How Ameen Sayani’s voice and show went viral in the days of radio

The pioneering host made Binaca geetmala as popular as America’s Billboard rankings

February 28, 2024 06:46 pm | Updated February 29, 2024 05:32 pm IST

Ameen Sayani died recently at the age of 91.

Ameen Sayani died recently at the age of 91. | Photo Credit: PTI

Ameen Sayani’s passing away on February 20 at the age of 91 brought the usual flood of reminiscences on social media accompanied by the mandatory easily digestible little packages of compilations of songs from Binaca Geetmala. As with all social media, there is a kernel of truth in the fluff and it is fitting that a tribute to Sayani should be in the form of a musical countdown of popular Hindi film music.

The legendary radio broadcaster, despite doing a bunch of other stuff, including acting in movies such as Bhoot Bungla and Teen Devian (as an announcer), is practically synonymous with ‘Binaca Geetmala’. Incidentally, that is one marketing wizard, who hit the jackpot tying the toothpaste to the countdown show.

Receiving the Padma Shri in 2009 from former President of India Pratibha Devisingh Patil.

Receiving the Padma Shri in 2009 from former President of India Pratibha Devisingh Patil. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

Everyone has their particular Geetmala (garland of songs) memory whether it was painstakingly keeping a record of the songs every week in the back pages of an exercise book, or walking home down a dimly lit village lane. It would take three songs to cover the 15-minute distance and hearing the song from the radios from the shops on either side of the lane gave one a rudimentary sense of surround sound!

Thursdays (the Geetmala aired on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.) was a time to compare notes where everyone bought out their lists and jumped for joy or were crushed by disappointment depending on whether the favourite continued to reign or was toppled by a usurper.

The countdown show aired on Radio Ceylon, which has the British and World War II to thank for its existence, between 1952 and 1988, and on Vividh Bharati till 1994. When the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, BV Keskar, banned Hindi film music from All India Radio on the grounds of it being vulgar and westernised, Radio Ceylon swooped in on the chance to fill the gap and reaped rich rewards. The ban underlined the debate of good versus popular as well as the Indian government’s nanny state proclivities.

Lists are irresistible—it helps us consume information easily, and the fact that we are proved right signals to our brain to give us a dopamine fix. ‘Binaca Geetmala’ did not start as a countdown show. In the beginning, according to Wikipedia, it was just seven popular Hindi songs in no particular order. It later morphed into a countdown show (the first countdown show of Hindi film songs).

The rankings of film songs on the Binaca Geetmala had a huge following.

The rankings of film songs on the Binaca Geetmala had a huge following. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In an interview Sayani said the popularity was decided upon by the number of records sold. Listeners clubs were set up, to send in their top ten songs of the week. As the show became exponentially popular, it was looked upon as a barometer of success. This proved problematic for some composers, Sayani said, as they felt their careers were affected by the ratings. After running the show without ratings for a year, an ombudsman was appointed to ensure there was no bias.

There was also an annual edition presenting the most popular songs of the year, which was arrived at based on the song’s performance on the show through the year. A look at the winners of each year is like a rapid fire trip through the history of popular Indian cinema and considering popular culture is a mirror to society, is a ready reckoner of the seismic shifts in the Indian psyche.

With music composer Pyarelal Sharma.

With music composer Pyarelal Sharma.

If the inaugural winner in 1953 was ‘Ye Zindagi Usi ki Hai’ from the historical, Anarkali, 1955 saw, ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’ from Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 takes the crown. The song that swelled the ‘Hindustani’ hearts of all, was a sweet paean to national pride.

The following year it was the turn of that love letter to Mumbai, ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Jeena Yaha’ in Raj Khosla’s C.I.D., with Dev Anand playing the dashing inspector. Though the song that gave Shammi Kapoor, his sobriquet of ‘Yahoo’ (much before it became a search engine but after Gulliver’s Travels), did not make it to the top, ‘Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujh Par’ from Junglee was the top song of 1962.

Ten years later, we were a disenchanted generation seeking kicks in psychotropic substances. It is the time of flower power, the gorgeous Zeenat Aman and ‘Dum Maro Dum’ from Hare Rama Hare Krishna. A year later, in 1973, the Angry Young Man punched his way into our consciousness with Zanjeer and ‘Yaari hai imaan mera yaar meri zindagi’ was the hit of the year. “Dafli Wale Dafli Baja’ in 1980 from Sargam signaled the Sridevi-Jaya Prada ascendance while ‘Papa Kehte Hain’ in 1988 from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak announced the arrival of Aamir Khan. The other Khan, Salman Khan, starred in the final annual hit of Binaca Geetmala with ‘Didi tera dewar’ from Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! in 1994.

Through this journey of pop culture, thumkas and thumris, we were guided by this cheery voice that would put us in a happy state of mind. Thank you for all the music, Ameen Sayani Sa’ab.

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