| 17 May 2024
The fillers on FM - Part 1: Mawali Bhai

Let's face it. Every station uses music and presentation as the two major glue tubs for its listeners. One (Radio One in Mumbai, when it was a Hindi station) wanted to give as much of variety as possible and decided never to repeat a single song in 24 hours of playout, giving 13 different songs in each clock hour. That was a truly glorious binge for music lovers, because then Radio One picked Hindi songs from the latest to some golden evergreens. Radio One figured that such great variety would expand the time its listeners spent on the station. BIG FM took it to the other extreme – in mid-2007, if I recall correctly – when they decided to stick to just 75 of the most popular recent songs to play in an entire day! That was the other end of the spectrum. They figured that with an industry average TSL of around 5-6 minutes as per RAM, it made eminent sense to ensure that at whatever time a listener tuned in, s/he landed face first into a popular new song. Correct again, in their assessment. Both were valid reasons, but both, having been tried, have long since been discarded.

So, the music and the presenters will come and continuously evolve. Another element that has been added to the programming mix, is that little humour-laced element that is a chuckle-inducing creative beast that leaps and clings to your mind like a limpet after it’s run its one or two-minute course on air.

The filler. The interstitial.

The funny little filler that has received perhaps more time and energy in the defining and creating than long programs. I’m setting out on a little series on the best interstitials that I have listened to on FM in Mumbai over the years. So, to be fair to all, it will be one filler program of a different network each week.

As friend and media research expert Shailesh Kapoor tells me, “To be top of mind amongst FM listeners in a city, a filler series must have been on air for at least 30 to 36 months.”  Primarily for the quality of their content and perhaps equally for their years of playout, the most recalled fillers on FM Radio have been Radio City’s Babbar Sher , followed by the truly wacky, Suresh Menon-voiced Kamla Ka Hamla that aired on Red FM for a long time, but now seems to have been taken off. Shailesh believes that these fillers primarily targeted male audiences during morning and evening drive prime, and worked as comic-relief-providing de-stressers.

So, one filler series per column, and this time, it’s this fellow on Red FM. There’s this little mawali, see, who speaks like the typical Mumbai tapori, picks up every current city or world issue, explores and examines it deftly, briefly, and in a unique and cute-sounding, attitude-filled mawali voice, delivers his charming analysis in what, to my mind, is one of the most endearing and different, hence memorable styles of voice delivery on FM -- at least in Mumbai -- today.

Mawali Bhai.

Regular FM listeners in Mumbai, Pune and Rajkot would have heard and will remember this tapori bhai as “a guy who sits at the chai tapri and gives his take on everything that is trending in India or the world.” That is how his creator Kirthi Shetty describes him. Kirthi not only gives this incredibly-voiced character his voice, but also the words he so brilliantly delivers in his very funnily edgy way. Kirthi, incidentally, is also the Creative Head of Red FM Mumbai, and hence responsible for the creative direction for content on-air in Mumbai. One of his first ideas at Red FM, ‘Pothole Utsav’, has won multiple awards across radio forums including the IRF, Golden Mikes, and more recently at the Indian Marketing Awards.

‘Mawali bhai’, who has been on air since July 2012, and was introduced simply as a new interstitial without any build-up, just slipped in on air one day, with his various alliteratively named sidekicks like ‘Razor Rafique’ and ‘Scientific Shehzaad’,  and an apparent  love interest named ‘Ressma’. ‘Mawali Bhai’ brought with him the street smart Bhai’s ability to pithily editorialise on trending issues, and, thanks to his great voice, each script and excellent audio packaging, a truly chuckle-inducing, memorable filler was born. It’s remained popular over the past 29-odd months now.

As RJ Malishka told me, “Mawali Bhai is a chiller. The smart and truthful voice that echoes the sentiments of the city in the most Mumbaiyya way. He doesn't sugarcoat his opinions; rather, he tells it like it is in the voice of 'Chhapri Mumbai'.

“Of course, he has an opinion on everything and he tells it so that the layman can have a laugh and yet take a lesson from it. His humour is never offensive to women or vegetarians. He is sarcastic, funny, sometimes philosophical, and always rhyming in his speech, but it’s all relevant and somehow ends up making sense. ‘Mawali Bhai’ talks about everything from the Mars Mission to the Salman-SRK patch-up, without ever being bothered about what people think of him.”

A new episode of ‘Mawali Bhai’ breaks evenings in the drive prime show hosted by Rishi Kapoor, and plays out once an hour across the next 24 hours, till the next one breaks. So far, they’ve produced more than 400 episodes.

How did they produce the first? Well, ‘Mawali Bhai’ was born when in mid 2012, Red FM Mumbai was looking for a new comedy segment that was local and had a flavour typical of the city. “A creative discussion about conceiving a radio segment with a Mumbai character was on in our studios, and I immediately suggested that we create a character that echoes the voice of Mumbai and its residents,” says Kirthi.

They didn’t have to look far for the character; Red FM already had a living breathing funny prototype for the character, see, right in the office. Says Kirthi, “This character came to mind as I used to do a lot of ‘Mawali’ impersonations in office, and the team felt that if the ‘Mawali’ impersonation could be packaged well, it could become a great segment.”

It was, and it did.

Thanks to the voicing and packaging -  esp the lovely,  funny bass phrases on the M&E track, the alliterative sidekick names and his references to his love interest ‘Ressma’,  plus the hilarious dishes he tells his sidekicks to order – even if an odd script is a bit weak,  the episode, led by the excellent voice performances,  is always chuckle-inducing.

Having said that, the most difficult genre to sustain across Radio or TV, is comedy. How does the programming team keep producing episodes which, more often than not, are funny and interesting and remain relevant? For that all important component, the idea, the writer, Kirthi, first tries to figure out the one thing 'Mawali Bhai' would talk about on that day -- will it be the weather, women's safety, or just ripping a bad movie apart, almost like a semi film-review? Nothing is off limits – 'Mawali bhai' will take on anything that is bothering or entertaining the youth.

So, theme decided, Kirthi sits with the head soundscaper and starts writing about the subject of the day. Even the soundscaper sometimes contributes a funny phrase or line, and, the script finalised, Kirthi records 'Mawali Bhai', which is then packaged and mastered.

You will recall I described the “bhai” as a ‘little’ mawali in the beginning. Why? Because try as he does to throw an attitude with his opening line, ‘Kisko Dekh Raha Hai Be?!” (“Who the hell are you looking at, hey?!”), he doesn’t sound menacing. Instead of a menacing Rottweiler, he ends up sounding like a cute little Lhasa Apso. Because, while he doesn’t bother what anyone might think about him, ‘Mawali Bhai’ is always respectful to his Nation, to women and children, and never says anything that’s vulgar or laced with double entendre. The food items that mawali orders – like Prawn Peda, Narial-Pani Chai, Garam Faaluda, Dahi Noodles, Dhokha Fried Rice – make for another little element of suspense at the end of the filler: what will he order this time?

The character is fresh and delivers comic relief to listeners without being preachy. He’s funny, he’s charming, and he’s relevant. And I personally love the way ‘Mawali’ pulls people’s pants down in a humorous fashion and gets away with it.

Red FM should create ‘Mawali Bhai’ caller tunes and ringtones for download. Such a popular, wacky element should appeal to users, and could well be another source of greenbacks for Red. Also, while the Mumbai ‘Mawali Bhai’ plays out in Pune and Rakjot, Red FM could well extend the idea and develop different individuals typical of their other markets. Spread the word and to great effect, take the baseline and promise of the stations forward.  As ‘Mawali Bhai’ would put it, “Samjha ki nahin samjha? Ki doon ek chamaat?! (Gawd, he’s got me doing it too!)

To listen to ‘Mawali Bhai’ at your convenience, go on to, or Red’s Facebook and YouTube presences.


Next week: The longest running and the most recalled filler, ‘Babbar Sher’ on Radio City.