What might Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India, have to do with the popularity of filmi music? Quite a bit, it turns out. During the Second World War, Mountbatten, then supreme Allied commander in the Southeast Asian theatre, set up his headquarters in Ceylon. He brought along a powerful shortwave transmitter: an official report had recently suggested that demoralised British soldiers might benefit from more beer, cigarettes, and better radio programming.

A few years later, the government of independent Ceylon used the same transmitter to set up Radio Ceylon, “The King of the Airwaves”. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Radio Ceylon became a household name in India and Pakistan, introducing millions of listeners to the latest soundtracks from Bollywood.

This story is one of the many unexpected connections which Isabel Huacuja Alonso forges in Radio for the Millions, a history of radio broadcasting in South Asia. The airwaves of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are of a relatively lower decibel today. But before television and the internet, radio was a powerful force in shaping the region’s cultural and political landscape.

Take the Second World War as an example. One of Louis Mountbatten’s primary nemeses was Subhas Chandra Bose, whose voice boomed across South Asia on the Axis-supported Azad Hind Radio. Bose’s radio persona exposed the fault lines in the Raj: British officials scrambled to understand why broadcasts from enemy powers proved so popular with Indian listeners. By tuning in to Bose, were Indian listeners giving a vote of no confidence in British power and prestige?

Radio, Huacuja Alonso notes, was a tool for both division and unification. In the runup to Partition, All India Radio ditched Hindustani broadcasts in favor of separate Hindi and Urdu services. After Partition, BV Keskar, minster for information and broadcasting, instituted an infamous ban on filmi music, instead filling the airwaves with Indian classical music and highly-Sanskritised Hindi. Across the border, Radio Pakistan harnessed radio to whip up patriotic sentiment during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War.

All of this was to the benefit of Radio Ceylon. With AIR and Radio Pakistan using the airwaves as tools of state policy, Radio Ceylon gave the public what it really wanted: filmi music. Deftly navigating the strictures of the Nehruvian socialist economy, broadcasters like Ameen Sayani taped programmes in Bombay and flew them out to Colombo, where Mountbatten’s old wartime transmitter was put to use.

Radio Ceylon introduced Indian filmi music to Pakistani listeners and Pakistani filmi music to Indian listeners. It regaled audiences with programs like Anokhe Bol, which highlighted songs with meaningless phrases like “Ina mina dika”. BV Keskar, one assumes, was not amused.

In subsequent decades, even AIR joined the bandwagon, broadcasting pre-Partition filmi songs on an Urdu service popular across northern India and Pakistan. This service, as Huacuja Alonso mentions in the podcast, provided a form of public history: listeners on both sides of the border wrote letters to broadcasters which documented their pre-Partition memories.

Some asked about life in the hometowns they had fled in 1947, others sought fellow listeners’ help in tracking down old friends. Language mattered, too. Both Radio Ceylon and AIR’s Urdu service employed simplified, comprehensible versions of Hindustani, ducking state-sponsored efforts to Persianise Urdu or Sanskritise Hindi.

Through radio, Huacuja Alonso concludes, idea of a religiously inclusive Hindustan survived after Partition, but it survived as a soundscape and, like films, it occupied the domain of popular culture. That is one more thing Louis Mountbatten probably never anticipated when he set up a wartime radio transmitter in Ceylon.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.