Is Baburao Patel a name to you? Does Filmindia ring a bell? Did you know that he and his wife Sushila Rani can safely be called the pioneers of film journalism in India?
A new volume called The Patels of Filmindia, published by Indus Source Books, brings alive this forgotten slice of history. It invites us, with beautifully reproduced photographs of the stars and other luminaries of the time, to re-live the period: the first edition of the monthly magazine came out in 1935, shutting only in 1985. Sushila Rani kept the magazine (renamed Mother India in 1960) afloat after her husband died in 1982, stung by Khushwant Singh’s quip that it “should” follow Baburao into his grave.
Author Sidharth Bhatia discovered the treasure trove when he met Sushila Rani while researching for his book on Navketan Films. She had kept “each and every” copy of the magazine neatly bound and preserved. Within them was a fascinating account, in Baburao’s inimitable style (for years, he practically wrote the entire magazine single-handedly, before Sushila joined him as wife and companion, and stayed steadfast by his side even after she got to know, much to her shock, that he had been married twice before, and that he would never mend his philandering ways), of the early years of the film industry, as well as the nation.
The Patels of Pali Hill were a force to reckon with in the 1940s, and in Sushila Rani’s recounting of those years to Bhatia are numerous mentions of the constant social whirl she and her husband were part of. The biggies of the burgeoning Bombay film industry were their dinner companions — Mehboob Khan was a close friend, Dilip Kumar became a constant visitor, much before he became a huge star (he showed up to discuss his tender feelings for co-star Kamini Kaushal and stayed on); Madhubala and Nargis and many, many others came and went.
They were also in the charmed circle of the city’s elite which found inclusion in the ambit of political figures: Sushila talks of how she “taught English to Madhubala”, and took her along to meet chief minister Morarji Desai. And how Jawaharlal Nehru, during a meeting, “helped straighten her pallu” (she says this with “a chuckle”).
Baburao was not just a film critic and the publisher of Filmindia: his ambitions spilled over into other spheres; he fought elections, lost and won, and eventually, became a member of Parliament. His political allegiances veered as time went on, but nothing dimmed his fondness for broadcasting his opinion, however slanted it was.
But what really interests me, as a long-time film critic, is his penchant to go for the jugular in his writing on cinema — there is nothing understated or sophisticated or political in the way he wrote his “reviews”; he pretty much tore into stars and producers if he didn’t like a film, and that was a much more frequent occurrence than the rare occasion when he did like a film. The vein is almost always bitingly acidic. Sadaat Hasan Manto called his writing “venomous”, marked by a “barbed sense of humour”. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, who was asked to be a contributor to Filmindia, and later went on to become a hit filmmaker, said that he had a “sneaking admiration for Baburao and his magazine… which became a model of the ‘sledge-hammer’ style of film journalism”.
No wonder Baburao was feared and disliked heartily in some quarters. His words carried weight, and Filmindia was wildly popular not just in India but in other parts of the world, where fans of Hindi cinema lived. According to an assessment made by a journalist, “if Baburao’s pistol misses the target, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”
He wrote scathingly about his “one-time best friend turned bete noir” V Shantaram’s performance in Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, who “not only made a fool of himself … he was also an “insult on” the late Dr Kotnis by adding 25 years to his age and several negroid characteristics to his appearance: look at his short curly hair, his thick hanging lips, his deep shifty eyes…”
Sample these other gems: “Avoid Afsar (starring Dev Anand) on health grounds”; “CID , a poor crime thriller”; “Purab Aur Paschim (starring Manoj Kumar) a howling nonsense”; “Bachchon Ka Khel a disgustingly demoralizing picture”; “Zid gives incurable headache”; “Ghunghat, an idiotic joke carried too far”.
You cringe at the crude yet effective language, and wonder what the subjects of his ministrations felt. And you wonder what Baburao would have made of the way films are made and “sold” these days. The imagination boggles.