His master’s voice

The sonorous voice opening the chart busters with ‘behnon aur bhaiyon’ has inspired generations of RJs and film music buffs

Roshan Abbas (l) and Ameen Sayani


It’s a Sunday morning and driving from Versova to Marine Lines is a breeze. I wish every Mumbai morning could be like this one. But when you have a date with a legend, the universe conspires to make the meeting memorable. A radio jockey is playing retro hits, which seems befitting as I am about to meet Ameen Sayani, the father of Indian broadcasting. Generations have grown up listening to Geetmala with his sonorous voice opening the chart busters with `behnon aur bhaiyon’. As the affable Ameen saab opens his doors for me, it’s time to switch off the world and tune in.

Ameen saab, you’ve had a career in radio, spanning more than half a century…
That’s right; I started commercial broadcasting in ’49. But I’ve been a broadcaster since ’39.
When you were just seven.
(Laughs) When I was just seven.
If you can tell us how you started out…
It all began with the AIR (All India Radio), where I had the opportunity to work with a number of stalwarts in broadcasting. I was an English broadcaster, mainly for children’s pro
grammes. There were people like Sultan Padamsee, also the creator of a theatre group, Adi Marzban, one of the finest radio producers ever; Derek Geoffries who was one of the best radio mixers, excellent with sound effects and mood music; and finally Hameed bhai (Hameed Sayani), an excellent radio drama artist and my own brother.

You’ve seen the best and the worst times of radio. This is the era of television. When do you think the loyalties shifted?
Radio did not suffer because of television. Both have their own distinct slots. You could be going about your routine listening to the radio. I’ve had thousands of students saying, `We could not study unless the radio was playing in the background.’
The popularity of AIR suffered because of wrong policies – the I&B minister’s decision to ban Indian film songs, was one. This also meant less sponsored programmes which hurt radio. These programmes could be produced outside by different people, scriptwriters and programmers, so you didn’t get bored with the same RJs all the time. Also, the crème de la crème of intelligentsia used to work for the AIR, and with Indian film music going, listen
er-ship went, and so did these people. Finally, a kind of pseudo-sobriety was imposed upon the presentation. Broadcasters were not allowed to use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘we’.

And in doing that they were taking away the personality of the presenters.
Absolutely. They were killing radio stars. People were not to smile unnecessarily! You had to be very sober and announce a romantic song in a deep mournful voice, as if to indicate that some great national leader had popped it.

And what about Radio Ceylon?
The popularity of Radio Ceylon, which had sponsored programmes and was the people’s radio, petered out because of a different reason — the neglect of the transmitter by the station at a time when Peking and Moscow were broadcasting in Hindi and English, and had started a transmitter which was at least 10 times more powerful on the same meter band, to knock others out.
This adversely affected Radio Ceylon’s reception.

So how did AIR come back into its saddle?

It brought back film music through Vividh Bharati. But in 1979, (minister) Vasant Sathe selected a few individuals to form a working group to advice AIR and Doordarshan. Subsequently, they raised the AIR sponsorship rates by almost 500 per cent to compete with Doordarshan! TV being a visual medium, it attracted greater sponsorship. In the first few months, business dropped in AIR by 25 per cent. The revenue might have remained the same, but they lost a lot of listeners. Also, people at the helm were good administrators but had no broadcasting background. So radio did not suffer because of television, but because of radio!

FM has given me a dedicated listenership in Mumbai and Delhi, but I cannot replicate the formula nationwide, as you did. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
Both. Geet Mala got people glued to the radio, from both Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking belts. With FM, you can create niche listening or you can go into languages. Also, you can take a programme and play it on other stations again, like with the one I had on FM, in Mumbai and Kolkata which was played

in three other stations. Thus, you get diverse inputs with programmes recorded from outside the organisation.

But there’s a huge debate about prerecording as it leaves no scope for interactivity, unlike localising.
Have both. Have local programmes, and slip in one programme a day recorded outside. Life, civilization or radio, has to have continuum. Take what is suitable for today, turn it into a contemporary programme and pitch anywhere. I had pre-recorded programmes in several countries of the world and even today am negotiating with five countries.

Speaking about audiences, I sometimes feel the quick consumption culture does not benefit anyone. Do they get the radio or television they deserve?
The quick consumption culture is all pervasive. People don’t have the time to enjoy the money they earn. Top that with the tremendous pressure of corruption and mis-management in every stage of life. This is the youth’s loss — as they’ve never had time to understand the depth, intensity or passion that drive certain endeavours. Except a passion for sex or to make money.

The tragedy of wealth! (Both laugh) So how do you enjoy your time now, with all the money you’ve made…
I actually haven’t made much money, though I have done a fantastic body of work. I couldn’t put my son through medical school because I could not pay the capitation fee.

But now, at 73, with this wealth of work, how do you spend your time?
I do a lot of spots and jingles abroad. I’m syndicating my programmes; I have two in Dubai and New Zealand and am working on others. I’m trying to get Roshan Abbas, who’s very difficult to get. (Roshan laughs) Otherwise, I’m very fond of crosswords and puzzles.

And how would you solve the puzzle called Mumbai? Are you happy with contemporary Mumbai?
I feel the basis of confusion in Mumbai is unclear communication. Our rules and regulations are so confusing that you never know how to plan things. So you shoot up and fall down like our Sensex. Radio is an important medium for communication, provided it isn’t shackled. FM is like a breath of fresh air.

There are 13 languages in use at the Radio Advertising and Practitioner’s Association (RAPA), which you’re involved with. Do you think language diversity will help FM?
In some big cities, English is understood, or one goes into Hindi or Hinglish. But, in other cities, say in Tamil Nadu or Orissa, you can’t expect to broadcast in Hindi. You have to have the regional language as well as English.

Even in Kolkata, though Hindi is well known, Bengali is preferred.

You’ve developed a good association with film personalities through your interviews. Any enduring memories?
A lot, but I’ll name only one – Kishore Kumar. He was the most unpredictable, crazy, fabulous and multi-talented person, I ever knew. It was very difficult to corner him and I just did two interviews, which were my life’s best. During the first interview he came and said, “You sit in one corner. I’ll do the whole interview.” He did four voices: a judge, an old villain, Kishore as a child and an old man. The second interview was when Dada Burman passed away. I approached him hesitantly for a twominute interview. He asked me to switch the recorder off and spoke for one and a half hours. He promised to return to the studio the next day. He gave me two sessions as he couldn’t finish at one shot. He died way before his time.

Roshan AbbasWhat do you think of a show with the Ameen Sayani and today’s stars?
Ameen SayaniIt would be good. But I treat most of them as my nieces and nephews. Beside, filmstars are very busy and (smiles) I don’t have the time to run after them anymore, and couldn’t possibly ask them to come to my Colaba studio, all the way from the other end of town. Things should change. I’ve had my day. (Smiles) Why shouldn’t Roshan Abbas take over now?

Editorial co-ordinator Rishi Majumder;
Photographer: Shriya Patil

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/du6c


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