Tuning back in time – My Radio, My Life

A needle spinning between cities, film photos, a wire garland around a photo of a beloved inventor— and between all the frames dripping with nostalgia, the radio, an invention that has joined the antique pile along with modern anachronisms like cassettes and VCR tapes.

The radio is the central hero of the documentary ‘My Radio, My Life’, from Timecap documentaries directed by Makarand Waikar and Bidit Roy, which received its first screening for invitees at the National Film Archives of India on February 13, 2024, a thematically apt presentation for UNESCO’s World Radio Day.

The film, which runs for an hour and eight minutes, is a throwback to a golden age of radio where it was the only form of entertainment — a middle class hero in middle class homes. The theme seems unfortunately apt as India grieves one its most recognisable voices on radio, Ameen Sayani, the much beloved host of Binaca Geetmala, who passed away on February 21, 2024, aged 91.

Nostalgia and heart are at centre of people’s memories with the radio. The research team behind the documentary, headed by Simantinee Bhagwat, sought to tap into this vein, pulling together a set of documentary subjects with three core elements— passion, emotion and nostalgia, seeking not a technical or historical approach, but a people-first one.

This approach befits the radio, a gentle presence in many people’s daily lives. As codirector and producer Makarand Waikar says during the launch “radio doesn’t intrude in your life…no one goes to the doctor saying they are addicted to radio.”

Co-director Bidit Roy calls the documentary an interesting way to look at the relationship between radio and people. His own approach is nostalgic, and he speaks fondly of how his paternal grandfather was so attached to his little transistor radio, he used to throw tantrums if its batteries radio ran out.

The film has notched best documentary awards or nominations at 80 festivals in 35 countries, but was screened last week for the first time for public invitees, and is yet to be released online.

Man on the moon

The documentary starts its meandering path down memory lane with a quote from writer Peggy Noonan— “TV gives everyone an image but radio gives birth to a million images in a million brains.”

The first image we are invited to conjure up by the documentary is an exciting one; it opens with Dr. V Nallathambi, and he is a great place to start with, combining twin nostalgias for man’s first landing on the moon and the radio. Dr. Nallathambi is the man who announced news of the 1969 Apollo 11 landing on the moon to the Tamil world, as part of the Voice of America Tamil Service

Originally a Tamil teacher, his radio journey started off at as an announcer at AIR Trichy. One day, he received a call from the American embassy through his director to join the Voice of America service. He joined the service in March, and shares that there was a build up of six months of programming related to the space mission, before the rocket touched down in July that year. In an interview with The Hindu, he says one of the reasons he was selected was the live running radio commentary he had done of C.N Annadurai’s death in Madras. He also thanks the three other colleagues who were part of the Voice of America Tamil service, who let him the opportunity as a young 30 year old man.

Both in the interview and the launch, Dr. Nallathambi remembers translating word for word that historic line— a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind, into Tamil. Translating other elements was not as easy, he says— who knew how to explain geosynchronous orbits, for example, in French, German or Tamil.

A nostalgic quest

The man who provides the throughline for the entire documentary is Vijay Deodhar, a retired librarian who worked at the National Chemical Labaratory in Pune. He is engaged in a more modest, present-day pursuit— the fixing of the 1964 Bush SW/AM radio that he bought for the princely sum of Rs. 500 with his first salary. It stopped working in 2008, and his regular repair man passed away, so the radio has lived on the loft till it is brought down and dusted off, and Mr. Deodhar sets out on a journey through enthusiast groups on Facebook—like the Vintage Radio Society of India— a newspaper ad and old Pune city to find a way to bring it back to life.

A still from the documentary My Radio, My Life

A still from the documentary My Radio, My Life

In conversation with The Hindu, he shares that finding a repair man in Pune was hard, noting that he got responses from places like Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Hyderabad. There were also many more interested in buying the radio than repairing it, he says.

Interwoven with his story are that of other characters— some more recognisable than others. Vividh Bharati aficionados will not need a subtitle to place the two announcers who show up on the screen- Yunus Khan and Mamta Singh, the couple for whom radio has been a part of life since their college days- but as a profession.

Even if you do not know Yunus Khan, the resonant timber of his voice gives him away early on as an announcer for Vividh Bharati, Mumbai. At the launch event, he weaves a spell with his narration of how he got into the world of radio, starting as a teenage boy participating in a youth programme at the local station in Bhopal.

Meanwhile, back in the documentary, Mamta Singh, the host or ‘Radio Sakhi’ of the popular programme Sakhi Saheli, speaks about being fascinated with the voice coming from the Murphy Radio which occupied an antique wooden table in a special room in her childhood home, clad in a cover sewn by her mother

Speaking to The Hindu, Mrs. Singh, says she found her voice through radio. And the connection she found went both ways— listeners wrote in to ask questions about not being able to study further, as their parents didn’t want to educate girls, or they wrote in about love entanglements. And the friendly soothing voice on the radio offered advice— encouraging education, encouraging the postponement of love till careers had blossomed.

Then, in a pleasing feedback loop, the listeners wrote back, thanking her— Mrs. Singh shares that there were at times stacks of letters filling up the room,

It’s HAM Radio Hour

The documentary covers all its bases; along with the professionals, there are the amateurs, and the quasi-amateurs. We are introduced to Bharat Prasad, a Radio HAM from Hyderabad, who says that her only hobby is HAM Radio. Her HAM radio set up goes beyond the receiver familiar to the general public— she also has a transmitter, antenna and power supply as well.

A radio transmission dish aloft her terrace in Hyderabad, V2URBI — Mrs. Prasad’s call name— has established contact in countries over the world; in the documentary, she says she makes 100 contacts in a day. We see her connecting with someone in Malta and a student, Mukesh, in Delhi— she is a HAM trainer as well.

Mrs. Prasad has also gone on expeditions, and in one such expedition in 2004 to the Andaman Nicobar Islands, her HAM radio proved of vital importance. On December 26, 2004, when establishing contact with Indonesia and Thailand, she felt tremors in her room, and saw the sea change colour from “blue to green to black.” This was the Indian Ocean tsunami. In the early days post the tsunami, when there was no way to communicate except HAM radio, even officials communicated via her set.

A new lease of life

The documentary traverses across the country, and across interests. and one of its central figures is Uday Kalbhurgi, a radio restorer in Bangalore

Mr. Kalbhurgi has converted part of his Bangalore home into a short wave radio museum. Often called ‘Radio Man’, Mr. Kalbhurgi has restored more than 185 vintage radios, a far cry from his school days where he stood fascinated in front of a radio repair shop in Nipani for three-four hours a day. He has stories for many of his radios- whether it be an old man remembering his dearly loved wife or a bomber radio he bought off a man on the street.

A still from the documentary My Radio, My Life

A still from the documentary My Radio, My Life

Among his collection we spot a 1963 Grundig Radio, a Chevrolet car radio, a secret Congress radio from World War 2, and an R1155 Marconi radio from a bomber, again from the World war 2 era. Another intriguing contraption on his walls is a little device that places the All India Radio signature tone composed by Walter Kauffman— on loop if you don’t stop it.

In the documentary, we are also transported from time-to-time, almost with a jolt, to more modern setting, the spotless radio studio room for students at the Janaki Devi Public School in Mumbai. Here, enthusiastic teacher Pradnya Kelkar, accompanied by professional radio mentor Shantanu Joshi, is attempting to create a radio programme with a host of kids.

Not only do the children offer a stark contrast to the gentle nostalgia of people who are recounting tales of yore, the programme they are recording is also future-themed— what life be like in 2122. Adding to the nostalgia, one of the kids describes the radio onscreen much like one might describe an object in the museum — a box with lines over it, she says, with a socket and a rectangular thing where you see channel numbers. Another boy is more in touch with the radio— his parents and grandparents listen to it while working, he says, incorporating the rhythm of the radio into their workflow. 

Cast and crew of the documentary My Radio, My Life at a screening held at National Film Archives of India on February 13, 2024.

Cast and crew of the documentary My Radio, My Life at a screening held at National Film Archives of India on February 13, 2024.

Shantanu Joshi shared during the screening of the documentary that he tried to make the radio ‘a hero’ for the kids, selling the experience of talking on the radio. He has done this not just for students in schools— Mr. Joshi has also set up a radio station in jail and a juvenile home in Pune.

As the credits roll we see three people with no professional link to the radio, whose lives have been touched by it— Mr. Waikar’s friends from days of youth. Sunil Shastri speaks of perhaps a universal experience for cricket-enthused GenXers— listening to cricket on the radio. He did it secretly though, with a wire connecting a pocket transistor radio to his ear during school classes, with him furtively signalling runs to classmates when the teacher was not looking. Harimohan Pillai speaks of Amin Sayani and his programme Binaca Geet Mala on Radio Ceylon, which ranked the top songs of the week. So did his family, and comparing these rankings made for a nice Saturday pass time. Mr. Pillai also met and gave Mr. Sayani a sketch of him — a crowning moment in a radio enthusiast’s life. Then there is Arunabha Sen from Kolkata, who recounts the riveting experience of attending a recording for a Bournvita radio quiz competition at the HMV studios in Dum Dum. .  

The documentary ends with a feeling of great nostalgia— a crossword, kids playing cricket, and the people remembering their own glory days with the radio. In between, watercolours by Yogesh Lokhande envision scenes from the story as they are described.

Watching the documentary proves that it is not just nostalgic for an earlier generation. It is also nostalgic for me, reminding me of sleepy afternoons crouched down in front of the radio, scanning for a station that would give me the enthusiasm to finish my homework.

And as I drive home after watching the documentary, I switch off my Spotify playlist and turn on my radio instead.

More details about ‘My radio, My Life’ can be found at https://myradiomylife.com/. The documentary will be released shortly online.

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