Magazine Man by Mumbai Mirror

What Sidharth Bhatia found when researching the most feared and revered entertainment journalist is now a tell-all book.

When journalist and author Sidharth Bhatia was hunting for archival material for his first book on Navketan Films in 2010 (Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story), he was advised to visit a certain Mrs Sushila Rani Patel who had an exhaustive library at her Pali Hill bungalow. The classically trained singer and journalist was married to Baburao Patel, late founder and editor of India's first film magazine, Film India. Launched in April 1935, it enjoyed a glorious run for half a century. 

"She was sprightly as hell, had a fantastic memory and was impeccably turned out. She would break into a song if requested, and taught classical music till the very end," remembers Bhatia of the woman who died last year at 92. 

Flipping through the many editions of the magazine, preserved in pristine condition, Bhatia felt like he was revisiting the various decades of the Hindi film industry. "The acerbic language used in his reviews and the Q&A section that spanned across pages, covered everything from Patel's opinion on Nehru and Mrs Mountbatten to cure for depression. It was mindblowing material," says Bhatia. He instantly felt that this pop culture mastermind deserved to be felicitated. His tribute is the recently published The Patels of Film India (Indus Books). 

Bhatia's book traces three aspects of Patel's life: his role as a commentator on films and society, his colourful personal life and his brush with politics. Born in March 4, 1904, to an illustrious lawyer from the Vanzara community, Patel changed his surname from Patil. Dropping out of school, his fascination for books drew him to read up on philosophy, politics, literature and homeopathy. When he set up Film India, he wrote the magazine almost by himself, till Sushila joined him as assistant editor. She persevered to keep the magazine running for three years after her husband's death in 1982, but Patel's loss couldn't be substituted. 

"The headlines of his reviews were as forthright as him. From 'Shantaram produces rubbish' to 'Zid gives incurable headache', Patel's acid writing instantly made him the most-feared and much-loved film critic of the time," says Bhatia, adding that Patel received about 5,000 letters every month asking him for an opinion on subjects ranging from love to politics. "People would even mail enquiring how a certain actress manages to stay so well preserved or how he feels about Gandhi's non-violence movement," adds the 59-year-old writer. 

Patel's fierce jabs at industry biggies also had occasional consequences. "Once, V Shantaram accused him of being a blackmailer to which he wrote a cutting column in the magazine challenging readers to prove that he was one. The one who did was promised a reward of Rs 500. He also wrote of how many film producers felt (wrongly) that advertising in his magazine would mean that they'd be spared from his razor pen," says Bhatia. 

Speaking to Patel's friends, Bhatia discovered that his personal life was even more fascinating. The fact that he wooed Susheela Rani, his third wife, following a chance meeting at a restaurant was characteristic of Patel. "They were 14 years apart and she had recently moved from Chennai to Mumbai. What clicked between the two is difficult to imagine but when Baburao pursued a relationship, he went the whole hog," laughs Bhatia. Once, he even drove a girl to leave town. And, when she received mails from other suitors at her Mumbai address, Patel stole the correspondence to eliminate competition. 

Susheela Rani told Bhatia that she was aware of her husband's glad eye. "She was cultured and a post-graduate in biology, quite unlike him." he says, adding that Patel was himself a contradiction of sorts. "SH Manto, a good friend of Patel's, observed this in a profile he wrote on him since Patel was always wrapped in the most dapper suits but would speak in a singularly crude manner," he says quoting the Urdu writer.


~ Mumbai Mirror 

13 June 2015