The Most Feared Journalist in the Film Industry

Let’s admit it, we love to boast about our culture. A lot. But when it comes to actually making an effort to preserve it, ah well. The decaying marble walls of the Taj Mahal and the garbage infested Ganga stand testimony to how much pride we actually take in our heritage. And that’s the important stuff, our priorities are much lower when it comes to popular culture - especially cinema.

We have no clue where the prints of the first Indian talkie Alam Ara are. Also, we would have lost the original prints of the Apu Trilogy, but for Critierion Collection which painstakingly digitally restored each of Satyajit Ray’s three films - frame by frame.

It’s in this context that Sidharth Bhatia’s new book The Patels of Filmindia becomes significant and invaluable. The book is an engaging narrative of the pioneers of film journalism in India - Baburao Patel and his wife Sushila Rani Patel, the couple behind Filmindia, the most influential film magazine through the 40s and 50s, and continued to be in publication right till the 1980s. It’s not just the story of the rather unorthodox Patels; what makes the book delightful is that it is resplendent with colourful posters, early magazine covers of Filmindia, vintage advertisements, old film reviews and articles that probably would have been just forgotten with time.

What’s obvious from the book is that Baburao Patel and his wife were an extraordinary couple who were loved, respected and feared by the film industry in equal measure. Today, film journalism is largely PR driven, editors of film glossies need to keep the stars ‘happy’, hence nothing unpleasant is ever reported. But Baburao was a different breed in a different time, he didn’t think twice before calling Kalpana Kartik “pigeon chested”, Suraiya “ugly” or Dev Anand “effeminate”.

In his review of Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, Patel writes:

Meena Kumari as Karuna acts well but her physical proportions seem to be getting so out of hand, especially in the southern regions, that in shape she is beginning to look like an inverted shuttlecock.

Baburao was also totally in touch with the latest in Hollywood as is evident from his reviews of films like Chetan Anand’s Afsar (1950), which he rips apart for being a copy of The Inspector General (1949). He also calls Dev Anand’s CID, “a petty crime picture indicating that we still have producers who seem to think that aping Hollywood’s glossy crime thrillers is something that is both artistic and honourable.”

What came as one of the learnings for Sidharth Bhatia while writing the book was a “pattern” in the kind of actresses who were signing up for Hindi films from the mid to late 1930s onwards. “In the mid to late 30s you saw predominantly Jewish actresses, a few anglo-Indians but surprisingly the late 30s also saw the emergence of upper caste, upper class Maharashtrian women like Durga Khote, Leela Chitnis, Shobhana Samarth to name a few, who were educated women from the upper strata, who entered the industry not because they did not have any other recourse. But strangely by the mid to late 40s, a whole lot of Muslim girls came in - Noor Jehan was always there, but she left for Pakistan by 1948. We saw actresses like Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari to name just a few we are familiar with, enter the industry,” he says.

Besides giving us a peek into these insights, film reviews and articles, Bhatia also spreads delectable nuggets throughout the book. One of them being the fact that an out of work Bal Thackeray was one of the cartoonists who contributed to Filmindia for Rs 10 per cartoon!

Bhatia vividly records for us the tempestuous journey of the outspoken Baburao Patel - the most feared journalist in the Indian film industry, who was toasted in Hollywood as the “Million Dollar Personality” and jailed in India during the Emergency. But it is the immaculately reprinted art work, advertisements and portraits from the archival issues of Filmindia that essentially make this book a collector’s item. How else would you be able to run your hands over this classic ad for Lux toilet soap featuring Waheeda Rehman.

Bhatia hopes that apart from delving into Baburao Patel and Filmindia, readers also take home the story of Sushila Rani Patel, the feisty lady who kept the floundering magazine alive till its 50th anniversary, against all odds. Speaking about his experience of putting together the book, Bhatia tells me that his three year long interaction with Sushila Rani will be something that he will cherish forever.

I used to drop in any time, sit with her, she sang for me, strangely I have no photograph with her, because I was not there to take selfies or anything, I was there to soak it in, to talk to this remarkable, intellectual woman.

– Sidharth Bhatia

Priced at Rs 2000 (psst... you can get it for about Rs 1300 online), The Patels of Filmindia (Indus Source Books) is a must-have for genuine film buffs interested in the evolution of Indian cinema. Just like an exceptionally well made movie, this one has both style and substance

~Suresh Mathew

The Quint

7 July 2015