India’s first rural newspaper Gaon Connection, has cost its co-founder and editor Neelesh Misra a house in Noida, among other things. But it turned one on 2 December 2013, with a presence in 48 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. And it is on its way to making its presence felt in more markets, including Jaipur, revealed Misra, addressing the Ogilvy & Mather cadre ahead of the agency’s inaugural internal creative awards Envies, hosted in Mumbai on 16 December.
The Nainital-born Misra, whose last day job was as deputy executive editor of Hindustan Times, confessed that ‘as you rise in your career, you stop doing what you came into the profession for’. He enthralled audiences with his experiences in creating the radio ‘story’ show Yaad Sheher on Big FM, the rural newspaper, and a writer-led music band.
The rural newspaper was born of conviction that the media needed to look at rural India though the prism of rural India, explained the man who has also penned several Bollywood hit numbers. “There is a magnificent change which is happening in rural India. We don’t capture this when looking at rural India through the urban lens. Often people ask me, ‘Why a rural newspaper?’ My response is that I want to create a bloody good newspaper’,” said Misra.
The intent is to make the newspaper a daily by early or mid-2014. On the risks and turns in his career, Misra surmised, “This spirit of audacity is something I have been keen to pursue. I am blessed that we had people who believed in such mad ideas.”
A ‘Double Life’
Working as a journalist and doubling up as a writer of Bollywood songs posed its own set of challenges, recalled the multi-faceted Misra. In his own words, he found himself being tasked with ‘writing songs of love in lands of rebellion’. Having written songs for over 30 films, Misra recounted the first song, in the movie Jism. Courtesy his ‘first mentor’ and friend Mahesh Bhatt, he realised from a news report that he would be writing a song for the movie.
What he also remembers to date is a piece of advice given by Bhatt as he started off the Bollywood stint: “You can either say ‘I have written something, please see it’, or say ‘This is what I’ve written, no one can write anything better’.”
Nicknamed ‘Blackberry shayar’ by some segments of the media for writing on-the-go, he was doing up the interiors of a house he bought for his parents in Lucknow, when asked to write his first song for composer Pritam.
“For 10 years, I continued the double life – of a journalist and a lyrics writer. There was a feeling of lost opportunity. I thought I was limiting myself,” said Misra.
Then came the ‘strange quirk of creative faith’, which led to the creation of ‘India’s first’ writer-led band.
‘The city for audacious creative people’
Misra told stories on stage, interspersed with music, as the band made its debut at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Festival in 2012. The band secured an album deal within 12 hours of its debut performance. And the album went on to win several awards.
“This made me brave. I realised that I could have done a lot of things I did only in this city (Mumbai). It has space for audacious, creative people,” he said.
Being told that this was a ‘brilliant idea that would never work’ challenged the writer. Convinced that new concepts could be created by Saregama’s investing Rs 15 lakh for the album, he set forth promoting it. That led to his approaching radio stations. That’s when Big FM’s Tarun Katial asked him if he would do a radio show. He told Katial then, that he could tell stories on radio.
‘Why radio? Why stories?’
His conviction was strengthened by India’s storytelling tradition, which had been challenged with people leading busier lives.
“They said 23 stations, at 11. I said when you’re doing something new, do it on the front foot,” recalled Misra. The show aired on prime time in the evenings.
He confesses that friends kept asking two questions: Why radio - and why stories. “We seemed to think radio has lost its relevance. In the first week, we figured that stickiness was high. The show became number one,” said Misra.
While the creators initially envisaged an audience aged 30 to 35 years and above, they were pleasantly surprised to find that the core listenership lay in the 24 to 30-year age group.
“We completely underestimate our young audience. They have a split personality. They listen to Munni and Sheila. And they also listen to our show, which is about serious stories,” explained Misra.
The serious stories are impacting peoples’ lives, offering gratification of the kind that’s not measurable for its creators. And the show is going strong, forcing Misra and team to incubate and mentor a bunch of writers from all across. They’re working on projects including a TV show that the group is co-producing – yet another beginning, born of a pioneering initiative.
‘You’re the guys shaping the opinions of this nation’
The frustration was evident, when Misra said he was tired of the kind of lyrics he was being asked to write for Bollywood, complete with ‘hook lines’. He has decided to even write songs for free, but ones that are agreeable to him.
Addressing the Ogilvy clan, journalists, clients of the agency and industry veterans, Misra surmised, “You’re the guys shaping the opinions of this nation. You hold the power to shape peoples’ thinking. Often, we don’t realise the power we have in our hands. We can use that power judiciously; we abuse it very often.”