A Captivating Account of Activist Film Journalism of 1930s- Onward
Book: The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism; Author: Sidharth Bhatia; Publisher: Indus Source Books; Pages: 184; Price: Rs.2,000
In an India swirling with cultural undercurrents, one area that has remained largely underserved by writerly attention. Although in recent years there have been several books written about specific aspects of Hindi cinema, the field remains rich with possibilities.
Mining those riches with his fourth book “The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism” is journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia who has emerged as an effective and efficient chronicler of India’s pop culture.
Published by Indus Source Books, “The Patels of Filmindia” shows how rich the untapped Hindi cinema journalism and criticism from the 1930s onward was a cultural resource. Beyond that, Bhatia brings to life the story of a film journalist with a withering gaze at the cinema whose foundation was still being sculpted.
Before this book, Bhatia had written three others “The Navketan Story: Cinema Modern”, “Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness, Manmohan Desai” and “India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation”. All four books examine aspects of India’s popular, even urbane, culture and its evolution from the 1950s onward. It is a space that is rich with stories as long as someone patient and meticulous is willing to tell them. Bhatia now straddles that space.
Bhatia jumps into a rich resource in the past issues of Filmindia, later rechristened as “Mother India” to construct a fascinating account of arguably India’s most inventive and feared film journalist and editor who began publishing Filmindia in 1935. Patel with his sharp unsparing wit and passionate interest in cinema and those who make it all happen became the most influential albeit it dreaded film journalist in Bombay during a period when Hindi cinema was still striking its roots. Along with his equally respected wife Sushila Rani the Patels were a power couple of the period.
“Baburao was an extraordinary editor – he practically wrote the entire magazine himself till Sushila Rani came and shared some of the burden with him. His rapport with his readers was tremendous – they not only admired and respected him but also adored him,” Bhatia writes.
“Sushila Rani, as I found, was equally eclectic in her broad interests. Apartfrom being a superb classical singer, she had been an actress and a journalist. She came from a highly cultured and liberal family in which girls were expected to get educated and find careers, or at least have interests outside studies. She could, and did, talk about everything under the sun, from politics to the arts, and a lot about her passion, classical music,” he says.
Bhatia also quotes the legendary Urdu short story writer Sadat Hasan Manto as saying this about Patel: “Baburao wrote with eloquence and power. He had a sharp and inimitable sense of humour, often barbed. There was a tough guy assertiveness about his writing. He could also be venomous in a way that no other writer of English in India has ever been able to match.”
Reading early pages of the book one sees unfold the charming nascent history of Hindi cinema as captured by Patel and revived by Bhatia. The book offers eminently readable insights into the buildings blocks of India’s pop culture as it came to take birth and flourish in Bombay/Mumbai. That this year marks the 80th year of Filmindia’s founding underscores how closely it paralleled the trajectory of Hindi cinema itself.
Patel practiced what could only be described as activist, advocacy journalism which frequently prompted him to be a guarding of Indian culture still reeling under British Raj. India’s independence was still a good 12 years away when Filmindia began but Patel was already in the activist mode regularly reprimanding those he thought were undermining the essence of India.
Bhatia writes: “He (Patel) was extremely critical of what he saw as anti-Indian propaganda by American producers, especially of their tendency to use Indians in stereotypical roles such as rajahs, yogis and crooks. That, he said, was forgivable, since it showed ignorance, but lately there was anti-Indian propaganda that was objectionable.”
“The Patels of Filmindia” is rich with images of hand-painted posters of the movies and film stars of the era that lend it the kind of flourish ideal for its coffee table format. However, at its heart, given Bhatia’s discipline as a seasoned hard news journalist, it is a serious reflection on the historic times when a nation-state was discovering itself. The book also talks at some length about Patel’s reinvention of the journal more as a political platform.
For instance, in the August 1947 edition titled “15th of August” Patel wrote: “We must patiently accept Pandit Nehru’s outbursts, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s jibes, Gandhiji’s platonic prayers, Mrs Sarojini Naidu’s Shakespearian melodrama and a thousand other vagaries and vacillations of our new ruling aristocracy born in the British jails, if we must have even this bit of adulterated independence.”
Bhatia takes care to cover all aspects of Patel’s rather compelling and colorful personality of the kind that has not been seen since in film journalism. For someone who began as a movie journalist Patel’s savvy as a political mind and that too avowedly right-of-the-center is also effectively captured here.
~ Mayank Chhaya
26 June 2015