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70 years of Geetmala: The evolution of Indian radio

Legend of Indian radio Ameen Sayani’s son Rajil Sayani on evolving digital broadcast formats and carrying forward his father’s legacy.

70 years of Geetmala: The evolution of Indian radio
  • Tanay S Shah

Last Updated: 07.16 AM, Feb 24, 2023

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It’s been 70 years since Binaca Geetmala first aired. India’s most notable weekly countdown show of popular Hindi film songs, Geetmala enjoyed an enviable listenership that traced the length and breadth of the country. The show’s popularity is synonymous with that of its amiable host Ameen Sayani whose sonorous voice and affable manner became the mould for every Indian RJ to follow.

The show’s beginnings can be traced to Radio Ceylon, which was initially based in Sri Lanka. The then Indian Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), B.V. Keskar determined that All India Radio (AIR), which was the information and entertainment lifeline of the nation, would not air film songs. According to him, they damaged the moral fabric of the youth and hampered cultural growth. But despite being aired on Radio Ceylon, Geetmala's wide popularity could be credited to India’s obsession with film music. 

OTTplay spoke with Ameen Sayani’s son, Rajil Sayani to understand his thoughts about radio today, the innovation in show formats, and how he plans to carry his father’s legacy forward.

Ameen Sayani at the mic recording a programme
Ameen Sayani at the mic recording a programme

Ameen Sayani was introduced to radio at a very young age by his brother, Hamid Sayani. After graduating from the prestigious St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, he worked on his mother’s magazine Rahber from his childhood till it was shut down in the late 50s. He started as a peon, then learnt layout, typesetting, editing, and eventually writing. This experience helped him greatly in his work.

In 1951, he joined broadcast radio, and the rest, as they say, is history. To honour his resounding legacy and stature, his son is currently digitising all his tapes to make them accessible on streaming audio platforms. “For a one-and-a-half-hour show, it takes over two hours to just transfer one tape,” Sayani complains about the tedious and meticulous task.

He also shares that the task of digitisation runs the risk of damaging the tape as they often tend to tear, given their vintage. “You have to be very careful. Once it has been transferred you commence with the clean up and mastering process which is very time-consuming,” he says, adding that he was involved in the process from conception and had begun analysing the digitisation of programmes at a very young age. Rajil confesses that he has no plans of taking after his legendary father as a radio host.

From L-R: Recordist KV John, Lata Mangeshkar, and Ameen Sayani
From L-R: Recordist KV John, Lata Mangeshkar, and Ameen Sayani

In 2003, Ameen Sayani hosted a radio series called Sangeet Kay Sitaaron Ki Mehfil, which featured various lyricists, music directors, and singers. Some of these celebrities who graced Ameen Sayani’s show include the likes of Manna Dey, Lata Mangeshkar, and Kishore Kumar, among others. 

Interestingly, Kishore Kumar, who was among the most revered singers of the time, had initially refused to feature on the show. But after pursuing the singer for years, he actually agreed to an interview when he has come to promote a feature film that he was to direct and produce. Kumar was supposed to feature on Vividh Bharati’s first sponsored programme, Saridon Ke Saathi, in 1972. When Kumar entered the studio for his promotions, Sayani warned him that two pehelwans had been appointed to guard the door just in case he planned to slip out of the interview. In fact, he even threatened the Bollywood superstar that the security personnel would be compelled to get physical in case he decided to leave abruptly. The petulant actor was infamously moody and was known to walk out of shoots and other engagements at will. This unprecedented warning took Kumar by surprise only until he realised that Sayani was pulling a fast one on him. Kumar conducted the entire show with much grace and managed to pull through without a script. 

“That was my best programme to date. It was partly funny but it was the highlight of my career,” recalls Rajil as his father had told him about his most memorable show.

I. S. Johar's autograph for Rajil
I. S. Johar's autograph for Rajil

A close second would be the time when Sayani interviewed actor and comedian I. S. Johar. This was for a radio programme called Johar Ke Jawaab where the popular actor leaned on his definitive sense of humour to entertain listeners in his unique style. Finding him at the studio, Rajil requested the actor for an autograph and he signed it along with a comment that packed his signature comedic style. The message read ‘Beware of Parents!’. Rajil showed this to his parents cracked up instantly. “This incident was funny but also something different”, recalls Rajil.

Ameen Sayani with IS Johar and Ashima Singh in the studio.
Ameen Sayani with IS Johar and Ashima Singh in the studio.

Radio always had and continues to have the highest reach and penetration amongst the masses. Talking about innovation and change in radio programmes, Rajil feels that there has been a massive churn. “The biggest change I saw in radio is that it has become fresh. The ‘hosting’ has become much friendlier and more open in terms of topics covered. It has also become more creative because of competition – they are constantly trying new things which were not tried earlier,” reveals Rajil who also considers radio to be more unrestricted, unlike the days when bureaucratic institutions governed programming.

An excessive number of radio shows then were sponsor led – the kind of shows which were built to retrofit a brand’s core message. However, this was not the case with Geetmala as Sayani would seamlessly interweave the sponsored content in his script during his shows. While Rajil understands and accepts the importance of promotional shows, he feels that slipping in too many commercials could impact the interest of listeners. Rajil told OTTPlay, that according to Sayani, nowadays, a compère would play the hook of a song and then cut into a break, then play the whole song, and then go into a break again. This breaks the flow of the song and dilutes the pleasure of listening to the song.

With today’s ever-evolving mediums of content consumption, Sayani’s charm and signature style has left the airwaves leaving a gap that can’t be filled. And while Geetmala is taught in various schools and universities to aspiring broadcast students today, Ameen Sayani has left pretty shoes to fill. Rajil, however, is currently archiving his father’s material and for other clients, working on a book on his experiences and anecdotes.

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