Mala Sinha is potato-faced. Kalpana Kartik is pigeon-chested. Suraiya is an ugly duckling who looks more hideous than ever before. And Noor Jehan is ageing, having already seen two World Wars. Now imagine writing such unflattering descriptions of stars in today's PR-protected times. But then Baburao Patel, who ran the monthly magazine Filmindia (later called Mother India), made his own rules. Saadat Hassan Manto may have called him a peasant with an atrocious street accent, but between 1935, when he started the magazine, through the '40s, '50s and '60s, he made, unmade and remade careers.
Along with his third wife, Sushila Rani Patel, who died in 2014, he has left a lasting body of work which has archival and entertainment value. Much of what he and his columnists wrote over 50 years holds true even today. Listen to what the great Khwaja Ahmad Abbas has to say about the industry in 1939: "The Indian film industry is a gigantic paradox. People not fit to push the camera truck become directors, carpenters call themselves art directors, producers write songs, poets try to write scenarios-and a socialist has to tell the capitalists how to make money."
Actor Shanta Apte once came to Baburao's office to hit him with a stick, Indira Gandhi put him in Arthur Road Jail during the Emergency for daring to violate censorship norms, and Ataullah Khan, Madhubala's father, broke ties with him after he learnt of his profiteering from a real estate deal, but Baburao was undeterred. His column, "Bombay Calling", under the pen name Judas, and a question and answer with readers that would often stretch over eight or ten pages were the stuff of legend. Stars, directors, even politicians-no one was too big or too important for Baburao. He called Indira a fair-skinned widow who favoured Christian birthday celebrations, Inder Kumar Gujral was a man who would never be prime minister no matter what his astrologer told him, V.K. Krishna Menon's becoming a minister was the equivalent of a collar giving a dog pedigree, Dhirendra Brahmachari was the one who teaches sirsasana and other yogic twisters to Indira and that was why all our problems have become twisted and topsy-turvy, and Acharya Vinoba Bhave was a cartoon of Mahatma Gandhi.
Filmindia provides an alternative history of free India. Baburao writes of how independent India must patiently "accept Pandit Nehru's outbursts, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's jibes, Gandhiji's platonic prayers, and Mrs Sarojini Naidu's Shakespearean melodrama". His later direct interest in politics saw him contesting and losing the 1957 Lok Sabha elections but winning the 1967 elections and becoming an MP. Although the Emergency dimmed his lustre and he died a shaken man in 1982, Sushila Rani continued the magazine until 1985, writing, editing and reviewing.
Baburao's feistiness and independence made him the first port of call for many stars who wanted their problems solved. When Ataullah Khan wanted his 17-year-old daughter Madhubala to learn English, he came to Baburao. Sushila Rani would teach the young star, who would drop in on her way back from the studio after a hard day's work. When Dilip Kumarwanted to marry an already married Kamini Kaushal, he asked Baburao again. And when Venus Bannerjee, aspiring actor, came to him for help, he put her in the pages of Filmindia, demonstrating exercises to tighten the bust and buttocks. Of course, he also gave her a place in his home-at one point, he shared his home with his second wife, Shireen, their children; his third wife, Sushila Rani; and Venus. Charming.
Sidharth Bhatia's book captures the era, the Baburao-Sushila Rani partnership and the foibles of stars and producers with a light touch. He allows Baburao's strong prose to speak to us, and peppers the pages with enough rude comments to leave us rolling in the aisles: Noor Jehan and Kanan Bala have become like balloons because of their intimacy with the dining table, G.P. Sippy is one of Mumbai's foremost producers of trash in recent years; and Manoj Kumar is a wooden piece in a curio shop.
Could anyone be more direct and more politically incorrect?
They don't make film journalists like Baburao anymore. But then they don't make films like they used to either.
16 July 2015