‘A kick in the pants’
By Taran N Khan
7 August 2015
COLUMN: Of a writer and a magazine that brought drama to film criticism.
Some years ago I accompanied my colleague and friend Sidharth Bhatia to a bungalow in the starry Mumbai suburb of Bandra. We had an appointment with Sushila Rani Patel, the widow of the prolific film writer and politician Baburao Patel. Sidharth was then researching his book on Navketan Studios and wanted to consult Sushila. He was also hoping to dip into the archives of Filmindia, the pioneering film magazine edited and published by Baburao Patel, which first came out in 1935. Sushila met us resplendent in a beautiful sari, makeup in place, fresh flowers in her hair. She was 92, and a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes about the film industry, which she had observed intimately for decades. She showed me her law degree, as well as photographs from the film, where she played the leading lady. Talking to her, I felt this was a Bombay story – one that was not only about the life and times of a couple, but of an era in the city’s history and its cinema.
The headlines on his reviews were examples of great craft, and could put much of contemporary clickbait to shame.
Years later, Sidharth has carried the visit to a satisfactory conclusion with The Patels of Filmindia, a delightful volume of writings selected from back issues of Filmindia. What leaps off the pages of the book – as it did of the magazine – is Baburao’s personality, who wrote with a vitriolic pen and a dramatic style that was entirely his own. He imprinted his character strongly on the magazine, which he wrote virtually by himself for a long while. This made him unpopular among those he chose to pan (always in the strongest terms) but also immensely loved by a loyal and large pool of readers. It also gave Filmindia great clout in industry circles, and for several years, it was without serious rivals. The magazine might have faded from the public memory in the last few decades, but in its heyday, it held sway in the most influential quarters, and thanks to its editor, was quite unique.
With Baburao, the readers got exactly what they saw, and perhaps this was one reason for his enduring popularity. The headlines on his reviews were examples of great craft, and could put much of contemporary clickbait to shame. “Avoid Afsar on health grounds”, advised the journal about the 1950 Dev Anand starrer; the review goes on to conclude that it was “about the most putrid and amateurish production ever presented on the Indian screen.” Another headline declared its verdict on the film Nargis (1946), calling it “A Wretched, Boring Hotch-potch”, followed by another indictment: “11,000 FT OF TORTURE”. Writing about Zid (1976) that starred Nutan, he said, “It is a pity there are still enough moneyed idiots in India who can be induced to finance such pictures.” And despite his patriotic fervour, Baburao found Manoj Kumar’s nationalistic film Purab aur Paschim (1970) “A howling nonsense”, and advised the readers that the ticket money would be better spent on bhel puri, a popular street food. Several films did find favour with the writer, but compared to his acerbic criticisms, those reviews are not as interesting to read.
Baburao also wrote a popular ‘Question and Answer’ column for the magazine, which addressed queries on matters ranging from health to politics to gossip, and, as Sidharth writes, “of course himself”. A typical column would run along these lines:
Q: What is the age of Mumtaz Shanti? [a popular actress from the 1940s]
A: Ask me another, I can’t risk this one.
Q: Whenever my brother in law finds me reading Filmindia he calls you bad names. What should I do to stop him?
A: Kick him in the pants.
The magazine also carried a gossip column titled ‘Bombay Calling’, under the pen name Judas, which fooled no one.
Baburao was not intimidated by celebrity and wrote about the stars of the time in daring terms. “Dev Anand looks and plays a poor officer,” he wrote once, “and Suraiya looks more hideous than ever before.” Noor Jehan had an aging face, “having seen two World Wars”, and dancer Uday Shanker was dismissed as a man of “very mediocre talent”. “A clever showman, he went West to exploit his art, presumably for two reasons: the West did not know much about the Oriental art of dancing and secondly to exploit on his return the two-hundred years old Indian inferiority complex for things liked in the West”.
For the contemporary reader, the great appeal of Baburao’s writing is its distance from the public-relations-managed utterances and writings we are now subjected to around the clock. Journalists writing on cinema today have to negotiate the overuse of superlatives like ‘amazing’ and ‘mind-blowing’ by those involved in filmmaking. What this means is that trying to talk to, say, actors about directors or cinematographers about actors, is to encounter a dense mass of gushing mutual admiration. No matter how thickly the gossip flows off the record, it is impossible to avoid saccharine sentiments that seem mass-produced while on the record. In this context, Baburao appears as a breath of fresh air, though from a different era. At times he sounds uncannily like the ranks of disgruntled struggling actors or directors, dissing the new releases, the fresh stars, and the entire cheerleading culture that Bollywood runs on. His pointed humour goes a long way in blunting what must have been a large amount of obnoxiousness in his own time.
Other than its characteristic writing, the Filmindia archive is a record of the personalities who formed Bombay’s film circles over those years, like Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who worked as a scriptwriter before leaving for Pakistan after 1947. In Stars from Another Sky, a collection of profiles and sketches chronicling his years in the film industry, Manto wrote an essay on Baburaro, noting that “There was a tough guy assertiveness about his writing.” Manto added, “He could also be venomous in a way no other writer in English in India has ever been able to match” – words Baburao would probably have worn as a badge of honour. Baburao also sought out the young critic Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who would go on to write hits like Shri 420 and Awaara. But in the early years, Abbas was a serious-minded film critic who turned up his nose at Hindi films. Baburao gave him a retainer of 50 rupees and editorial freedom. Abbas penned pieces for the magazine that throbbed with idealism and anger, while secretly admiring Baburao’s gutsy, scandalous and occasionally libellous pieces. Their alliance was part of Baburao’s nationalist campaign against ‘anti-India films’, in particular the 1939 Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) production Gunga Din that he felt showed the nation in a bad light.
Sushila Rani also makes several appearances in the pages of Filmindia, and it chronicles her pursuit by and subsequent marriage to Baburao. The book is insightful on this unequal but enduring relationship, beginning from the moment Baburao saw the young woman at a restaurant in Bombay. He was 13 years her senior, had been married twice (his second marriage remained a secret for a long time from Sushila), and had a reputation for being a womaniser. Sushila was then on her way to Udaipur to resume her job as a teacher. The rather predatory ‘romance’ unfolded over the next few years, as Baburao persuaded her to assist him in editing the magazine, cast her in two of his films and eventually married her. It was a relationship that she admitted was flawed, with Baburao demanding that she pander to his whims at all moments. He also controlled her great love for music by barring her from singing in public. She would get up at dawn to do her riyaz, a routine she stuck to throughout the years of her marriage. After Baburao’s death, notes The Patels of Filmindia, she took up every invitation she got to perform.
But despite the odds, Sushila seemed to have made the marriage work. Together, the couple presided over the inner sanctum of Bollywood before it was Bollywood. Baburao attempted to help a young Dilip Kumar through romantic adventures and assisted Mehboob Khan when his studio land and property was taken over by the government after 1947. Sushila taught Madhubala English and acted as her mentor as the young actress learned the ways of her new world. Even as rising costs and competition took a toll on the magazine, Baburao became more involved with his passion for politics. Inevitably, his prescriptions moved from the arena of film criticism to giving advice on running the nation. In 1960, reflecting the shift in content, the magazine changed its name to Mother India. Seven years later, in 1967, Baburao Patel achieved his dream of being elected to Parliament after winning a seat from Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh.
One of the strengths of The Patels of Filmindia is that it gives Sushila an equal role in mapping the trajectory of the magazine. As Baburao plunged deeper into politics, he relinquished the task of running Filmindia to her. After his death in 1982, predictions that the magazine would shut down incensed her so much that she brought out new issues until 1985, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary. This was her tribute to her difficult and iconoclastic husband, and to the partnership she had forged with him. She herself passed away in July 2014, aged 96, marking the end of an era.
The book is lavishly illustrated with images from the magazine. The covers of Filmindia were works of detail and careful craft, created by some of the foremost painters of the time. It also commissioned cartoons, including freelance work from Bal Thackeray, who went on to become a prominent and controversial politician, leading the Shiv Sena, a rightwing Marathi nationalist party in Maharashtra. The film posters are delightful to pore over, from Fearless Nadia as Bambaiwali to Navketan’s noir-inflected posters for Baazi, one of the few images without eye-catching colours. The advertisements are equally fascinating: in one of them, Leela Chitnis tells you the secret of her skin beauty; in another a moonlit desert sets the scene for advertisement for cigarettes – “The Panamas would have completed Omar Khayyam’s paradise.”
While some of the faces in these posters and advertisements are still well known (Waheeda Rehman, star of Guru Dutt’s Chaudhvin ka Chaand), others have been lost to the eddies of public taste and memory. These include Baburao Patel himself, whose has largely been forgotten, even by members of his own profession. My personal favourites are the wonderful images featuring the man himself, advertising his other enterprise of prescriptions: a line of homeopathic medicines. A picture of Baburao accompanies the text for what he calls “Dr Baburao Patel’s Life Saver”, urging the reader to “Try before you die”. As usual, he gets the last word.
~Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column Taran N Khan will be writing on cinema for Himal.