dasgupta, a 30-year-old communications professional in Bengaluru, grew up reading Bengali classics and says that listening to Sunday Suspense has allowed her to “re-live the stories”. “The selection and their presentation were the key factors, and I used to look forward to Sundays,” said Dasgupta. “Mir’s voice added to the charm. Even though I don’t get the show on radio in Bengaluru, its availability on YouTube allows me to listen at my own convenience.”
The format of Sunday Suspense has been replicated by several FM radio channels, the most popular one being Ek Kahani Aisi Bhi on Red FM, which featured original stories based on Indian urban legends. Radio Mirchi itself emulated this formula of horror-plus-storytelling in other cities, but most of the experiments were short-lived and didn’t taste the success that Sunday Suspense enjoys.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” said Ali. “Indrani had to fight a tough battle with our superiors to get a slot for this show. She was asked who would listen to a story in the middle of songs, because all the FM stations back then were only playing music. And now, almost 10 years after we won that battle, we are happy that people are listening to it, [whether it’s] from a pirated Mp3 file, or on our radio channel on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Kolkata.”
Sampurna Chakraborty perhaps sums up the impact of Sunday Suspense. The 33-year-old historian, who lives in London, has been ending her day with the show for the past two years. “I know most of these stories by heart,” said Chakraborty. “It is the comfort of the known, like one’s bed.”