Space Talks with Gaurav Vaz - Producer of Mission ISRO Podcast
Gaurav Vaz, COO of All Things Small, talks about their podcast Mission ISRO. How they produced one of the comprehensive histories of the Indian Space Agency, ISRO and what to expect in season two?
ISRO will celebrate its 52nd anniversary this year on Independence Day. In its rich history of 50 years, the agency has achieved numerous milestones. Working for the betterment of society through remote sensing and communication satellites was not widely recognised until it undertook planetary missions to the Moon and Mars. These missions fueled a widespread interest in ISRO, its missions and its scientists.
Finally, Bollywood made a movie inspired by the Mars Orbiter Mission, but there are even more exciting stories in the archives. ATS Studios with Spotify realised this gap, and a podcast was born. Mission ISRO is "one of the more comprehensive histories of ISRO", as the producer Gaurav Vaz said.
About the company: All Things Small
Gaurav Vaz is the co-founder and COO of All Things Small, a media company aiming to tell true stories. The company started back in October 2019. A bunch of people who never worked together had an idea - "creating content, which is true stories focused or non-fiction focused, coming out of the Indian subcontinent, and being told to the world."
Their one-line vision was ready, but they did not decide on the format of the content. They did not want to be restricted by format or by platform. The aim was to build the skill and ability to tell incredible stories from India in whatever format works best.
The space story was best told as an audio podcast because of difficulty in the recreation of the past. Similarly, they made other podcasts that were difficult to adapt in a video format. The first project they started was fiftytwo.in - A long-form written publication where a story is published every week from India. Some of these stories later got adapted to audio-visual formats.
Creating Podcasts and eventually Mission ISRO
When Gaurav and his colleagues started podcasting in India was still very new, and it still is hasn't taken off. To a large extent, the field was dominated by conversational podcasts where many people came together to discuss something. ATS studios wanted to tell narrative stories which are well-researched. Fortunately, the month they started, someone put them in contact with Spotify, India. Spotify wanted to do a podcast, stars aligned themselves.
ATS went and pitched 30-40 ideas. The first one which saw the light of the Sun was Special Mission. Special Mission is truly special. Gul Panag narrates untold stories from the Indian Armed Forces in Hindi. Then came another podcast named Maha Bharat, with Dhruv Rathee. Here, the idea was to help Indians understand India through simple civics lessons. What does President do? What is RBI's role in controlling inflation? These are some of the questions answered. It is an ongoing podcast with 50 episodes when I wrote this article.
Finally, the third podcast, Mission ISRO, was made. Gaurav had this idea of telling a space story. He had read an article regarding the all-women team involved in Mars Orbiter Mission, and then there is a podcast named 13 minutes to the moon narrating the stories from Apollo 13. All these inspired him towards telling the story of ISRO, and Spotify agreed.
Meanwhile, Sidin Vadukut, co-founder and CEO of the company, roped in Harsha Bhogle. He knew Harsha from Twitter and reached out to him with the idea. It turns out, Harsha was looking for some non-cricket project at the time. He was really excited and came onboard. It all fell together, just like the serendipitous story of ISRO.
Researching the Story
I have tried my best to research the story of ISRO. There are a few books, but apart from that, there is nothing. Gaurav credits Archana Nathan for the research. Archana, who's also the writer of the series, did a project with ATS studios, after which she joined as a full-time employee. She started working on Maha Bharat and later researched and interviewed a bunch of people for Mission ISRO. A lot of scientists agreed. Asif Siddiqui, a space historian, proved quite helpful. Amruta Shah had written the biography of Dr Sarabhai. All these resources were quite useful.
Alongside the research, ATS studios roped in a few screenplay writers. There was Devaiah Bopanna, who is a co-founder. He had been a comedy writer and advertising copywriter in the past. This team of writers helped structure the linear story of ISRO. You cannot just tell a story as this happened, and then this happened and then that. Listeners will lose interest. So, they had a masterclass in how you take a linear sequence of events and tell it as an engaging story.
Seasons of Mission ISRO
Season One narrates the story from the start of the Indian Space Programme to Rakesh Sharma's spaceflight. It is the struggle of how a country, which is just born literally. All warring territories, princely states agreed to work together and formed a democratic government. We have a constitution, and we have poverty, and we don't have food, and we have to figure out what the country is supposed to do. And then there's this audacious plan of putting together a space mission. So season one had this cool underdog theme to it. There's this country that is struggling. Three people come together with this ambitious plan and overcome many obstacles to reach from zero to one. While Rakesh Sharma's flight wasn't an ISRO mission, it is the most memorable moment for many Indians. So, an Indian in space saying "Saare Jahan Se Acha" became a nice culmination for Season One.
Season Two is much more trickier. There isn't that cool underdog theme. The reality is we tried a hundred things, of which some worked, and some did not. All this while ISRO kept growing in capacity and strength, but there weren't any cool, if you may, missions like Chandrayaan or MOM. How do you engagingly tell such a story? You once again cannot narrate linear series of events in progression. Gaurav promises that they managed to find some interesting connections. How they overcome these challenges will be heard starting 15th August. Season two is releasing on Independence Day, which also happens to be the anniversary of the formation of ISRO.
The Indian classical music mixed with tunes of satellite signals and a drum beat to go along, the theme has it all! Gaurav Vaz was a musician before this. He played bass guitarist in a folk band from Bangalore called Raghu Dixit Project. When the podcast idea came about, he reached out to his bandmate Raghu Dixit. He briefed Raghu about the vision of the podcast, the story of hope and ambition. They wanted the music to be a nice mix of Indian Classical because that's what you imagine playing in the 50s and 60s. The rest was Raghu Dixit's magic to give us such a fantastic tune.
A million more stories to be told
ISRO's story is 60 years old, but it took so long for someone to tell it to the mass audience. Gaurav believes that it took so long because there wasn't a good medium to do so until now. Suppose you think about the economics of making such a product. Such a big Bollywood project will incur a lot of costs, and to earn profits, the sensationalisation of the story is essential as it engages a larger audience.
Like ISRO's story, there are thousands and millions of such stories from India that deserve to be told. Now, with formats such as podcasts or docu-dramas on platforms like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime are available, these stories will be told.
The upcoming podcast that ATS studios are working on is called 377, which is the story of how India overturned section 377. The law was used to harass and assault and discriminate against LGBTQ people in India. They have interviewed original petitioners and are hoping to release the podcast within 2-3 months.
With Mission ISRO, ATS Studios didn't dilute things. They keep the scientific terms while explaining them to the layman. If an episode demands 40 minutes, they give it the time in a world where 30-second tiktoks and reels are all the craze that is a big gamble. And they were rewarded for it. Gaurav mentions how the response from the audience has exceeded expectations. Even though the season ended months ago, he still gets tweets and emails from people about how much they love it, how they make their kids sit and listen to it as a family.
I interviewed Gaurav Vaz on 14th July 2021. I am thankful to him for finding time for the interview. You can listen to the raw version on the YouTube link below.