Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXV No. 20, February 1-15, 2016

Saying it like he felt it

Baburao Patel of filmindia

The Patels of filmindia – Sidharth Bhatia – Indus Source Books, PO Box No. 6194, Malabar Hill PO, Mumbai 400 006 – Price Rs. 2000.

For about 25 years, from 1935 to 1960, filmindia was the most influential and dreaded English-language film journal focussed almost entirely on Bombay-made Indian movies. The editor, who often filled the entire journal from cover to cover, was Baburao Patel (1904-1984) who did not make a secret of his being a school drop-out but learnt to write English with demoniac vigour. His being a dropout was, however, a nagging pain to him! He would have been the only example of a film journalist who built a mansion on Pali Hill, Bombay. And he had the leading film stars and producers serving refreshments and ice-cream to one another.

Baburao Patel claimed Gujarati roots and had strong views on what all made for public good. Politics was one way he could influence the flow of things statutorily and in the 1957 General Elections, he stood on a Jan Sangh ticket, and was probably the only Indian electoral candidate whose sole identity rested with films seeking to claim a Parliamentary seat by the ballot. He wrote a long explanation on why he lost the election. He stood unsuccessfully again in the 1962 elections for Gujarat, then still the homeland of Gandhi and the Congress, the political party the Mahatma nurtured. Baburao didn’t fare badly but he persisted in his attempt to get into the Parliament and he succeeded in 1967. He was quite a thorn in Parliament’s flesh but his term was cut short when Indira Gandhi split the Congress Party and dissolved the House in 1971, calling for fresh elections. Baburao was outwitted and he lost to a mighty combination of contenders. During the Emergency, his parody of press censorship was an editorial, a long essay on the benefits of vegetarianism. But that did not prevent his being thrown into prison. He could not cope with the physical aspects of prison life since he was nearing eighty and the ultimate humiliation came when he, to be released from prison, had to tender an apology.

It took more than 30 years for a kind of biography to be published of a man who, when he was alive and active, was known and admired by millions not only in India but in Hollywood circles with whom he carried a running battle for their filmic misrepresentation of anything Indian. He was threatened by some religious groups but his target was not the religion but the way the new neighbour always kept up an air of uncertainty and tension. Many of his friends were Muslims, foremost being producer Mehboob Khan and actor Dilip Kumar.

Baburao literally chased and made a much younger girl his second wife. Sushila Rani was a Saraswat Brahmin and a post-graduate lawyer while Baburao was a school-dropout Vanjara, another name for the nomadic Banjaras. Sushila Rani was also an accomplished singer and by nature self-effacing. While Baburao allowed her to share some amount of editorial work, he was against her giving public performances. It was a contradiction because as part of his wooing her, he made a film titled Draupadi casting Sushila Rani as Draupadi. The film was a success. It was a ruse, for, after marriage, Sushila Rani didn’t participate in films.

Baburao was a staunch friend and well-wisher of Mehboob, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and S.S.Vasan. (When Madhubala felt she needed to speak English with some fluency, Baburao put her on to Sushila Rani.) His reviews of their films were extravagantly favourable and he would often mention Mehboob taking time to pray five times a day. He persuaded Dilip Kumar to act in Vasan’s Insaniyat. Baburao went to Tirupati and then visited Madras. Probably because he was told it was unique, he wrote a devastating account of Balasaraswati’s dance. He said “it was like a baby elephant rolling its eyes.” It was also one occasion when he let Sushila Rani sing. It was at the prestigious Music Academy, Madras, for a late evening programme of the annual music festival. (I attended her concert. In those days, North Indian classical music and solo instrumental performances were reserved for the late evening and Ravi Shankar would break his playing at midnight to say “I wish you all A Happy New Year.”)

Baburao’s sons by his earlier marriage didn’t match their father in his resourcefulness and command of expression and Sushila Rani lost her interest to carry on with her husband’s journal after his death. She was an artist and not one who relished controversies. She had none to call her own child – Baburao had undergone vasectomy before he married her – but she was proud of Baburao’s journals (in 1960, Baburao made filmindia into Mother India) and preserved them with diligence and reverence.

Baburao was undisputedly the most loved and feared journalist as long as he confined himself to films. His reviews of films weren’t to be taken at face value and yet they were a delight to read. His inventiveness with English language, his original similes – once he commended the acting of an actress but also added “she was beginning to look like an inverted shuttle-cock” – were unmatched not only in film journalism but Indian journalism as a whole. The vigour with which he wrote his column Bombay Calling was a sheer delight even if one didn’t know whom Baburao was referring to. Many readers believed his ‘Question-Answer’ section of his magazine was among the best of such columns carried by any journal in any part of the world. If ‘New Yorker’ had a ‘Talk of the Town,’ filmindia had ‘Bombay Calling.’ As part of ‘Bombay Calling,’ he ran a veiled gossip column with a subtitle ‘You’ll hardly believe.’

Sidharth Bhatia has succeeded in making his biography of the Patels into a coffee-table book. He had the advantage of co-operation from Sushila Rani who allowed him to go through the entire collection of the journal. The book has an interesting foreword by actor Aamir Khan.

– Ashokamitran Thyagarajan

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