Every so often, while she is out in the city, Malishka Mendonsa’s reverberating laugh turns a few heads. A flicker of recognition spreads across the faces of strangers and they immediately exclaim – “Aha, Malishka!”
Mendonsa has – for more than a decade – been decanting her distinctive, deep voice into the ears of thousands of Mumbaiites, bringing banter, celebrity interviews, songs and local news to them on her radio shows. One afternoon that voice ricocheted through a room of the Red FM office in Mumbai after she had finished her daily show, Morning Number 1.
Mendonsa, whose first name means “little girl” in Russian, smoothed her straightened hair as she spoke, tucking her legs under her small frame on the sofa. During the course of the afternoon she exclaimed and gesticulated, swore occasionally and laughed periodically. It was just coming up on the second week of the critically-acclaimed film, Tumhari Sulu, in which Mendonsa made her debut, playing an experienced radio jockey to Vidya Balan’s breakout ingénue. Earlier in the week she had shot for Entertainment Ki Raat, a television show, and was scheduled to speak at a literary festival over the upcoming weekend. A copy of the day’s newspaper had her picture on it, in a newly-inaugurated radio campaign. “People are like – ‘you are all over the place’,” she said, her hands in the air, eyes animated. Then she dropped her voice, boredom clouding her face, “and some people are like – ‘and you’re all over the place’.”
A multi-hyphenate personality
No longer just disembodied voices, radio jockeys have increasingly become celebrities, their faces plastered on hoardings, their social media feeds ticking briskly with action. When private radio channels began expanding in the early 2000s, Mendonsa was among the first generation of new radio personalities. She started off on a night show in English on the now-defunct Win 94.6, before moving to Rediff radio and then finally settling in at Red FM.
In the early years, radio hosts guarded their privacy, with the commonly held view that one must “not have a personal party on the air. Matlab apne life ki bat mat karo – Don’t talk about your own life,” she said. “People would take pride in the fact that we were anonymous and mysterious.”
But as radio hosts have built relationships with audiences, they have emerged as faces behind the voices, often speaking of their lives on air and have come to embody something more than just themselves. “I keep saying it’s important to show that radio people have a life for it to be aspirational,” Mendonsa said. “Radio inspires and it also mimics, it is aspirational and, at the same time, it is part of you.”
Always a performer
For Mendonsa a career in radio wasn’t an obvious childhood career aspiration, and she only recalls listening to songs, not presenters as a girl. But growing up, she was sure of one thing: she loved performing. Raised in Santa Cruz East for the most part, by a single mum after her father’s death when she was a young girl, Mendonsa remembers herself as a combustible bundle of energy. Her adolescence was peppered with all kinds of activities: school plays, a little Bharatanatyam training and singing. She never had voice lessons but, she deadpanned, “being Catholic we believe we can sing. It’s in our blood”.
Eventually, Mendonsa studied political science at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, before completing a post-graduate media degree at Sophia College. She dabbled in advertising, made it to the city finals of Channel [V]’s talent show Popstars, gave theatre a stab, and then went on to audition for radio in the industry’s nascent stage of expansion.
“I am superbly unaccomplished,” she said, of a lifetime of chasing multiple interests. “I really believe I’m a jack of all trades. Because I’ve started everything and never really seen it through because after a point, I’m like, ‘haan main yeh kar sakti hai’ – yes, I can do this.”
Settling into radio felt natural for Mendonsa who drew from herself – “I just had myself and [my] quirks.” But who were the listeners and what did they want? “I used to wonder exactly this when I started out. In the beginning nobody knew.” Gradually, though, the idea of a young, curious, hip and grounded listenership calcified, and Mendonsa’s multi-faceted radio personality developed alongside. “Basically you are a real human being and don’t take yourself too seriously... You stand up for things you can and must.”
Standing up for something
Particularly in 2017, Malishka – by now a bona fide radio star and mini celebrity – was everywhere, including on Mumbai’s municipal corporation’s hitlist, and she became something more – a pothole martyr. In July when a short clip of Mendonsa and others singing about the abominable state of Mumbai’s roads went viral, the ruling Shiv Sena hit back with their own parody video and threatened to sue Mendonsa for defamation. Municipal inspectors arrived at her house alleging that it had mosquito breeding spots. People rallied around in support of her, and the issue was dropped. “What they did is, stuck an axe in their own foot. They backed off because they figured what I said is not wrong and people are with me.”
“I’m born of the rains,” Mendonsa said, referring to the fact that she first came on air on Red FM – her current station – on August 1, 2005, just days after the Mumbai deluge. “And you [the civic body] are telling me how can she talk about [this]?”
It’s been some months since then and she believes the episode gave them all “a new lease of life”. But it wasn’t Mendonsa’s first foray into civic issues with the channel which has, in previous years, done a pothole utsav and pothole aartis but something propelled their 2017 campaign even further. “I swear I didn’t expect this,” she said. “This year I don’t know what [happened]. I think it was just my time to be famous.”
The ability to inject feistiness into her programming is what one former colleague recognises as Mendonsa’s significant contribution to the medium. “She took radio down a social path,” said Llewelyn Dmello, who started his career working with her and now heads a radio station in the UAE. “She has done socially relevant things. And being an out-and-out Mumbai girl, she has a local touch and feel.”
Even though private stations in India cannot report news – that is the preserve of government radio – current concerns and topical issues infiltrate the air. “For me it’s one of the finest mediums where you can get stuff done and do it live,” said Mendonsa. “It is still an edgy medium you can use.”
Moving through Bollywood gossip, civic issues, social media buzz, Mendonsa’s mandate is wide-ranging and the trick is to be able to reach a broad demographic. “I have to appeal to the heart surgeon and someone on the Mumbai local [train] right now. How do you balance that appeal? You have to be authentic.”
Mendonsa recounts several stories – one about someone who wanted to commit suicide but found succour in her show, or one about the angry caller who demanded to know why the station was running a humorous campaign asking listeners not to listen to her. “She can do interviews with celebrities as well as speak to the common person – people can relate to her,” said Shankar Balakrishnan, general manager of RCS India, which specialises in radio monitoring. Their clients comprise a host of stations, including Mendonsa’s. “She does a fabulous job speaking in English, Hindi and Marathi.”
And even the haters tune in. Kishori Pednekar, the Shiv Sena corporator who struck back with her own counter video to Red FM’s pothole song, said she listened to Mendonsa’s show as a form of “timepass” during her commute, to read the pulse of what people want and are listening to. But she does regret the quick response to Mendonsa’s song – “With the Shiv Sena, if there is an action, we reply with a reaction. But we shouldn’t have reacted, because she became even more famous.”
As it might be expected, Mendonsa’s style is not for everyone. Some find her too loud or brassyand to others, her banter comes off as too orchestrated. “In the beginning she was very good, but over time she started to become over the top,” said Zahara Darbar, a lawyer who used to be a listener. Another listener called her “whacky and spunky” but also “crude”.
This is perhaps also indicative of a shift in radio itself. Vebhuti Duggal is an assistant professor at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University in Delhi who has studied the medium. She referenced her interviews with an earlier generation of public radio personalities to point out a range of differences between then and now. Earlier, there was a greater stillness to the tones, people spoke more slowly and formally and languages were not mixed together. “It was not even permissible or thinkable that they could speak informally,” said Duggal. “You can see the aesthetic difference through the various kinds of registers.”
The word RJ is itself of a recent vintage and sounds more casual that the earlier formal descriptors such as presenter or announcer. Mendonsa, though, bristles that the word is often prefixed to her name thus: RJ Malishka. “Who says actor Amitabh Bachchan?” she asked, testily. “RJ before [the name] is just limiting. Drop the title so you can give us space to grow.”
Finding a new direction
Movies are clearly an aspiration, and though radio is home, Mendonsa has enough energy to channel in other avenues too. “It’s my mantra till today [that] whatever your talent is, you have to nichodo [exploit] it to the best you can,” she said. “So, when god says, ‘I gave you six talents’, you have to be able to say, ‘I made them 12.’”
Mendonsa has dabbled across mediums, won awards and, last year, was named one of the 50 most influential Indian women in media. But in the early years, her aim was simply to be able to buy a house for her mother. She did. The one in Bandra, which the municipall inspectors came to check after her song went viral. The one with the mosquitoes?
“Or not!” she shot back, chuckling. “A friend said, aim complete ho gaya, ab kya karegi?” [You got what you wanted. Now what are you going to do?]
Mendonsa is clearly conscious of her burgeoning celebrity and while she does not hide her enjoyment of it, she is also self-deprecating about it all – “I keep telling people I’m a media mogul right now. People might get either fed up [of me] or fall in love a little more.”