Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ameen Sayani and Binaca Geetmala

Having discussed radio and radio stations of interest in great detail, now it is time for me to discuss the most famous Indian radio personality of our times. And no prizes for guessing who it is. It is none other than Ameen Sayani, famous for his legendary Binaca geetmala countdown show. Of course there is more to him than just this show, as we will see in some other article.

Radio Ceylon had commenced its overseas service broadcasts in late 1940s/ early 1950s with radio transmitters left behind by British troops stationed in Ceylon during the second world war. Radio Ceylon's overseas service included transmissions in English and Hindi. For English transmissions, radio Ceylon recruited announcers from Sri Lanka and abroad.One of the Indians recruited was Hameed Sayani.For Hindi transmission, they obviously recruited only Indians, one of them being Balraj Dutt, later to become famous as Sunil Dutt, the well known Bollywood film star.

These services were mainly music based. English language music was played in the English service and Bollywood filmy music was played in the Hindi service.

As these services became popular in India( the main target for these broadcasts, especially the Hindi service), Indian advertisers began to advertise in these services. They also began to sponsor programmes.

Most sponsored programmes were naturally in Hindi, a language that was understood by a large population in India as well as in the other countries in the region. The first few sponsored programmes in the Hindi service were Ovaltine fulwari,Lux ke sitare etc.

While the radio Ceylon announcers were based in Colombo and presented their inhouse programmes live from their studios there, most of the English sponsored programmes were recorded in Colombo,and the Hindi sponsored programmes were recorded in Bombay and the tapes were then airlifted to Colombo for broadcast.For this purpose, Radio Ceylon had opened their agency at Bombay in 1951 and Hameed Sayani was made the head of production. These programmes were recorded in the technical institute of St Xavier's college, Bombay.

Ameen Sayani was a student of this college, and he would show interest in the recording process. He requested his elder brother to get him some work, but Hameed Sayani refused, stating that there were very few English programmes, which he himself was doing, and as for Hindi programmes, they could not be given to Ameen Sayani because Ameen Sayani did not know the language ! Yes, it was true. Ameen Sayani had fluency in Gujrati and English, but he could not speak in Hindi, though he could read the scripts of Hindi as well as Urdu thanks to his exposure to reading the trilingual( Hindi,Urdu,Gujrati) newspaper that his mother used to get published.

One of the Hindi sponsored programmes being recorded those days was called Ovaltine fulwari.One day, when the designated compere Mammohan Krishna(later a character artiste in Bollywood)did not turn up, the producer Mr Srivastava offered the job of announcement to Ameen Sayani, and that way, Ameen Sayani got his first break as an announcer in an Hindi sponsored programme and he became the regular presenter of this programme. His remuneration- one tin of ovaltine per episode! And that one tin of ovaltine ( a health food) per week was the secret of his health and energy- as Ameen Sayani would jocularly say later.

Binaca,a Ceiba Giegy company, which was sponsoring a weekly countdown programme of English songs already in the English service, decided to replicate the same in Hindi service too. They had a limited budget of Rs 125 per episode, and it was to be in the form of a half an hour weekly programme where some popular Bollywood songs would be played. It was not planned to be a countdown show that it would later become.

The format was that the presenter of the programme would play 7 songs within half an hour in a random order and the audience would be asked to rank them in the correct order of popularity.One listener whose ranking matched with the correct order of popularity would get a cash prize.

It was envisaged that the programme would attract about 50 letters per week from the listeners(because Binaca countdown show in English used to receive 400-500 letters a week), and the job of going through them to pick the winner was also in the job description of the presenter.

Ameen Sayani was chosen for this job, mainly because no other announcer was prepared to do this gruelling job for the meagre remuneration that was on offer.His remuneration this time was thankfully in cash(Rs 25 per episode out of that Rs 125 budget) and not in form of Binaca toothpaste. But when the first episode was broadcast and the letters were received, they did not arrive in trickes as was expected, it poured. Instead of letters in the range of 40-50, about 9000 were received ! Ameen Sayani must have felt like he was being taken for a ride by the sponsors, being made to do so much work for just Rs 25. He soldiered on nevertheless, and the programme became even more popular.

Next week it was 16000 letters, and it kept increasing, and one weak it became 65,000.After about an year and a half, the sponsors decided to make it a one hour show and a countdown programme for Bollywood songs. It was now no longer necessary for Ameen Sayani to wade through thousands of letters per week to pick the winners.

Ameen Sayani's remuneration was increased to Rs 100 per episode once Binaca geetmala became a one hour programme. And he got this amount for 10 more years.

The format of Binaca geetmala countdown show that was explained to Ameen Sayani ( it was similar to the format of English language show the Binaca hit parade),had Ameen Sayani thoroughly confused. But then he took pains to understand the format, and patiently explained it to his listeners,using the example of ladder and its steps ( seedhi and paydan) to explain how a song climbed up and down based on its popularity vis a vis other songs. It was like explaining the game of cricket to someone totally unfamiliar to the game. And within three episodes, the listeners became conversant with the format.

In the earlier days of Binaca geetmala,popularity of a song was judged on the basis of sales of records(from 40 record selling shops) and also based on farmaishes for these songs. But it was found that the farmaishes were being manipulated by interested parties like music directors and film producers, so farmaishes were discarded as a means of judging poplularity of songs, and it was replaced by listeners club, which became a very important part in ensuring the success of Binaca geetmala.

Ameen Sayani was also involved in radio publicity of many movies through 15 minutes ads on radio Ceylon, which mainly consisted of playing songs from the movies, but he as well as Hindustan Ceiba Geigy Ltd, the sponsors of Binaca geetmala were very particular that the sanctity and impartiality of Binaca geetmala ranking of songs should be maintained at all costs, despite Ameen Sayani being involved in radio publicity of several of these movies.

And there have been no suggestions that it was not the case. And that is why this programme became such a well loved and well listened to programme wherever the radio waves of radio Ceylon( broadcasting on 25 and 41 meter band) could reach. And these radio waves covered entire India sub continent, as well as Eastern parts of Africa.

Ameen Sayani was the presenter of this show throughout its 40 plus years. There were some occasions when he was unable to present a few episodes. For example, I recall a few episodes in mid 1970s that were presented by Manohar Mahajan because Ameen Sayani was not available. But otherwise, Ameen Sayani it was, even when he was not well. Like for instance, he lost his voice after going to a small place called Dhuliya. "There was so much dhool in Dhuliya that some have entered my lungs and I am unable to speak", said Ameen Sayani, and presented this episode in an un Ameen Sayani like voice.

Was Ameen Sayani happy with the ranking of songs ? Not always. He was a musically trained person, and he appreciated quality music. And it always bothered him when good quality music missed out from making it to Binaca geetmala, because they did not become popular with lay public. For instance, Ameen Sayani laments the fact that a song as brilliant as "Man re tu kahe na dheer dhare" (Chitralekha 1964) failed to make it big in Binaca geetmala.

Later on, things became worse, when some lesser calibre songs became so popular that Ameen Sayani would play them under "protest". For example, he made his disappointment known in no uncertain terms while playing "Aap jaisa koi" sung by Nazia Hassan in 1980 Binaca geetmala programmes as the top song in his weekly programmes. Things became even worse after a decade, when "Choli ke peeche kya hai" was becoming the rage. Ameen Sayani would not play this song, he would just mention that this song was the number 1 song for the week.

Public taste was changing, the golden era of Bollywood music was drawing to a close, and the deterioration in the calibre of songs that were becoming the top songs of the year were for all to see. Good as the songs may be, but finding songs like "mere angne me tumhara kya kaam hai" and "Choli ke peeche kya hai" as the top songs of the year is jarring to those who appreciate quality music. So Ameen Sayani was getting disillusioned in 1980s.

Finally, the TV revolution in India meant that the golden era of Binaca geetmala too was drawing to an inevitable close.Radio Ceylon ( it had become Sri Lanka broadcasting corporation in 1972) were no longer able to attract sponsorships as before. So the Binaca geetmala finally ended in SLBC in 1988.

It was then moved to Vividh Bharati, and there it ran upto 1995.During this time, it came to be known as Cibaca geetmala.

It can be said, therefore that Binaca geetmala ran upto 1988. Vividh Bharati's Binaca ( Cibaca) geetmala did not cause the same kind of following because times had changed, and masses had given up the habit of listening to radio in favour of TV watching.

I think Binaca geetmala ran its course, and ended at the right time,or perhaps it ended a few years too late.Personally, I find it painful to go through the list of binaca geetmala songs after the 1970s.There are good songs in the list of songs no doubt, but many dubious quality songs had begun to appeal to the audience in a big way beginning from 1980 onwards.

It goes without saying that this programme was a wonderful milestone in radio broadcasting history. Those who were lucky enough to have lived in that era and followed this programme, witnessed and helped create an amazing phenomenon. And this phenomenon may never be replicated again.It was too good to last. And we were lucky that it lasted that long.

PS. Ameen Sayani has given many interviews in which he has mentioned a few facts that have been discussed in this article. Some of the interviews with Ameen Sayani that are available on internet, where he discusses these items are-(a) interview with Kamla Bhatt ( of Kamla Bhatta show),(b) interview with Janib Ghazi(of Asia Broadcasting Network)and (c)one interview with Piyush Mehta ( Vividh Bharti announcer -available in youtube). Ameen Sayani has said more or less similar things in all these interviews.


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Jay Subramanyam said...

Binaca Geetmala was hugely popular till the mid-60s because it was based on a fair rating system. But after that, it soon became a farce as one could so easily make out that Ameen Sayani had begun his own sweet game of promoting composers and songs of his choice and sidelining the lesser known talents. Just look at the countdown 1967 onwards and one can see the manner in which he began promoting L-P and their music because of his own vested interests. Some of the duo's utterly mediocre tracks found their way to the top of the countdown year after year. On the other hand, the brilliant works of Salil Chowdhury, Jaidev, Madan Mohan or even Shanker Jaikishan were consistently sidetracked.

If he is honest to himself, Ameen Sayani will realise that his programme lost its value among listeners bacause of his own prejudices & preferences by which he began manipulating the countdown. The general decline in the quality of music from the 80s was just incidental.

Jay Subramanyam

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SATTA KING said...