He took the film song into every Indian home in all corners of the globe with just radio and his unique voice as his tools. At 76, Ameen Sayani, just honoured with the Padma Shri, still remains an active music messiah, with shows still broadcast overseas and a mega-project based on his tour-de-force, Geet Mala He sits placidly in his office overlooking the hustle and bustle of Mumbai's Colaba Causeway, the gentle voice carrying just the rich elegance and nothing of the fiery punch that has made it in the epitome of exciting commercial radio for over 55 years.
At 76, the legend is still on a roll with his new mega-project, his current work and has just been conferred the Padma Shri. He modestly smiles and says that the Republic Day honour was declared on the morning of the launch of Geet Mala Ki Chhaon Mein, his unique musical project with Saregama-HMV and "So they turned it into a double celebration", he smiles.
So how does he feel about this National honour - the latest feather in a crowded cap? "Well, life has been a series of steps - mostly forwards, a few backwards," he smiles modestly. "Thankfully, my spirit remained as strong as when I started out as a naye Bharat ka naya naujawan, as I come from a family actively involved in the freedom struggle. It feels nice that broadcasters are being recognised and I am grateful and happy because it is more of a feather in radio's cap than mine. And when I say radio, I mean both those who make radio shows and those who listen to them. For in my case by God's grace I always had a very large family of dedicated listeners - I use the term 'family' because they considered me like a son then and think of me as an uncle or grandpa now!"
Very passionate about his work and prime medium - radio - despite having flirted with television and live shows, the veteran says, "I think any media can survive in the face of any other because each is unique. The core we cannot forget is content even as formats and tastes change. Any medium - print, radio or whatever - is like a river that flows, changes course, amalgamates new things and keeps flowing on, redistributing its bounties. I always say that if you link parampara (tradition) and pragati (progress) there can be no question of any media dying."
For those unaware of the legend that Sayani is, he presented his first show at the age of 7 and joined Radio Ceylon in 1951. Those were the days when Indian radio stations had foolishly banned film music and Radio Ceylon launched Geet Mala on - Sayani recalls the precise date - December 3, 1952. "I just presented a collection of good songs from that and earlier periods and asked listeners to arrange them in order of preference," recalls an amused Ameen. "If their selection tallied with my list, they stood to win a jackpot of Rs 100 - a huge sum then. We expected about 100 entries but people were missing film music - then at its early zenith - so much so that we got 9000 letters! Within a year we were getting an unmanageable mail of 60,000 letters a week. So we decided to convert the show into a countdown and remove the prize element!" Despite this, the Geet Mala became Hindi film music's first-ever countdown show and a cult programme that ran till the '80s and then in spurts for over a decade more on either radio or television. It became Sayani's biggest creation ever - and Sayani's trademark Behnon aur bhaiyyon and rousing style of anchoring made history not just in India but even abroad. The positions of the songs in his shows - especially the annual toppers - were mentioned in a film's publicity, made their way into the curriculum-vitae of music artistes and even influenced the career progress of music directors and lyricists!
And though Sayani made equal impact with other shows as well, it was Geet Mala that remained his tour de force. So much so that special celebrations and commemorative albums from Saregama-HMV happened when the show touched milestones. The albums were a total sellout - and that is where lay the genesis of his new project - Geet Mala Ki Chhaon Mein, a series of albums that will take the listener on a journey of film music year-by-year.
Explains Sayani, "A curious fact was that even as I was receiving emails and letters by the hundreds from all over the world from music lovers wanting to hear old favourites, so was the music company. So when Saregama approached me I suggested a fresh concept - of highlighting beautiful songs that had played on Geet Mala but had not become toppers. We have started with the first five volumes covering music till 1954 and plan to move ahead year-by-year. The unique point is that each volume has snippets about my broadcasting life, the Geet Mala innings, a bit of fun aimed at myself and some sher-o-shaayari besides the voices of at least five films stars. If you have listened to Geet Mala, each volume will give the feel of my radio programmes."
And what else is the veteran doing today? "My show Sangeet Ke Sitaron Ki Mehfil is running simultaneously in several parts of North India and in New Zealand, Canada and Fiji and has just ended in New York and Dubai. This is a show about live interactions with music people right up to Shaan and Sunidhi Chauhan,"smiles Sayani.
Ameen Sayani's role in the Bachchan saga
"It was 1969. I was doing 20 shows a week, spending most of the day locked up in the studio in my office. A young man named Bachchan walked in without appointment for a voice audition. I had not a second to spare for this tall, thin young man. He waited and left - and came back a few more times. He became instantly popular with my staff, but I could not see him.
Early in 1971, I watched Anand at a trial show and was floored by the persona, voice and performance of an actor called Amitabh Bachchan. I predicted that he would become India's biggest star. I insisted on backing him and his projects through my radio publicity even before Zanjeer happened - and I did.
Years passed and I became President of the Radio and Advertising Practitioners' Association (RAPA). We started our own awards ceremony and as the Amitabh Bachchan he came as chief guest for one of them. In his speech, he referred to his struggling days when he had gone thrice to a commercial radio company and was not even granted an audition. Puzzled, I told my wife, "But we were the only company then!" And she replied, "He had come many times! And you were too busy even to meet him!"
Today, though I regret denying him an audition, I realise that what happened was for the best for both of us! His voice would have finished my career, and he would have got so much work on radio that Indian cinema would have lost its biggest star!"