When the creators of Puliyabaazi released their first episode on January 14, they imagined that their listeners would primarily comprise Hindi speakers from small town India. It seemed highly unlikely to them that affluent urban residents would be interested in a Hindi podcast about technology, politics and history. To their delight, they were wrong.
In November 2018, Puliyabaazi emerged as one of the most downloaded new podcasts on Apple’s iTunes store. It wasn’t just people in the “Hindi heartland” with “Android devices” who were listening to creators Pranay Kotasthane and Saurabh Chandra discuss weighty subjects like artificial intelligence, bitcoins and India’s relationship with Afghanistan. The podcast had also attracted the attention of an English-speaking urban audience in India and abroad.
“Typically, people think that things like bitcoins cannot be discussed in Hindi,” said Kotasthane. “But why should conversations in Hindi exclude anything that people want to discuss?”
Kotasthane and Chandra are both Bengaluru-based engineers with a shared interest in public policy. While Kotasthane, who hails from Madhya Pradesh, heads research at Takshashila Institution, Uttar Pradesh native Chandra is the co-founder of tech startup Ati Motors. The two became acquainted because of their sustained engagement with the Takshashila Institution, where they attended the Public Policy Graduate Certificate programme.
A few things about language became apparent to them during the course of their casual conversations. One was how frequently they switched between Hindi and English. “When we are talking casually in Hindi, if there are some complex concepts that we need to discuss – whether economic or public policy issues – we speak in English,” said Chandra. “We also tend to do that in our work lives, especially since we have a technology background. It bothered us, because we [felt that we] should be doing analytical and critical thinking in Hindi also.”
Another realisation was that while many people in their milieu had learned English, they were more comfortable speaking in native languages. “Several people learn enough English to get by with the language when they have to, but because they are identified as English speakers, the media just bombards them with everything in English,” said Chandra. This bias impoverishes other languages. “We began to realise that Hindi listeners are treated in two ways,” added Kotasthane. “Either they are treated in an infantile manner, and people…educate them with childish art and graphics, which happens a lot on YouTube, or there are very intelligent conversations happening in very boring ways, like on RajyaSabha TV.”
This prompted them to come up with a podcast that would feature “fun, engaging and intelligent” Hindi discussions about pertinent technological and political issues. They decided to call it Puliyabaazi, which loosely translates to “informal conversation” in Hindi.
Produced in association with IVM Podcasts, each hour-long episode features a conversation between Kotasthane and Chandra, although a guest speaker is invited sometimes. So far, 26 episodes have been released at a rough periodicity of two episodes a month.
The Hindi they use is conversational, and can be understood by a wide audience. The creators avoid jargon and Sanskritised or complicated words, instead using “translations or words that people can intuitively understand”. Their hope is that the podcast will give an impetus to the spread of ideas in colloquial and everyday Hindi.
Several listeners have written in to them. A businessman embarking on a work trip to China thanked them for featuring an analysis of the country’s culture. But the show also has its share of detractors. “People of different ideologies email us telling us that we should learn from people…with a particular political bent,” said Chandra. “I like that they write to us, because it tells me that we are also getting into the minds of people who might not be ideologically comfortable with us. That tells us that we are not abrasive or putting anyone down. And that’s what conversations should be like: we should be able to listen to everyone.”
Conversations play a pivotal role in forming public opinion. In today’s politically volatile environment, accessible and informed discussions in Hindi about culture and history could have a significant impact on the way audiences think. Puliyabaazi’s creators hope that it will help listeners look past their confirmation bias and give them tools to analyse political conversations.
“Research has shown that a lot of times, we first have an intuition about a particular issue, and then we find reasons over and above our intuition to justify our first thought,” said Kotasthane. “That’s what fast thinking is. It’s seldom the other way, that we think deeply about a topic, and then come to a conclusion. But we are trying do a version where we think slowly, because a lot of things that we speak are the issues that we have been thinking about for a very long time.”
The podcast format, say the two, helps encourage critical thinking. “Video demands attention,” Kotasthane said. “But podcast listening is something that you do when you’re doing something else, like travelling. That’s how it has evolved in the US. In India, as commute times get longer, people will probably start consuming podcasts more.”
Since podcasts have not yet gathered momentum in the country, the creators have faced some limitations while crafting their episodes. They try to picks topics that are not too rooted in current affairs, thereby ensuring that older episodes, even if they are discovered a few years later, don’t lose their relevance.
The founders hope that Puliyabaazi starts meaningful and nuanced conversations about politics and culture. “There are a few basic things which we always discuss in drawing rooms,” said Chandra. “Conversations include the same typical things – the current political news cycle or the real estate crisis or perhaps how bad the traffic is. If a Puliyabaazi listener can say, ‘I heard something new today, let’s talk about this’, I would be really satisfied.”