The Voice Next Door

When Indian listeners got their filmi music fix from Radio Ceylon

Ameen Sayani’s show was broadcast by Radio Ceylon. SACHIN KADVEKAR / FOTOCORP
01 December, 2012

FOR SEVERAL YEARS BEGINNING IN 1952, All India Radio (AIR) stopped broadcasting film music because the then minister for information and broadcasting, BV Keskar, under whose charge AIR fell, believed film songs had become vulgar, erotic and Westernised. He first imposed a 10 percent quota on film music and, after negotiations with the Film Producers Guild of India broke down, AIR stopped broadcasting film music altogether for several years.

AIR’s ban, however, did not affect the genre’s popularity, as people tuned to Radio Ceylon to listen to film music. “Radio Ceylon was at the right place and the right time,” recounted Ameen Sayani, the legendary radio announcer, whose charismatic voice was among the many that Radio Ceylon carried to listeners in India. “They [Radio Ceylon staff] knew that All India Radio had banned film music. So, the decision to start a Hindi service then must have been deliberate.”

But a glance through the film and entertainment magazines of that time reveals that Keskar also had supporters, and that the ban spurred an ardent debate. While some praised film music because it successfully combined Western and Indian styles of music, others accused film music directors of copying foreign melodies and producing vulgar, un-Indian music. A reader named SG Bapat wrote to the Movie Times in 1952: “ In pointing out the low moral tone of the industry, Dr Keskar was merely calling a spade a spade… The cheap, sexy, degrading and humiliating standards of our present day film have their genesis in this wolfish attitude.” Another reader named Firoze G from Bombay wrote to the same publication that year, protesting that present day film songs are insane, frivolous, and nonsensical in the extreme”.

But the larger public did not share these objections. As Sayani explained, “When people found out they could hear Hindi film music on Radio Ceylon, they started getting fed up of AIR and started shifting to Radio Ceylon.”

Radio Ceylon’s history goes back to WWII, when the British government set up a radio station in Colombo to counteract German and Japanese war propaganda and to convey news of the war to Allied forces in South and Southeast Asia. The British government installed a powerful transmitter in the station, whose broadcasts reached most of Asia. When the war ended and Ceylon gained independence, the British handed the transmitter over to the Ceylonese government. With the assistance of several well-trained broadcasters, including the Australian broadcaster Clifford Dodd, the Ceylonese government started an Asia-wide commercial service. Initially, most of their overseas programming was in English, but in the early 1950s, the Ceylonese government also started a Hindi Service branch.

As Sayani remembers it, the station’s Hindi programming went through growing pains. “Radio Ceylon’s Hindi Service began in a very amateurish manner,” he said. “They had some records and few people who knew the language. But at that time they were not well trained.” But after the AIR ban on Hindi film music, as the station grew popular in India, Radio Ceylon staff cashed in on this opportunity and developed a stronger Hindi branch in Colombo. “When Radio Ceylon started getting popular, an American living in India called Daniel Molina noticed that there was an opportunity for a business venture. He started Radio Enterprises,” said Sayani.

Molina’s company produced sponsored programmes for Radio Ceylon. Magnetic tape copies of these programmes were flown every week to Colombo and were broadcast back to India via Ceylon’s WWII transmitter. Sayani’s show, Binaca Geetmala, which became a national sensation, was one of those programmes that made the weekly pilgrimage from Bombay to the Colombo studios. Ironically, a military transmitter, whose original purpose had been to promote the war cause in the Asian British colonies and to communicate with the Allied forces in Asia, played a pivotal role in popularising film music in India in the 1950s and 1960s.