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Yeh kaisa kanoon hai, ki first class mein keval angrez hi chadenge? (What sort of law permits only Englishmen to travel in the first-class coach?),” asks actor Rajit Kapoor in a piercing tone. The background score — winds blowing along with the chugging sounds of a train — adds to the drama in the scene. A few seconds later, Farooq Sheikh, the sutradhar (narrator), declares the scene as the birth of “krantikaari [revolutionary] Gandhi” — a turning point in the life of Mahatma Gandhi that awakened him to the social injustice in South Africa and shaped his ideology. This is Gandhi, a two-month long radio-drama playing on radio station Fever 104 FM. Launched on the 75th anniversary of Gandhi’s Dandi March on March 12, the cast of the show includes Sachin Khedekar as B R Ambedkar and Heeba Shah as Kasturba Gandhi.
The genre of radio-drama is not new; dramatic presentations were important components of radio entertainment in the pre-television era, especially in the 1940s when important writers of the time were closely associated with the government-owned All India Radio. Acclaimed Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto’s celebrated play Ao (Come) and Kishan Chander’s Darwaaza (Door) were written especially for radio. However, with the TV boom, the genre fell by the wayside.
Kapoor, who is enacting the role of Gandhi, is no stranger to the genre. He was a part of the radio-drama A Suitable Boy, adapted from Vikram Seth’s novel and directed by John Dryden. A Suitable Boy was aired on BBC Radio 4 and was recorded across different locations in Pune and Mumbai. For Gandhi, Kapoor didn’t need much preparation — he won the National Award for his role of Gandhi in Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma (1996).
“The challenge was to get the tone of voice right,” says Kapoor. For the younger Gandhi, Kapoor uses a restless tone. “As the years fly by, Gandhi’s voice becomes more measured and I had to keep that in mind.” Avoiding any “caricaturish accents”, Kapoor has already recorded 40 episodes from Mumbai. “I remember listening to Inspector Eagle and Hawa Mahal on Vividh Bharti, with the radio tucked under my pillow,” he reminisces. There have been other shows like Life Gulmohar Style on AIR — the show ended in 2010 — but they didn’t get a good response.
“The problem with radio channels is that they lack differentiation,” says Harshad Jain, Business Head, Radio & Entertainment, HT Media (which operates Fever FM). The channel aired the mythological drama Ramayana last year, and now aims to create “appointment listening” — giving listeners something to look forward to. While Ramayana recorded a rise of around 28 per cent and 54 per cent in listenership in Delhi and Mumbai, respectively, within that time band, the only way to retain the numbers was to keep the trend going, says Jain. The radio epic had the voices of Jaaved Jafferi as Hanuman and Naseeruddin Shah as Raavan.
Fever FM has now tied up with Airtel and Docomo to broadcast episodes of the show. “Around 250,000 listeners keep up with the show through these services... they have called in and requested repeat telecasts,” he adds. Last Sunday, the channel aired six episodes back-to-back to meet the demand.
Sheikh, who plays the narrator Bharat in Gandhi, believes the play is “interactive without being preachy”. Recalling his last stint in commercial audio-drama, Ever Ready ke Humsafar, which aired almost 40 years ago, with some nostalgia, he says, “These plays are a welcome diversion from the monotony of soap operas and Bollywood.”