Filmindia: A glimpse into Hindi Cinema's early years
"CID is not merely an unpleasant crime tale. It is a stupid crime tale…Dev Anand fails to look like a CID Inspector even for a single second…Waheeda Rehman doesn’t impress much either with her acting or her looks.”
These scathing words are from a review of the 1956 Raj Khosla-directed film, and were written by a man known for his acidic pen – the influential and powerful Baburao Patel, editor of Filmindia.
Patel, who launched the monthly in 1935, was a pioneer of the early years of film journalism in India. Along with his beautiful wife Sushila Rani (on the left), he ran a magazine that was grudgingly respected and feared in equal measure by the film industry, and that went on to complete 50 years, even though Patel died in 1982.
Over the years, however, Filmindia began featuring more and more writing on politics. Indeed, Baburao himself eventually entered the political fray, winning the 1967 election from a seat in Madhya Pradesh, with the support of the Jan Sangh.
In a welcome addition to the growing but still insufficient body of work on Hindi films, journalist and author Sidharth Bhatia has just brought out a lavishly-illustrated coffee table book, The Patels of Filmindia.
Spread over its 171 pages, the book has gorgeous, goosebump-inducing photographs – posters of films such as Sazaa (1951) and Awara (1951), advertisements for Lux soap and portraits of evergreen film stars, from Devika Rani to Dilip Kumar.
But along with the pictures, there is also a story – or rather three stories. The turbulent lives of the Patels and the golden years of the Hindi film industry unfold against the backdrop of momentous national events (the national movement, Independence, the Nehruvian era, and later, the coming of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency). Bhatia deftly weaves all three strands together to paint an engrossing picture of the life and times of the Patels.
Bhatia first came across the Filmindia archives, preserved in pristine condition by Sushila Rani, when he was researching his book on Navketan Films (Cinema Modern: the Navketan Story) some years ago.
“When I saw the issues of the ’30s and ’40s, I got very excited,” says Bhatia. “I thought, this is invaluable.” Sushila Rani herself was keen on a book around the magazine. But once Bhatia plunged into the project, he realised how daunting it was to just make a selection in the first place. “I didn’t know what to leave out and what to retain,” he says.
Patel’s fearless, slash-and-burn kind of writing is quite unthinkable in today’s heavily PR-controlled film industry. Manto described Baburao as a “peasant” who used cuss words in every sentence he spoke.
Mala Sinha had a “potato face,” Suraiya was an “ugly duckling” and Noor Jehan had an ageing face “having seen two World Wars." Rajendra Kumar was pilloried for “stupidly” trying to ape Dilip Kumar while Dev Anand’s charm in one film was dismissed as “spineless.”
A journalist of the time, Jamil Ansari, said of Patel: “If his pistol misses the target, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” Neither did Patel shy away from providing “salacious” gossip. Says Bhatia, “He tried to hint about a lesbian affair that Begum Para was having with her partner, saying that the two of them would come to the races in trousers.”
There was some blowback occasionally. Bhatia recounts how the actress Shanta Apte, angry about something Patel had written about her, marched into his office with a stick and managed to land a few blows as well!
But what is also striking is how modern the Patels were in so many ways. The college-educated Sushila Rani worked briefly as a schoolteacher in Udaipur, far away from her home, which was in Chennai.
Later when she met Baburao in Bombay, the already-married editor set about wooing her assiduously. Eventually she married him, much against her father’s wishes, and even acted in a hit film he made, Draupadi. Her contribution to Filmindia was immense and she kept it going after his death.
But her life with Patel was not without tumult. “He was a possessive man and wouldn’t allow Sushila Rani, a trained classical singer, to sing in public,” says Bhatia.
Indeed, the full story of the Patels and their beloved Filmindia is a fascinating one. But for that, you will have to read the book!
~ Poonam Saxena for Hindustan Times
28 June 2015