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RIP Ameen Sayani, Whose Warm Voice Captivated Millions of Listeners for Generations

Sayani's warm, friendly tone endeared him to millions and his stock phrases became wildly popular, or went viral in today’s language.
Photo: Rajil Sayani.

Ameen Sayani’s fame as a broadcaster and the presenter of Binaca Geetmala owed a lot to the eccentricities of B.V. Keskar and his attitude towards Hindi film music. Had Keskar, the first Indian information and broadcasting minister and a high-minded purist, not banned film music from All India Radio (AIR), he wouldn’t have started his most famous programme, Binaca Geetmala.

That upset film producers and record companies, who needed to publicise their songs, on which the success of movies often depended.

Radio Ceylon stepped into the breach. Using a powerful short-wave transmitter left behind by the Americans in Ceylon, the radio station started beaming out of programmes to India and the neighbourhood.

Generations of Indians grew up listening to his voice on Binaca Geetmala – named after a toothpaste brand – every Wednesday at 8 pm. 

On it, Sayani listed 16 songs in the order of popularity, the final one being introduced with a bugle, or in his words, with a Bigul. His sweet voice and warm, friendly tone endeared him to millions and his pet phrases – behnon aur bhaiyon (sisters and brothers) and aur ab agli badaan par (on the next step), became wildly popular, or went viral in today’s language.

The list was prepared on the basis of postcards received from listeners – there were often reports of mass postcards being sent by producers themselves, which Sayani had to discard.

The responses came from every part of the country – he often picked out the odd postcard and read them out, and listeners became very familiar with names they had never heard of before, such as Jhumri Talaiya and Rajnandgaon, which are now memes.

Sayani came into commercial broadcasting thanks to his elder brother Hamid, who used to run a show called Binaca Hit Parade, which played western music.

Hamid and Ameen Sayani during a recording. Photo: Rajil Sayani.

Hamid’s programme was popular with Indians starved for songs by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and he convinced Binaca to give the young Ameen the Hindi version. It was a very good decision.

His clear communications skills and use of simple Hindustani came from his mother Kulsum Sayani, who was told by Mahatma Gandhi in 1940 to bring out a magazine in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati written in simple language for neo-literates.

They initially recorded the programme in a room in St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, where Ameen had studied.

Radio Ceylon had several other programmes, run by Gopal Sharma and another enthusiastic young man, Balraj Dutt, who interviewed film stars. Dutt soon got a film role and changed his name to Sunil Dutt.

Both the Binaca-sponsored programmes ran concurrently. In 1975, Hamid Sayani passed away and his brother took over the reins of that too, before it was phased out three years later. But Binaca Geetmala, like its voice, was indefatigable – it continued till 1994, a record run of 42 years!

Ameen Sayani and Amitabh Bachchan. Photo: Rajil Sayani.

In between, the name of the toothpaste was changed to Cibaca and then, after the company was bought over by Colgate, it became Colgate Cibaca Geetmala. Through all these changes, Ameen Sayani remained at the helm of affairs.

In the 1970s, AIR jettisoned its restrictive policy of not broadcasting Hindi film music and Cibaca Geet moved to AIR. His voice remained as popular as ever and he often compered stage shows, even appearing in as many as ten movies, all as an announcer or interviewer.

He ran a studio in his office where he recorded programmes which went out to broadcasting stations in different parts of the world. He had a huge audio library which included interviews with film stars across the generations.

R.D. Burman, Asha Bhonsle and Ameen Sayani. Photo: Rajil Sayani.

Such was the popularity of his voice that even if he was not immediately recognised, he immediately got mobbed when he began speaking. People often begged him to say “behnon aur bhaiyon”, his catchphrase.

The Limca Book of Records says Sayani has recorded his voice for over 54,000 radio programmes. He certainly has been part of a nation’s broadcasting journey, and a part of the growing-up years of many generations, who heard songs they wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Towards his last few years, his health was frail and he declined meeting people. He was writing his memoirs. But he still occasionally recorded his voice, the voice that has captivated millions of people.

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