Barbed Byline by Live Mint

A new book about a forgotten legend of film journalism.
If you’re a fan of Hindi cinema but don’t care for sacred cows, you’ll love Baburao Patel. This is him on Shree 420: “16,000 and odd feet of flat farce and silly drivel. It is boring in entertainment, confused and stupid in theme.” And on Kagaz Ke Phool: “A dismal incoherent funeral-paced picture which has hardly anything more remarkable about it than that it is the first Indian picture to be made in cinemascope”. And thousands more like these, over the span of nearly five decades, in the pages of Filmindia, the magazine he started in 1935 and remained editor of till his death in 1982.
Though he’s a largely forgotten name nowadays, in his heyday, Patel was one of the most feared film writers around. He wrote most of the magazine himself, applying his hectoring voice and insider knowledge to reviews, previews, question-and-answer columns, industry gossip roundups and opinion pieces. His attacks were caustic, sometimes vicious, and would fall on newcomer and star, friend and foe alike. Patel had been close to V. Shantaram once, but that didn’t stop him from alleging that the director had added “negroid characteristics” to his appearance while playing the titular role in Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, a claim that’s as bizarre as it is intriguing (I can’t see it, but Patel made me look, which is victory in itself).
Sidharth Bhatia’s The Patels Of Filmindia: Pioneers Of Indian Film Journalism tells the story of the magazine and its larger-than-life editor. It’s also the story of Patel’s marriage to Sushila Rani, whom he launched as an actor and married in 1945. After his death, she steered the magazine to its 50th anniversary in 1985, after which it shut down. Rani, a classical singer who won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2002, helped Bhatia with old issues and a first-hand account of events, from which a large part of the book is derived. Her presence in these pages helps balance out the often strident voice of Baburao and provide a calmer perspective on the early days of the Hindi cinema.
Appropriately, Bhatia subjects Patel to the kind of scrutiny that Patel himself once brought to bear on the film fraternity. Though the book is a celebration of his life’s work, Patel doesn’t come across as a remotely appealing person. His treatment of Rani was appalling: he forbade her from performing her music and didn’t like her talking to other men. He also became, in Bhatia’s words, “overtly pro-Hindu”, and several of his reviews take up the cause of purported Hindu values. In his review of Arzoo, he says, “Ismat Chughtai defies this spiritual sanctity of the Hindu marriage and makes her Hindu married heroine look back emotionally to her pre-marital love affair several times in a manner that spells disloyalty to her husband”. Very rich coming from a man who married thrice and had a legendary roving eye.
When compared to international film critics of the time, Patel might be found to be lacking. His writing has little finesse—a review of Ghunghat has two instances each of “stupid” and “idiotic” and three of “rotten”. The pieces, even when they’re cutting and perceptive, could do with some close editing (this book might have done with some as well. There’s a rather obvious spelling error on the first page of the first chapter). Patel rarely speaks of films in technical terms, and when he does, he’s perfunctory and flat (“Photography is quite good. Sound is well recorded”, from a review of C.I.D., is a typical assessment). Though he was very good at pointing out trends, he seemed less interested in examining a director’s or performer’s work in terms of their past output or compare it to that of their colleagues.
Then again, Filmindia was no Sight & Sound. This was a magazine meant for mass circulation, and was written in a way that would ensure this. Patel was a provocateur, a showman who revelled in puncturing the egos of glitzy movie stars—and if a lot of film reviewers operate in the same way, well, that’s Patel’s legacy. But very few reviewers have Patel’s knack for the well-judged insult: he describes Dev Anand as having a “castor-oil expression” in Afsar, and Manoj Kumar is a “wooden piece in a curio shop” in Purab Aur Paschim. Nuggets like these might alone justify the Rs.2,000 price tag of this book, but cinephiles will find many incidental pleasures here—the delightful hand-drawn artwork, ads for everything from Panama cigarettes to Patel’s own homeopathic medicines, and ring-side descriptions of the scandals and stardoms of an era now long past.
~ Uday Bhatia
Live Mint
20 June 2015