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 and Filmindia, 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.

Sidharth Bhatia's 'The Patels of Filmindia: PIoneers of Indian Film Journalism'

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 Anupama, Devdas, 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.

Advertisements

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

  1. Thanks for the review … would not have known about this book otherwise. Seems to be a collectors’ item worth acquiring, like Sidharth Bhatia’s earlier book on Navketan … notwithstanding the high price of both the books!

    • Yes, the books are expensive, but worth it, I think. Both of them are so full of rare photos, ads, excerpts and so on, that they are a collector’s item for anybody who’s keen on early cinema!

  2. My opinion of Baburao Patel is the same as yours, Madhu. I don’t remember reading Film India growing up, but I’d heard enough about the man to not want to read him. Then, later, I decided that my opinion should be formed out of more than ‘because father said so’, so when I was a journalist, I got my hands on some old copies of his magazine. Now I could safely say my father was right. :) He used to say that Patel wrote glowingly of those who were in his good books, and thrashed those who didn’t give a damn.

    Old timers in my office, who had run across him used to say that he loved the power he held over the film fraternity. His pen was vitriolic, and he only wrote well of those who kow-towed to him. Of course, this is hearsay. But I haven’t been enamoured of what I read/heard of the man.

    But you and Banno have both been very positive about this book, so I’m tempted to buy it. :)

    • Yes, Anu. While reading the book, I kept thinking “Goodness, what a rude man!”

      But I do get the impression that he was, perhaps, rather more fair in his bashing of people. The Anands, for instance: while Afsar and CID get lambasted (though CID not totally), he praises Kaala Bazaar highly).

      Sidharth mentions – in fact, there’s an excerpt from the magazine with this – that someone had actually accused Baburao Patel of blackmailing people, telling them that he would run them down in the magazine if they didn’t pay up. Patel was so upset by this that he wrote to various important producers and directors, asking them to respond – and then published those letters in Filmindia too. I’ve forgotten who it was, but one of them was blunt enough to write that though Patel had said some awful things about his films, he agreed that Patel had never tried to blackmail him!

      I haven’t read Banno’s review yet – deliberately, because I didn’t want it to even inadvertently influence my views – but will go read it now. I’m glad she recommended this book too; I did like it a lot.

    • Very true Anu… Baburao Patel used to write good about those who were in his good books and vice-versa… i have lot of Film India Magazine… Indeed he was a good writer but he seems very bias and partial with muslims in particular… (may be bcoz of that period of independence) if u know more about Baburao then please read “Stars from another sky” by Saadat Hasan Manto (a good book to know other artists too… as those were the writings of tat period only and by those who have seen them from close.).. Baburao’s another main aspect of writing was sex and lust too …. only picture’s caption are enough to what he thinks…. but sometime u really enjoy his funny captions….

  3. What a coincidence. Just yesterday morning, I told my husband that you would be reviewing this book and based on that we should decide whether to buy it or not.
    I had not heard of Film India either till some years back. We never got any film mags at home while growing up – Filmfare and Cine Blitz were the only two I remember seeing – at doctor’s clinics…
    This book, for its value- photographs and old articles – sounds like a collector’s item. Thanks for the review, Madhu :-)

  4. We always had Filmfare, and a weekly broadsheet newspaper called Screen (my parents subscribed to an entire range of papers & magazines, actually, they still do). The most serious & least gossipy of the film magazines at the time.
    I heard of Filmindia through Greta as well!
    No one else ever seems to have seen Screen though…

    • I have come across Screen (and of course it’s also known for giving out the Screen Awards), though I don’t recall ever having read it. Sidharth does mention it in this book, as a film magazine that focussed more on the industry than on gossip (like Filmfare and Stardust were apt to do).

  5. I have something to share. Way back in the late nineties, I went to interview santoor maestro Pt Shivkumar Sharma at his residence. He resides in a building in Bandra (in northwest Bombay) that is quite close to Baburao Patel’s bungalow. During the course of the interview Pt.Sharma took me out on to his terrace and pointed out Mr. Patel’s bungalow that was perched up the hill. He mentioned that his wife Sushila Rani Patel resides there, I just listened to him without the interest that I would have shown had I then experienced what I did later. You see in 2003 the residents of Bandra decided to hold a cultural event that would include art, plays, music and dance. My brother was one of the volunteers and it was a fantastic 15 days. On one evening Sushila Rani was the guest of honour. She was introduced to the audience, she was probably in her mid eighties then, but still very elegant. That was the first time I learnt that she was a singer. When she began singing I was floored by the quality of her voice and the technique and expertise still evident in her vocal chords despite her age. Since it was the event’s inaugural year we managed to get front row seats. The event is held along the three sea faces of Bandra. Believe me it was a real pleasure. Now thanks to increasing popularity of the event, it is near impossible to get a decent seat.

    • That’s an interesting anecdote, Shilpi! Sidharth Bhatia does write quite a bit in the book about Sushila Rani’s love for her music (and her talent). Baburao Patel did not approve, it seems, of her singing, so she used to get up at some unearthly hour in the morning to do her riyaaz everyday. Sidharth mentions that he met her when she was about 92 or so, and she was still very strict about her daily riyaaz.

  6. Sounds good.
    There are some old scanned Film India magazines available online. Out of curiosity, I read them. Patel’s tirades though entertaining in the beginning, began getting on my nerves soon. The only interesting things left were the ads, the lovely colour posters, for e.g., of Mughal-E-Azam, the proposed first version with Nargis and co. and photos of star-aspirants.

    • I can imagine that if one were to read an entire magazine, mostly full of Baburao Patel’s relentless nastiness, it could get too much. In the book, since Sidharth has done some good curating, there is a judicious mix of stuff Patel has liked and (more often) stuff he hasn’t liked. So there are the bouquets to balance out the brickbats. And, of course, as you mention, the ads, colour posters, photos, etc. These – the visual element – are what really appealed to me. They’re amazing.

  7. Interesting review. I never read any film magazines growing up, a no no with my parents as many of your readers. I had seen Filmfare at relatives homes and read Screen a couple of times but never heard of Filmindia. We hardly went to the movies, I was always reading about singers, music directors and lyricists when I got a chance. Now, that I do have interest in old movies, this book seems worth buying. Will get it on my next trip to India. Thanks for your review !

    • Glad you liked the review, Neeru!

      I would certainly recommend buying the book. While it gives you a good feel of the magazine (since there are so many excerpts, both text and visual), it doesn’t bombard you with all of Baburao Patel’s ‘tirades’, which – as Harvey points out in his comment – could probably be a bit too much. And Sidharth’s bios of the Patels, and of their magazine, makes for pretty fascinating reading.

      • I was just looking at some pictures of Filmindia covers / other pictures on google. They seem to have poster quality about them, whereas Filmfare pictures look like photographs. Wonder if that is how Filmindia presented photoes, looking more like posters rather than photographs.

        • I wonder. I do know that the early photos in FIlmindia used to be hand-coloured, so maybe that adds to the poster effect? Filmfare, of course, was a later entrant to the film magazine scene, so it may even be that by the time Filmfare came around, the trend had changed too – or did Filmindia persist in its poster-like photos at the same time that Filmfare hosted regular photos?

          (Incidentally, the cover design of this book reflects the cover design of the early Filmindia issues: the centre occupied by a portrait of a star, surrounded by – as a background – a scene, often quite busy. I remember, the very first issue had a background of a very crowded town street, with people, bullock carts, caparisoned elephants and whatnot). I like the way the Patels’ portrait takes centrestage here, and the background is of all the films they wrote about.

  8. If I am not mistaken Baburao Patel was also the pioneer of the Q and A pages in Indian mags. His answers were acerbic, I recall my father saying.

    • There are quite a lot of the Q&A sections reproduced in the book. Yes, you’re right, they are quite acerbic. In fact, many of them are downright sexist, racist, or otherwise far from nice.

  9. Many full issue of Filmindia can be read online at the Media History Digital Library (mediahistoryproject.org) Dec 1937-July 1943, then 1945-1949. I would really like to recommend that website as it is a real treasure trove of old international magazines etc. of all media types, film, early radio and tv …Ive found it hours of fascinating reading…

  10. …I should have added, while on the site, hit “collections” for.a full listing as everything is not listed on the home page. Thank you!

  11. I have read a couple of stories of Film India online. It’s interesting to note how his predictions on stars like Noorjehan and Dilip Kumar were completely wrong. Sample this on Dilip Kumar – ”Devika Rani’s discovery is a weak addition to our film artistes. The actor is too thin and looks starved for many months. He needs a prolonged dose of protein and vitamins to gain strength.” This is what you call downright nasty.
    But yes, Film India is an important piece of documentation, something that is badly needed to resurrect the Indian cinema of that era for posterity.

    • Yes, even some of the excerpts in Sidharth’s book took my breath away with how nasty they were, in a very personal sort of way. Not the ‘acting needs work on’ sort of diplomatic criticism, but sheer nastiness. And that bit you’ve quoted makes me wonder whether Baburao Patel ever admitted that he was so very wrong.

      I also find some of his comments about films really odd. The way he’s lambasted CID, for instance – which, all said and done, is a fine piece of Bollywood noir – or the amount of praise he’s heaped on Chaudhvin ka Chaand – struck me as strange. But I guess that’s just a matter of opinion…

  12. @Dustedoff: It must be said in mitigation, that Indian society in the 30s/ 40s was deeply sexist- far more than it is today, as anyone who’s watched movies from that era can testify. I think Patel was not very different from most Indian men of his era. Nasty Patel definitely was, but his hypocrisy/ sexism was pretty normal in pre-independence India.

    • Ashok, I both agree as well as disagree. I disagree in that I think it’s obvious, when you look around and hear some of the utterly idiotic statements made by – for instance – politicians, you’ll see that there is still a lot of sexism around. Perhaps it’s taken a slightly different turn, what with every ill being blamed on women being more ‘Westernised’ or whatever, but those who are nasty and narrow-minded, are still there, aplenty.

      Where I do think there’s a difference is in the political correctness of the media. In Patel’s time, this blunt outspokenness may not have been so completely outrageous; today. if a journalist wrote something like that, they’d probably get sued by the offended party. The press is somewhat more circumspect about the words they use now.

      But Baburao Patel does take your breath away with his sheer nastiness. I’ve never come across anyone like that!

  13. In mid 60’s small business owners in Bombay, used to call a untrustworthy
    trader a ‘Baburao Patel’ (eg.: ‘He is a Baburao Patel’).

    Patel babuji’s modus operandi was simple – Pay-up or I will crusify your film.
    The pay-up started from day one. Lauch of a film should be advertised in FilmIndia.
    For example, see the FRONT COVER of Nov 1952 issue. Ad of SHAHENSHAH,
    to be shot in GevaColor is announced, to entice distributors.

    http://cinegems.in/filmindia-cover-november-1952/

    Even a still was not available at that moment. The film did get made (1953),
    but probably was shot in B&W and perhaps, few if any saw it

    Well, as the say in stock market The Printer made money, BabuRao Patel made money. So what, if producer (G P Sippy) went broke. 2 out of 3 is not bad ?

    SUDHIR
    Aug 12, 2015

    p.s.: SHAHENSHAH (music: S D Burman) had 1 good song – Jaam Thaam Le
    by Shamshad Begum plus one of it’s poster, featuring Kamini Kaushal
    in a seductive pose, has been used by a online music information site –

    http://www.indianscreen.com/songs.htm

    .

    • Interesting. Baburao Patel apparently tried pretty hard to dispel this notion (whether it’s true or not, I am not qualified to say, since I freely admit that I know nothing of how this all went on). There is an excerpt in Sidharth Bhatia’s book from one issue in which Patel actually defended this accusation of taking bribes to give good reviews, by printing letters from various film makers denying that he had done anything of the sort. Of course, that could in itself have been rigged… but just saying.

  14. Well, there is a whole stash of Filmindia’s available for your pleasure on archive.org. They are all from the ’30s and ’40s though, none from the 1950s.

    But what is this trigamy business of Baburao Patel? Personally, I suspect that he was a closeted homosexual…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s