Mediums and Formats of storytelling might evolve constantly, but they all share a commonality, which is creativity !

Suromita Roy, our next pathbreaker, Publishing Manager at Storytel, creates and develops Storytel original content in English, Hindi and Bengali with ‘audio-first’ writing.

Suromita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her work which has been all about making stories better, creatively fitting them to the specific medium, and packaging it for a specific audience.

For students, we live in a world that is influenced by inspiring stories, whether it is a book or a film or an advertisement. Stories have the power to touch and transform lives !

Suromita, what were your early years like?

I come from a lower middle class Bengali family in Kolkata, where my father was a banker, and my mother was a teacher. My paternal grandfather was into Hindustani classical music and so was the whole family, which made me very keen to have a career in music. However, the main focus of our lives at that point of time was to make a good living and provide for the family. In those times, we didn’t have much of an idea about the different vocational careers we could pursue. It was either being a doctor or an engineer or a chartered accountant. 

I studied commerce, because I was not very good with mathematics or physics. I picked up commerce because that was the second best option. I would spend most of my time listening to music, those days radio, because we didn’t have a music player or a TV for a really long time. And, books were my company all the time. My mother used to make fun of me saying that, “please come and learn something in the kitchen”, because nobody is going to pay me to read books. But little did she know that as a storyteller, I do get paid to read and listen to stories because I’m a publishing editor. 

My initial interests were music and books, and then films happened. 

When I used to watch a film or read a book, I would very accurately remember where a scene ends in a book or a film. So that would give me a very different perspective of the whole film or of the book. During my college days, I discovered the world of editing, through Bengali feature films, where you literally cut the film strips with scissors. So I’ve learned all those analog techniques. So, on the whole, storytelling in books and films have been the driving force that have shaped my life and the work that I do right now. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I started with commerce. My mother had actually enrolled me for chartered accountancy exams. I studied for the foundation exams for a year. I opted out because I was very sure that I wanted to learn how to edit  films, though that was not appreciated by my parents. They really wanted me to do something more socially acceptable. I think we all have these times in our lives, when we are just figuring out things and being absolutely revolting. Moreover, I came from a very conservative household. Three or four years after my graduation, I went to Delhi and took up jobs merely for survival.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Being a chartered accountant was out of the way and doing something in film editing had taken a reasonable shape in my head. But the first thing was to get out of the house to avoid getting married because that was typical in those days. My cousin, Rana Barua, who was in advertising those days, was in Mumbai. Looking at him had given me an idea that there was a possibility for me to step out of Kolkata and explore new avenues in films. Also, having someone in the family helped the situation to be a little more conducive with my conservative parents. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My first job in Delhi was as a tele-caller, selling credit cards. I got that job through a newspaper ad. Within four months of that job, I landed a job in Business Standard, where I was a TV reporter. A friend of mine in Delhi was working there and arranged for an interview. They were just about setting up the team in the video department. I was also learning to edit in a studio at the same time. 

Within a year, I went to Bombay and landed a job in UTV which was making a show for Star TV, with Farida Jalal and Shruti Seth. During those days there used to be a film directory and I used to religiously call people everyday looking at their landline numbers. 

Television was very hectic. Television scripting doesn’t involve meaningful storytelling. After a year, I shifted to advertising because storytelling in advertising is much smarter, crisper and you have to be more mindful about the story. I worked in Percept picture company, where there were lots of celebrities, and was a great learning experience. I worked on Brands like LG, Air Sahara, and Sahara City Homes. I worked as an Executive Producer for the Sahara Wedding Project, produced by Percept Picture Company and directed by RajKumar Santoshi.

Around 2004, I met Shashanka Ghosh, who was behind the launch of Channel V in India, the guy who made the film called “Waisa Bhi Hota Hai” part two. He is one of those people I have learned a lot from when it comes to storytelling and films. “Waisa Bhi Hota Hai” was a story of a woman who was an inspector at a time when nobody was making a film with a woman and that too an inspector as the main protagonist. 

In 2006, we started 69 mm, a mobile content company, through which we were creating one minute content, one minute storytelling or a series of stories. We were well ahead of our times, because, forget 4g or 3g, we were working on 2g. And that was pure content for mobile, which a lot of people are doing right now. For three years, I was a part of that company and where we learned a lot. I’ve been the executive producer, as well as the director over there. I’ve created lots of different characters and content, and created films.

My approach or the thought process was always about learning new things. By then I had done television, advertising, mobile content and the final thing that I wanted to do at least for once was a feature film. I had experience of working with Ram Gopal Varma. I remember watching his films, “Shiva”, “Satya”, and being fully inspired. However the experience was not great due to financial reasons and I got back to a regular job. 

Due to an accident, I had a torn ligament. I had lost the ability to run around much and that led me to join this company called Tata Elxsi where my friend Keya Banerjee was working as a Visual Effects Supervisor.  Visual Effects is a completely new way of storytelling because it requires computer graphics to model a character, rig it to make it move, give it textures followed by composition, which is adding all the colours and the backgrounds and everything. The storytelling or writing a script for an animation film is very different. I’ve been very lucky to work with people like Pankaj Khandpur, who has been a pioneer in animation. Some very interesting projects that I worked on, like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, gave me a lot of joy! 

After that, I worked for a few more companies like Bang Bang films, as an Executive Producer and Tata Sky, as a Subscriber Communication Manager to earn a better salary. At Tata Sky, I was involved in the design of pamphlets, newsletters, digital and social media, and all kinds of communication which went out from Tata, and helped in defining the look and the visual theme of the brand.

I was a bit done with so-called commercial storytelling. I had genuinely lost interest in all these formats. 

How did you get your first break in Audiobooks?

In 2016, Storytel came my way. Storytel was the first audio book company which was going to be launched in India. It was all about storytelling because we had to commission original work with new writers and groom them to write for audio, which was tough, because even I didn’t know how to write for audio. Writing for a visual medium or a book is different. But writing for audio is also different because you’re talking to an audience who don’t have a good attention span. And it’s an app, which means in the app there are more than three lakh books. And the moment you don’t like the first few minutes you’re out, going to another book. An app makes money based on the number of hours spent by the customer listening to it, unlike when a book gets sold, whether you read it or not. The commercial purpose of the book is to sell it. 

So storytelling became a very, very important thing for all of us to understand, learn and to explore. Therefore, the kind of storytelling that I would do right now is very different from the conventional ways of telling a story for a film or a book. 

See, in this whole course of 20 years, the formats of storytelling have changed and new formats have been invented, for example, ebooks, or the virtual apps or OTT platforms. That requires a very different kind of storytelling from that of a feature film. Again, now audiobooks or ebooks are also very different formats of storytelling than OTT platform content. So it is becoming more and more niche.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Right now, nothing looks like a challenge, honestly speaking. But, I think we look at challenges in a very wrong way. If there is any challenge coming our way, I think it is something that’s lacking within us that’s making it difficult for us to sail through. It is not an external problem, it is always internal. 

So for example, the challenge for me was I was a big introvert. I could not speak English very well, I could not socialise too much, was unable to network, I was never very good at all this. But the whole media industry is all about networking.

Another problem was money. Because I have worked in many companies, I never had a steady income. But one cannot see these as challenges, these are the situations in life that you sail through and in that process, we learn a lot. 

Another weird one was, I have worked in almost every format of storytelling. And this industry today has become so specific. Like if you’re an advertiser, you only work in advertising. If you’re a television person, you only work in television, people have made their own niche working in one particular format. Whereas I have worked in all possible formats. 

Challenges for me have been opportunities to learn. When people used to laugh at my English, it took me some time to realise that the problem is with them, not me. I can take my time to speak. Even if I have not networked, a work done with integrity always pays. It might be a little more challenging than for others, but not a single day can be discounted if the mind is in the mode of learning. One might not go home for a few months and not buy a certain dress, but those moments of delaying gratification will result in something bigger, like resilience, which that dress couldn’t have brought about. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work as a publishing manager and a commissioning editor at Storytel India. It is a 12 year old company based out of Stockholm. We launched in India in 2016, and I have been part of the company since 2015. My role is to acquire the best of literature in each language and get them recorded. 

At the same time, I have commissioned original work for audio with new authors as well as old, such as  Anita Nair, Anand Neelakantan, Ravinder Singh, Nikita Singh, Anuj Tiwari, some of the best authors of today’s time. 

What are the skills needed in your role?

Some of the main skills needed are storytelling, editing, proofreading, understanding what makes it into a good story, understanding what the writer is capable of, and how that fits into what we are expecting as audio storytellers. 

Stories are all around us, we learn from a leaflet, from the sky, from the bird, from a bee, from everything that we look around. The sound that we hear, if we listen carefully, that tone will give birth to a story. One just needs to listen and observe very, very clearly without preconditioned thoughts or notions or the idea that he/she knows everything

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day would start at 11 o’clock and go on till evening, around six o’clock, with loads of editorial work and meetings on hangout. 

I love this job because it is all about storytelling. Stories are who we are. I mean, every moment every atom is a story. I look at people and I find a story there. 

How does your work benefit society?

When you are a storyteller, you’re an editor or you’re a filmmaker, and there are two way benefits in this role. One is that while you’re telling a story to others, you have a responsibility to tell a story, which is not only entertaining but also transformative and inspiring. You also have the responsibility to touch a life with your story. And at the same time, to be able to make that story, you will have to believe in it, live it and be convinced about it. Only if you see that beautiful story within yourself can you tell it to others. Only when you feel responsible within yourself, can you give responsibilities to others, only when you see beauty in yourself can you share it with others. If you don’t understand the story yourself, and the beauty and the depth of it within you, how will you tell it to others?

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

My work at Storytel actually has been my most memorable and most satisfying experience of my life. In the last two years, I have started a writer’s community and an artist’s community, Swasetu. So what I do here is I put people together or I invite writers to come and get into a writer’s room and develop an idea altogether. So that idea could be of a book where I can be of editorial help. Or it can be a web series where I can be a script doctor. It is all about storytelling. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The more you know yourself, the more you are going to understand others. That is the crux of life, for anyone, in any field, who wants to live a life of joy, without staying in some future dream or past memory. 

To tell a story you have to expand your own horizon and not limit yourself to be a certain kind of person. All our lives we label ourselves to be this one person, like I’m a writer or I’m an engineer. There are certain personalities which we connect to, like a certain profession or like introverts and extroverts.

In all my experience, I’ve realised one thing, there is no label, there is no one trait that you can inculcate. You are limitless, and you yourself don’t know what you have within you. Challenges are the doorway and not the bummers. Memories of any kind delude us and take us away from the life that is happening right now. Either it is a good pay package or loss of a job, know that, it is not the end of the world nor the beginning. The best way to be grounded is to see the reality as it is and move along. 

Your Future Plans?

We do online courses on storytelling, on audiobook techniques, on concepts of storytelling. We also do artist residencies where people come together from different parts, from different fields of art, or commerce where we dig deeper into the mind and explore the potential of original ideas. We are always referencing, we’re always looking at something that has been already done. We really don’t know what is an original idea.There are various things in communication and storytelling that we need to cultivate. So I would love to grow this art of exploring the mind that thinks fresh and gives birth to new creativity and beauty.