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From Margins to Centre Stage

September 1, 2018 | By

Ever since the initiation of the studio era in the 1930s, the Indian film industry has consistently forwarded the cause of the national movement through films like Chandidas and Udayer Pathey and helped in constructing a progressive national identity through films like Achhyut Kanya. Yet they did not receive any appreciation from the leaders of the national movement. The attitude of politicians and bureaucrats gradually began to change in the 1950s when film songs gained huge popularity through radio programmes like Binaca Geetmala and later Vividh Bharati. The political leaders eventually recognized the power of popular culture in winning the hearts of the people. Today the captains of the most dominant popular culture have found their space in the political arena and are forging an idea of India from within and without.

The story of ultimate recognition
of the power of popular culture as a unifier

radio and cinema in India study

This article is inspired by and largely based on Jawhar Sircar’s talk “Film Songs, Radio and the Idea of India” delivered as Bichitra Pathshala Annual Lecture on August 10, 2018.

Alam Ara (1931), directed by Ardeshar Irani was the first talkie film of India. The advertisements announced it as “All living, breathing 100% talking picture”. Crowds lined up in front of Majestic Cinema in Bombay to get a feel of this novelty. The film ran housefull for the next eight weeks. Unfortunately, not a single print of Alam Ara has survived the ravages of time. Posterity has been deprived of enjoying this mile stone of Indian cinema. However, a song De de khuda ke naam par, sung by actor singer Wazir Mohammad Khan, exists in cyber space. On the 10th of August 2018, this song was the opening song of Jawhar Sircar’s talk ‘Film Songs, Radio and the Idea of India’. The occasion was the annual lecture of Bichitra Pathshala, an organization that promotes ‘learning with moving images’.

Alam Ara

The survival of De de khuda ke naam par way beyond the life of its mother, the movie Alam Ara, asserted Sircar’s thesis that film songs, born out of the wombs of movies, have a life of their own and far outlive the movies. Gramophone records and radio waves carry the songs to spaces where cinema cannot reach. Deep in the hinterland of rural India, these songs mesmerize the listeners with their lyrics and melody.

Sircar quoted a statistics that in 1981, there were 10,813 movie halls and the population of India was 715 million. So a sizable number of Indians never saw the inside of a movie hall. But they all enjoyed the film songs brought to their hearth and hearts by the transistor radio. They were familiar with names of singers like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Talat Mahmood, names of lyricists like Anand Bakshi and Majrooh Sultanpuri and names of composers like Naushad and S.D Burman. These names, representative of the cultural and ethnic diversity of India became household names for the common Indian. The cultural artifices they produced together, ignited an idea of India in the imagination of the Indian.

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas

The power of popular culture to act as a unifier had been grossly under estimated by the nation builders. In October 1939, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas wrote in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi, “Today I bring for your scrutiny and approval a new toy my generation has learnt to play with – the CINEMA!  In two of your recent statements I have been surprised and pained to find Cinema mentioned in (what appears to me) slightly contemptuous terms… All I wish to say is that cinema is an art, a medium of expression and therefore it is unfair to condemn it because of the questionable character of some (or most) of the films.” In the same letter, Abbas enlisted the social and educational activities carried out through films in foreign countries. He concluded, “You are a great soul, Bapu. In your heart there is no room for prejudice. Give this little toy of ours, the cinema, which is not so useless as it looks, a little of your attention and bless it with a sign of toleration.”

Udayer Pathey

Films like Udayer Pathey furthered the cause of nationalism

Indeed, as Biren Das Sharma writes in his book Indian Cinema: Contemporary Perceptions from the Thirties, the Indian film industry, particularly in the Studio Era of the thirties, “wanted to come to terms with the political leadership. With help and guidance from the ‘national’ leadership, the industry aspired to rise as a national industry.” In spite of furthering the cause of Nationalism through films like Chandidas, Udayer Pathe, news footage Funeral Procession of Jatin Das, in spite of imposition of the Indian Cinematograph Act in 1918 and ruthless banning and censoring of films, the Indian Nationalist leaders failed to give any support to the film industry, leave along understand the medium’s potential to ignite the mind of its audience. Das Sharma writes, “It is understandable to the extent that most of the Indian politicians had not seen politically important films like Battleship Potemkin, but this could not be the sole cause of such total apathy to the medium.”

According to Jawhar Sircar, the apathy and indifference continued in the post-Independence era. BV Keskar, who was the Minister of Information and Broadcasting from 1952 to 1962, will be remembered for popularizing Indian classical music on All India Radio. He will also be remembered for banning Hindi film music, cricket commentary and harmonium on AIR.

Dr.B.V.Keskar, the then Information Broadcasting Minister in the middle wearing the Indian achkan (Pic: NewsIn.Asia)

Yet, popular culture had its own way of reaching out to the population. It all started with Radio Ceylon. Towards the end of World War II, the Allied Forces were in a precarious position in South East Asia. The Japanese had captured Burma and Malaysia. The Japanese radio broadcast ‘fake news’ in English, which the British had to counter. They decided to set up three short wave transmitters in South India. But land was not available from the princely states. So they decided to shift to Ceylon. Three powerful transmitters were set up just outside Colombo. The transmissions would carry the signals as far as Australia.

When the British left, they gifted the transmitters to the Govt of Ceylon because the cost of dismantling was prohibitive. For the Govt of Ceylon, these transmitters were a while elephant. To recover the cost of running the transmitters, the Govt decided to start commercial services. That is when Ameen Sayani was roped in and a 45-minutes-long programme based on Hindi film songs started in 1952. This programme, famous as Binaca Geet Mala, took India by storm. Sayani’s style and panache, voice modulation and pronunciation, choice of words and compose, made him the golden man of radio.

Radio Ceylon ~ Saturday Morning ~ Ameen Sayani

All India Radio, which had greater and wider reach than Radio Ceylon, continued to broadcast Sugam Sangeet and Shastriya Sangeet. Classical Indian music reached a new height of popularity thanks to the vision of Minister Keskar. It became the reinvented culture of India. However, the Minister’s stand on Hindi film music remained dismissive.

“Hindi music was bundled off as ‘lare lappa’ music. Minister Keskar wrote, ‘I cannot subsidise debauching of Indian culture,’ informed Sircar. However, in 1954, 55 and 56, there was a veritable revolt in the Parliament against the banning of Hindi film songs on AIR. Sardar Hukam Singh and Harindranath Chattopadhyay put up arguments that Government organisations have to fulfil the mission to serve the people. If people of India demand Hindi film songs, the demand should be met. Minister Keskar had to yield to the public demand and Vividh Bharati was launched on 2nd October, 1957. The time coincided with the rapid expansion of AIR and the growth of the Hindi film industry. On one hand, a powerful transmitter was set up in Nagpur, whose signals could be received as far as Mizoram. On the other hand Mother India was shortlisted in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars. Songs like Jeevan hai agar zahar to peena hi padega floated across the length and breadth of the country.

Duniya mein hum aaye hain to (Mother India, 1957) Naushad / Shakeel Badayuni / Lata Mangeshkar

Ameen Sayani continued his Binaca Geetmala broadcasts from Radio Ceylon. He became the role model for the new presenters engaged by All India Radio.

“The decade of the fifties was a watershed of Indian film music. The most important things to happen in this decade were the end of a singing style with the death of KL Saigal, the introduction of western music in a big way and improved recording facilities,” writes Gayatri Chatterjee in her book Awara.

The Hindi film industry attracted the best of talent from all over India. The songs were a collaborative effort of tinkerers, writers, composers and techies from diverse backgrounds. Gayatri Chatterjee writes that the sound recordings of the film Awara were done by Minoo Katrak under primitive conditions in the godown of Famous Laboratory at Tardeo, while the sound in general was handled by Alauddin. Shamshad Begum’s voice was used as representative of the era and choral mode of singing was borrowed from IPTA. In addition, Goan folk songs were obtained through the assistant music director Sunny Castellino. The piano accordion and the mandolin, both essentially folk instruments, found their place in the orchestration of the songs. Thus it was a melange of classical and various folk styles. These songs took on a typical ‘filmi’ character and were broadcast on Vividh Bharati in programmes like ‘Sangeet Sarita’, ‘Bhule Bisre Geet’,Hawa Mahal, and ‘Jaimala’.

GS Kohli

(L to R) Sound recordist Minoo Katrak,, music director GS Kohli and lyricist Naqsh Layallpuri. (Pic courtesy: Sundeep Pahwa)

Jaimala became particularly popular during the period spanning 1962 to 1971, when India faced three major wars. The film industry produced patriotic films like Haqeeqat, Saat Hindustani, Upkar, Shahid. Songs like Ai vatan Ai vatan ham ko teri kasam or Mere desh ki dharti were aired on ‘Jaimala’ to encourage the Indian Army and the BSF soldiers. The stars of Hindi filmdom gave their messages to the brave soldiers who fought for the nation. Thus the corridors of power at last started harnessing popular culture in the cause of nation building. ‘Jaimala’ became the mouthpiece of a patriotic nation.

RD Burman on AIR

RD Burman on AIR presenting Jaimala (Pic courtesty: Pakanati Lakshmi Priya)

This was also the time when portable transistorized radios replaced the big valve radios. The soldiers at the border outposts enjoyed these songs on their personal transistors. Transistors also blared from paan shops, from the kirana stores and every nook in the urban street corner, as much as these became companions of the farmer as he tilled the soil. The ubiquitous transistor with Hindi film songs blaring from the instrument, united the jawan and the kisan of India. Sircar reminded his audience that in 1967, India was only 20 years old and the young nation already forged its identity through a common passion, common addiction and common lingua franca, which was colloquial Hindi. The common Indian found expression of his deepest feelings in the words of the Hindi songs. He imagined his own identity through songs like Mera joota hai Japani, yeh patloon Englishstani / Sar pe lal topi Russi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani.

Mera joota hai Japani (Shree 420, 1955) Shankar Jaikishan / Shailendra / Mukesh

The Govt of India’s steps to impose Hindi as the national language had met with tough resistance in South India, but even in the street corners of Madras and Hyderabad, Hindi songs blared from the transistors. From Assam to Maharashtra, from Meerut to Jhumri Talaiya, listeners started sending in requests to ‘Hello Farmaish’ or ‘Chhaya Geet’. In 1967, following the recommendation of the Chanda Committee, Vividh Bharati became a commercial service. So the Government not only gave official recognition to popular culture, it recognized the financial potential of this popularity.

By now a supra national identity of the new nation had already been forged, disproving the predictions of 19th Century Imperialist historians who had proclaimed ‘There was never any concept of India’ and ‘India is just a geographical expression’. At the end of the 19th Century, visionaries like Tagore and Vivekananda had expressed scepticism about the unity of caste bound Indian society. In 1947, when India became independent, there were 565 Princely states, 14 British provinces, 22 languages and 600 plus dialects. Overriding these diverse identities, a national identity emerged organically in record time. Popular culture has been a catalyst as well as a celebrant of this ‘unity in diversity’.

The 70s were challenging times for India. Bangladesh Liberation War, refugee influx, Naxalite Movement, rising corruption gave way to the euphoria of nation building. Hindi film industry ushered in the Angry Young Man. The films reflected a mood of anger and disillusionment. The popularity of films like Sholay reached an all-time high and there were films like Amar Akbar Anthony that bore the message of ‘unity in diversity’. By now television had entered selected urban homes, but radio remained the most popular instrument of information and recreation.

Papa kehte hain bara naam karega (Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, 1988) Anand Milind / Majrooh Sultanpuri / Udit Narayan

In 1988, When Aamir Khan lipped the song Papa kehte hain bara naam karega in the film Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, India was on the threshold of big change. The liberalisation of the Indian economy brought in sea changes in all spheres of life. Cable television spread rapidly making way for private TV channels, FM radio became the new craze for young urban Indians on the move and Hindi film industry became Bollywood.

In this era of globalization, Bollywood tapped the market of the Indian diaspora abandoning the rural hinterland in the process.  At the turn of the millennium, in the film Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Shah Rukh Khan lipped the song Hum logon ko samajh sako to samjho dilbarjani/ Jitna tum samjhoge utni hogi hairani. The song summarized the sentiments of the new generation of Indians caught up in the currents of globalization, yet eager to cling on to their identity as Indians. Picturisation of the song humorously captures the contradictions in the character of an Indian and repeatedly shows layers of facades being peeled off to get at the illusive core of our true identity.

Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, 2000) Jatin-Lalit / Javed Akhtar / Udit Narayan

As Bollywood continues to grapple with the identity of an Indian, the Bollywood actors have consolidated their positions in the political scenario of the nation. The film industry’s quest, that started in the 1930s, for support and recognition from the political leadership of the nation, took three quarters of a century to find fruition. Today filmdom has made its place at the centre stage of Indian politics, forging an identity of the nation from within and without.


* Dhruba Gupta, Biren Das Sharma, Indian Cinema: Contemporary Perceptions from the Thirties, Pub: Celluloid Chapter, Jamshedpur
* Gayatri Chatterjee, Awara, Penguin Books, 2003
* Video recording of Jawhar Sircar’s lecture delivered on August 10, 2018

More to read

India’s Vanishing Films Need Urgent Policies to Avoid a Bleak Future

Silent Film Studies: The Curious Absence of Film Sound in Film Theory

Celebration of Moral Decay in Contemporary Bollywood Films: A Critique of Raees and Kaabil

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
All Posts of Subha Das Mollick

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