The Patels of Filmindia by Madhulika Liddle

 

Book Review: Sidharth Bhatia’s ‘The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism’

 

I have a confession to make: despite my love for cinema, I’ve never been too keen on film magazines. When I was a child, my parents never bought film magazines, and by the time I’d grown into my teens and had the freedom (and pocket money) to buy whatever reading material I chose, all my major interest in films had shifted to films made before I’d even been born.

As a result, I never knew of Filmindia (or, as it was later renamed, Mother India) until a few years ago, when I read, on Greta’s blog, about Baburao Patel and his film magazine, Filmindia. Reading excerpts on Memsaabstory from Filmindia (and, more often than not, snorting out loud at Baburao Patel’s irreverence), or gushing over the fabulous artwork, I couldn’t help but think:if there’s ever one film magazine I would want to read, it would be the erstwhile Filmindia.

When I heard that Sidharth Bhatia was going to be releasing his book on Baburao Patel andFilmindia, I knew this was right up my alley. Not so much for Baburao Patel (who, I had convinced myself, after having read some of his writing, I did not like—not a nice man), but for the art, the ads, the feel of the 30s, the 40s, the 50s. Even the 60s. The golden age of Hindi cinema. That—the cinema—was what I wanted to read about, what I wanted to see.

Bhatia’s book, The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism (2015; Indus Source Books, ISBN: 978-81-88569-67-0; 171 pages; Rs 2,000), however, came as a revelation—because it had me deeply engrossed not just in its many excerpts from Filmindia, but in the lives of Baburao Patel and his wife Sushila Rani Patel too.

The first ten chapters of the book trace the lives, both personal and professional, of Baburao Patel and Sushila. Born in 1904, Baburao came to Bombay as a boy when his family shifted to the city, and after a while left off studying formally (though he remained a voracious reader all his life). A brief stint in cinema—as script writer and director—followed, until 1935, when, along with the owner of the New Jack Printing Press, he launched Filmindia. There was no looking back, then: Baburao Patel went from strength to strength, fearless, brusque, and outspoken in his editorials (and most of the articles and film reviews, which he wrote himself).

There are a couple of chapters about Baburao’s pursuit of Sushila (whom he launched in a film and later married—even though he was already married and was nearly 14 years older than her). There are interesting anecdotes about the Patels’ relationships with the who’s who of Indian society—and not just the film world—of that period, of the love-hate relationships, too, with everybody from Noorjehan to KA Abbas to the Anands of Navketan. Baburao Patel and Sushila (who took over her fair share of Filmindia work) were not merely the people who edited and ran India’s best-loved film magazine; they were, obviously, stalwarts in their own right. Worthy enough for Baburao Patel to stand for elections, to win, to convert his magazine from a cinema-oriented one to a mix in which politics dominated.

Following the biographies of Baburao, Sushila, and the magazine they ran for 50 years (Filmindia, later named Mother India shut shop in 1985) comes the magazine itself: 80 pages of reviews, articles, and Question and Answer sections from various issues of Filmindia/Mother India. The reviews range from those of films long forgotten, even lost (like Navketan’s Afsar) to films that are still admired and loved, like AnupamaDevdas, and Kaala Bazaar. The articles run the gamut from ‘howlers’ (Baburao’s word, not mine) from the cinema industry to more general observations on what was wrong (and occasionally, right) with Hindi cinema. Interspersed with the text (which includes images of the original article, as it appeared in the magazine) are lots of images—photographs, advertisements for films (and for other products, ranging from thermos flasks to Lux), and more.

Sometime back, Anu and I were discussing the idea of people dismissing a film because a character (especially a protagonist) is portrayed as less than perfect. Both of us had been of the opinion that a character’s morality (or lack of it) shouldn’t take away from the worth of the film. After all, all stories need not be pretty, and all characters need not be noble and nice.

I was reminded of that while reading this book. Baburao Patel, for all his charisma and fearlessness, comes across as just the sort of person I’d want to steer clear of: rude, sexist, at times bigoted and regressive, hypocritical (to read his fierce indignation about morality as shown onscreen, one would imagine the man to be a saint in his personal life, not the trigamist and serial philanderer he actually was), and—well, generally not likeable. (I will not dwell on his writing, the style of which doesn’t appeal to me—it has an odd, sometimes ungrammatical feel to it that sounds more like Hindi film dialogue translated into English).

Despite that, I’d call this book a keeper. Sidharth Bhatia does a brilliant job of showcasing both the Patels and their creation. The biographies are well told, not too gossipy, not too lengthy. The excerpts chosen for the latter half of the book are well-selected, with an equal mix of well-known films and obscure ones, and films that Baburao lambasted (“C.I.D., in brief, is a tolerably well produced and directed, but cheaply and stupidly conceived, unpalatable crime picture”) to those on which he showered praise (“…Chaudhvin ka Chand is the scintillating result of a rare combination of a good story and skillful presentation…”).

And the images. Nargis and a young Dilip Kumar. Madhubala (a Patel favourite—Sushila Rani Patel taught her English). Durga Khote, Ashok Kumar, Sushila Rani herself in and as Draupadi. Dev Anand. Suraiya, Noorjehan, Raj Kapoor. And dozens of others now long-forgotten. Stills from films, photos from parties and events (Pandit Nehru with Sushila Rani, for instance).

A treat, that’s what this is. And you get to meet two people whose lives could well be the basis of a pretty entertaining film.

You can buy The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism here, on Amazon India.

~ Madhulika Liddle 

 

28 June 2015

 

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