Movie Songs

How Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala took film songs to listeners in Jhumri Talaiya and beyond

April 10, 202411 Mins Read

“Behno aur bhaiyo, aap ki khidmat me Ameen Sayani ka adaab (sisters and brothers, in your service, Ameen Sayani greets you).” For four decades, Ameen Sayani, who passed away in February at the age of 91 and was arguably South Asia’s best known radio broadcaster, greeted Binaca Geetmala’s listeners with a version of this phrase recited in his characteristic upbeat style.

Binaca Geetmala was a weekly countdown or hit parade radio programme that ranked Hindi film songs by order of popularity, first based on listeners’ requests and subsequently according to record sales. The programme aired mostly uninterrupted from 1952 until 1994 and is one of the longest running and most influential radio programmes in the world.

Binaca was a consumer brand owned by the multinational pharmaceutical company CIBA-Geigy Limited and “geetmala” or “geet mala” means garland of songs in several South Asian languages. Geetmala aired on Radio Ceylon located in the nearby island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Radio Ceylon became an immensely successful commercial radio station that in the decades following India’s independence from British rule developed a symbiotic relationship with the Hindi film industry in Bombay.

Geetmala, which aired on Wednesday nights at 8 pm during most of its four decade-long run, seeped into everyday life, films and jokes. While lasting until the mid-1990s, the programme’s peak popularity years were the mid-1950s to early 1970s.

Anil Bhargava, a devoted listener and chronicler of the programme, writes that “an entire generation held a strong emotional attachment to the programme” and goes on to note that it is hard for the younger generations to imagine the “kinds of feelings and passions” that this programme impressed on people’s minds and hearts.

In present-day India and Pakistan, it is nearly impossible to discuss radio with anybody over 60 without the conversation inadvertently veering to Geetmala or Ameen Sayani’s voice. Through its popularity charts, Geetmala cultivated an understanding of Hindi film songs as “the music of the common people”.

Moreover, by encouraging alertness to ever-changing popularity lists, Geetmala effectively transformed ordinary radio listeners into opinionated and discerning Hindi film song experts. Put differently, the programme ensured that every listener had an opinion about Hindi film songs’ overall merit and that expertise in Hindi film songs became a popular pastime.

Listeners took film song competition so seriously that many kept detailed records of each week’s listings. For decades, Bhargava meticulously recorded the song competition’s results as well as any changes that the programme underwent.

Bhargava, whose passion for radio and music began in his early teens, continued the work of his father, who recorded Geetmala’s earliest rankings. Based on these handwritten diaries, he published, Binaca Geetmala ka surila safar (Binaca’s melodious journey). This book is one of the finest resources about Geetmala available.

When I visited Bhargava in 2017, he showed me the handwritten notebooks in which he had recorded Geetmala’s results. Written in incredibly neat handwriting and wrapped in decorative paper, his notebooks are a testament to the ways Geetmala’s format as well as the music it featured entered the everyday lives of listeners.

Anil Bhargava’s Geetmala Diaries. Credit: Photos by the authors, diaries from Anil Bhargava’s personal papers via BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

While Bhargava is unique in his diligence, it was quite common for followers of the programme to record results. As Bhargava observes:

“What song would move up and what song would move down in the count down. This was a crucial aspect of people’s lives. People would argue. Some people took notes of every programme, others only took notes of the yearly programme.”

Geetmala was not the only programme that shaped listener experience. As Vebhuti Duggal points out, most radio film song programmes “were serially broadcast (fixed days and times, even if sometimes the frequency to be tuned into would fluctuate)”. In this way “they helped produce a regularity and frequency in listeners’ expectations” and that regularity was part of the process of “becoming a [radio] listener”.

Anil Bhargava’s Geetmala Diaries. Photos by the authors, diaries from Anil Bhargava’s personal papers via BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

Geetmala, however, stands out from other film song programmes in that the countdown system encouraged what Martin Parker calls “continual watchfulness”. The charts changed constantly, and listeners had to regularly update their knowledge.

Like Bhargava, JJ Kulkarni, a devoted Geetmala listener from Solapur in Maharashtra, also kept a diary every week from 1957 until 1962 in which he listed the songs played in Geetmala’s weekly programmes along with their rankings.

He later mailed copies of his diary to a Radio Ceylon broadcaster as evidence of his dedication and love for the radio station. In his letter, Kulkarni explains: “In my student days I had the habit of writing in my diary the weekly Binaca Geetmala programme”.

Page from JJ Kulkarni’s Diary. Source: Dalbir Singh Parmar, Personal Papers. Courtesy of Jyoti Parmar, via BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

We might ask why people wrote down the results? In the age before the instant availability of information, diaries served as a written record that fans could later consult and possibly share with friends and family. These written notes helped listeners remember song lyrics and recall the context in which they had heard these songs.

Most importantly, I think people wrote down the results of Geetmala because they considered it important information about their favourite music. Ultimately, the diarist was a prime example of a discerning listener as an active participant in a larger popular culture.

Shortly after the programme’s inauguration, the sponsoring company, CIBA, decided to create formal radio shrota sangh, or radio clubs, which consisted of groups of people who would get-together every week, listen to music in private homes or public spaces, vote for their favourite songs, and mail their choices to the company’s studios in Bombay.

Initially, Geetmala had 10 to 15 listening clubs, but at the peak of the programme’s popularity, Geetmala had about 400 radio clubs. Members assigned great importance to these clubs. They held weekly gatherings, listened to the programme and voted for their favourite songs and mailed results to RES’s offices. Regrettably, we have less information about Geetmala’s earlier radio clubs as CIBA regularly discarded listeners’ correspondence.

Fortunately, Sayani’s team kept documents from when he briefly revived the programme in 2001, including an extensive and detailed list of more than 400 clubs. The list is a compilation of radio clubs that were in existence before the programme shut down in 1994. The list reveals that most of these registered radio clubs were located in smaller towns and cities with less than a million inhabitants. This is very significant, because the music shops from which CIBA collected sales statistics were located in major metropolitan centres in North India, with the exception of Hyderabad.

Map of Radio Clubs. Source: Map made by Zoran Stojakovi, via BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

Perhaps nothing shows the importance of the involvement of listeners from small towns more than the story of Jhumri Talaiya, a small mining town in the northern state of Bihar (now in the state of Jharkhand). Listeners from Jhumri Talaiya mailed hundreds of postcards and letters every month to Geetmala. Sayani mentioned Jhumri Talaiya so often that this formerly unknown town became famous throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Jhumri Talaiya became a crucial part of that aural filmi culture often referenced as a kind of fabled place. For example, the comedian Sudesh Bhosle put together an audiocassette series called, Picnic 1 and Picnic 2, where he imitates the voices of several Hindi film actors who gather for a picnic in the town Jhumri Talaiya.

Here, I wish to suggest two ways of thinking about Jhumri Talaiya that directly relate to this article’s leading arguments. First, listeners from Jhumri Talaiya were the enthusiastic and discerning music lovers and “citizen-listeners” that Information and Broadcast Minister BV Keskar had dreamed AIR’s reforms would help create.

Second, this ordinary town’s now celebrated status nicely demonstrates how Geetmala made belonging to the ordinary and everyday – celebrating commonness and participatory culture – the very attraction of the programme.

Sayani’s team also kept correspondence from listeners’ clubs, including postcards and letters. In addition to demonstrating the importance that listeners assigned to clubs, this correspondence also shows Sayani’s central role in the programme and in listeners’ lives. Listeners congratulated Sayani on his birthday, on Eid, and mourned the passing of his wife. Again and again, they commented on Sayani’s voice and its effect on them.

Jawed Bijli Mistri from Bhagalpur, Bihar noted: “I am an old listener. I listen to the programme because I love your voice.” Mahab Chandra Sagour from Naihati in West Bengal called Ameen Sayani an “awaaz ke jadugar” (voice magician) and noted that Sayani’s voice ignited a kind of magic that had uplifted his spirit.

HMV Geetmala Hit Parade. Source: Photo by the author, cassettes from Anil Bhargava’s personal collection, via BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

Sayani’s approach to language

Listeners’ notes make it clear that Sayani’s own role deserves further attention. While I cannot possibly summarise the career of this incredible broadcaster in this short essay, I wish to address two points that are crucial to understanding Geetmala’s role in the making of Hindi film songs into a popular music and fostering the kind of expertise earlier described: 1) Sayani’s approach to language and 2) Sayani’s particular approach to commercial broadcasting.

Unlike most Hindi broadcasters, Sayani had no formal training in Hindi-Urdu when he began his work with the Radio Enterprising Services – RES. He grew up in a Gujarati-speaking household and had attended an English-medium boarding school. “It took me seven years to really feel comfortable speaking Hindustani on the air.” Sayani explains.

In the end, however, the fact that Sayani was not a speaker of Hindi, Urdu or Hindustani seems to have ultimately worked in his favour. On the air, Sayani very consciously adopted a simple manner of speech that non-native speakers could easily understand and appreciate.

Sayani’s commitment to speaking an inclusive language deserves further attention. His iconic “behno aur bhayio” (sisters and brothers) is best known, but his fans too remember how he ended the programme: agle saptah phir milenge, tab tak ke lye apne dost Ameen Sayani ko ijazat dijiye, namaskar, shubh ratri, shab-ba-khair (We should meet in the next programme, until then allow Ameen Sayani to leave you. Greetings. Good night.)

Second, while most Radio Ceylon broadcasters are somewhat hesitant to describe the economic inclinations of their work, and stress instead their close-knit relationship with listeners or their love of music, Sayani unapologetically describes himself as a businessman.

In one interview, Sayani joked that he was the person who kept you wired to the radio and gave you a headache by talking endlessly and then later convinced you to buy a painkiller for that headache.

As Sayani’s career blossomed following Geetmala’s unexpected success, Sayani continued to work with RES, which had an agreement with Radio Ceylon, but managed his own office. During the peak of his career in the 1960s and 1970s, Sayani had more than a dozen copywriters and sound engineers working for him. Sayani produced many sponsored programmes, selling toothpaste, incense, and headache pills, but in reality, the products that he most successfully advertised and sold were film songs and films.

Most of his programmes played film songs and celebrated them as major artistic and cultural contributions. Moreover, a leading source of income and work for his office were film publicity programmes. These were approximately 15-minute programmes that served as a sort of aural trailer and were meant to introduce audiences to newly released films and to convince radio listeners to watch the film in the theatres.

Film publicity programmes included brief summaries of film’s plots, excerpts of the films’ songs, and short dialogue clips. Publicity programmes aired on Radio Ceylon and, starting in 1967 when AIR allowed sponsored programmes on Vividh Bharti as well.

Sayani, perhaps more than any Radio Ceylon broadcaster, saw himself as a film (and film song) publicist, and this vision is certainly behind Geetmala’s success. After all, making and celebrating Hindi film songs as “common” was part and parcel of Sayani’s larger publicity campaign.

This article is an excerpt of a much longer piece titled “Song by Ballot: Binaca Geetmala and the Making of Hindi film-song Radio audience, 1952-199” published in Bioscope Journal of South Asian Screen Studies.

The article also draws on Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s recent book Radio for the Millions: Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders, published by Columbia University Press and by Penguin Random House India in 2023.

Also listen to:

Podcast: Pre-Partition stories, filmi music made Radio Ceylon a household name in India and Pakistan

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