I am a little worried. The man in front of me doesn’t sound the way he should. He is reading out aloud from a script to an office aide and his voice is like anybody else’s. But he stills me just when I’ve started to fidget nervously. “Shaba-na-aa,” he says, caressing the name, and stretching the end rather nicely. I am relieved; this is the voice I know.
Some people, indeed, are known by their voices. Think Amitabh Bachchan (but more of that later). And think Ameen Sayani. Sayani, who was — and is — a household name because of his characteristic voice that boomed out of the radio through the years, has just turned 80. The man who introduced the top of the pop format to Indian listeners with his immensely popular Geetmala series has also marked 60 years of broadcasting. Ameen Sayani, to a generation and more, is radio; and radio is Ameen Sayani.
He doesn’t look 80. In fact, there is something endearingly young about him. It could be his language — it’s full of phrases such as “Look, chum” and “I say” — or it could be his sonorous voice which shows no signs of age. After the initial scare, I am happy to find that the timbre is as strong as ever.
We are sitting in a small room by his studio near Mumbai’s Regal Cinema. It’s a delight to interview a broadcaster, I realise. He enunciates words with care, with just the right pauses in between, making a note-taking scribe’s work so much easier. The only surreal element during the 90-minute interview is the sound of Ameen Sayani’s recorded voice that stereophonically wafts out every time the studio door opens.
“So where do we begin,” the real voice asks. “Let’s forget about how and when I started.”
But as the philosopher said way back in history, a story needs its beginning, middle and end. So I prod him a bit — and he opens up, reluctantly to begin with, but warming up as he goes along.
“My father’s family was from Kutch, but moved to Bombay when he was 10. He was a doctor — a very religious and straightforward man who spent most of his time treating his patients for free. He didn’t earn much — but we never starved, nor lacked anything,” the son recalls.
Young Ameen studied in Bombay’s Gujarati-medium New Era School, and grew up speaking English and Gujarati with equal felicity. “I used to count in Gujarati; I still do, but I don’t have much money to count,” he says.
His mentor was his elder brother Hamid, whom old-timers will remember as the original velvety voice behind All India Radio’s Bournvita Quiz Contest, which Sayani inherited after his brother’s untimely death of a heart attack in the 1970s. “Hamid was wonderfully multifaceted — he was a magician, a stage actor, director and of course an excellent broadcaster.”
Inspired by his brother, Ameen went to AIR to audition for the post of an announcer in Hindi. He had picked up the language while helping his mother — who was a part of the freedom movement, on first name terms with Jawaharlal Nehru, and had been asked by Gandhi to bring out a journal in simple Hindustani.
“I started as a peon there, and slowly built up my knowledge of Hindi. I used very simple Hindi — also because I didn’t know any better,” he says with a laugh.
But the spoken word — as Sayani knows only so well — is different from the script. “I had a terrible Gujarati accent. AIR asked me to stick to English and Gujarati. In other words, it was a rejection. I was very cut up.”
Radio was going through some tumultuous changes then. Information and broadcasting minister B.V. Keskar, a patron of the classical arts, had banned Hindi film music. The outcome was that Sri Lanka’s Radio Ceylon, which broadcast Hindi songs with its very powerful transmitters, started amassing listeners from India.
Hamid was a programme director for Radio Ceylon, and Ameen, then a student of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, used to hang around his office. Then, one day, the announcer for Ovaltine Phulwari, an amateur hour of Hindi music, didn’t turn up, and Ameen was summoned.
“The producer said, ‘You’re doing damn all, ogling all the girls. Why don’t you read out this Hindi script?’ I was a great dramabaaz — so I read it with gusto, shaking my head and body. ‘It’s not a wrestling match,’ the producer said. ‘Make it a little more sober’.”
He did, and was hired. He was paid every week too, with a tin of Ovaltine — “one small, teeny-weeny tin!”
Binaca Geetmala — later Cibaca and later still Colgate-Cibaca — started as an experiment. The sponsors wanted a Hindi music programme on air, and Sayani was asked to script and record it. “AIR had become a bit boring — and I was told I could let my hair down. I was like a sergeant major, yelling and having fun, and the listeners were having fun,” he says.
The first show was aired on December 3, 1952. Six or seven days later, the mail started pouring in. “For the very first programme, we received 9,000 letters. By the end of the year it’d reached 65,000.”
Sayani did a whole lot of other radio shows too — interviews and mock trials, publicity for films, plays and so on. “I must have done 60,000 programmes all over the world,” he says. “Geetmala itself lasted 45 years. It had 20 crore listeners in the late 1950s and 1960s.”
He has a rich treasure of old recordings — which include 1,500-2,000 interviews with celebrities. Lately, he has been producing a CD series called Geetmala Ki Chhaon Mein — which gives the countdown ratings of the years, but includes songs that never made it to the hit list, along with Sayani’s new commentary.
“It’s fascinating, even if I say so myself. We have produced eight CD packs of five volumes each. I add in bits about how I started and so on. It also has my love story.”
The love story flowered in his office. His Kashmiri Pandit wife, Rama, who died 10 years ago, joined the company as a junior assistant. “A year after my marriage, my brother-in-law took me aside, and said: ‘You know, before you got married, one day we put on the radio and your programme was on. For about two minutes Rama heard you, and then turned to me and said: I say, who is this talking? Why doesn’t somebody ask him to shut up?’”
Fortunately for his listeners, he didn’t — though he did tone down his bombastic style. Sayani went on to interview hundreds of industry stars. His favourite was the singer Kishore Kumar. “He was totally corny and sanki — what’s the English word? Eccentric.”
He knew Kishore from his college days, for he was friendly with a cousin of the singer’s first wife, Ruma Guha Thakurta. “We used to go to his house, go for picnics, go driving. I used to ask him to sing, and he’d say, ‘So you want to listen to Kishore Kumar without paying for it?’ But he would sing too.”
Meena Kumari was another favourite. “She was very beautiful, very gentle, very luscious and very kind. She had the sweetest voice I’d heard — it could convey a whole gamut of emotions.” Then there was Asha Bhonsle. “I was very fond of her voice — still am. She was a multi-coloured person; you never knew if she’d be friendly or inimical, hot or cold. I had to sometimes bear the brunt of it.”
His relationship with Amitabh Bachchan deserves a retelling. In the late 1950s or early 1960s, a young man used to try and meet him for an audition. Sayani was too busy to see him. And anyway, his secretary had announced him as one Mr Amita Bachchan, which had irked the broadcaster no end. “What kind of a name is that for a man, I said to her.”
He finally met Bachchan at the premiere of Anand in 1971 — and was wowed. He became the actor’s publicist. Then, several years later, Sayani asked him to address a broadcasters’ meet. And in his speech Bachchan mentioned his fruitless visits to a commercial radio agency.
“I was wondering what he was talking about. I took my wife aside, and said, but I never met him before I saw Anand. She said, Stupid, he came to see you several times. He used to flirt with your secretary, have coffee and sandwiches on your account, and then leave.”
Sayani recalls: “I said, Oh my God, just see what I missed. Then it occurred to me that it was very good that I missed him. Because if I had heard him, I would have loved his voice, and would have given him more and more work. He would have become so popular that I would have had no business left, and would be out on the streets. And the film world would have been deprived of the greatest superstar of the millennium.”
Old memories clearly keep Sayani going, for contemporary times leave him troubled. The broadcaster despairs of all that he sees around him — high taxation, corruption, crime. Even his old favourite — radio — is not what it used to be.
“Radio killed radio,” he laments. “It was the finest broadcasting organisation in the world. But a lot of unintelligent steps by AIR in the earlier stages — such as Keskar’s ban — killed it. If a programme is well run and a radio station well managed, it can never be kicked out by television.”
But Sayani adds he has no regrets with the turns his life has taken. “The only thing I feel bad about is that I didn’t do enough for my family.”
Now his son Rajil takes care of his establishment, while Sayani deals with his voice and script. Right now, he is working on a script — the one that I heard snatches of — addressing Shabana and Javed Akhtar.
“It’s difficult, and I am not doing as well as I should be,” he says. “Now at 80, I can’t do as much I once could.”
But then, a glorious voice never fades — it just rings on.