Literary Review

The Patels of Filmindia: A delicious potboiler

The cover of The Patels of Filmindia  

The story began, as author Sidharth Bhatia writes in his introduction, in 2010, when he was researching for a book on Navketan films. With typical journalistic curiosity, he dug deep into stashes of magazines in the home of Sushila Rani Patel, wife of Baburao Patel. Both husband and wife had put together and published Filmindia, a periodical that delighted readers and created fear among Indian celebrities, in 1935. The book is their story, with all the ingredients of a delicious potboiler: romance and betrayal, love and drama.

Baburao was an arrogant, acerbic and extremely talented urbanite who firmly believed that the world was his oyster. He was generally tactless, funny, and fearless, all the qualities that were prized in a writer who focussed on the lives of celebrities. Baburao drew the blueprint for a genre of film journalism that is practiced often today, and accumulated a huge fan following that could have, in contemporary terms of reference, broken Twitter, if social networking of that kind had existed in his day.

Baburao was born on April 4, 1904 into the Vanzara community in Maswan, a small village about 100 kilometres outside Bombay (as it was called then), to Pandurang Vithal Patil and his wife Jamuna. Patil morphed into Patel, Jamuna died, Pandurang got married again and the family moved to the big city. Baburao studied at St. Xavier’s school, but dropped out early to work for a newly launched magazine, Cinema Samachar, which was reportedly published in Hindi, English and Urdu.

That was merely the beginning. Baburao went on to make five films between 1929 and 1935. Then he partnered with D.N. Parker in a printing venture, but the two of them decided to start a film magazine that could be supported with advertisements issued by people they knew. The monthly Filmindia was launched in April 1935 and evolved gradually with the times and with Baburao’s interests. He wrote most of the magazine himself, sparing nobody in the industry, ruthlessly using in his writing any insider’s information he could access about the stars. He wrote film reviews from the heart, praising the ones he liked and trashing the ones that he disliked. But even as the magazine gained admirers, Baburao’s financial problems increased. At some point he found himself bankrupt, his wife Shireen somehow eking out a meagre budget to feed four children and the two adults.

In 1942, Baburao “met with the most pleasant accident of my life”, as he wrote in his magazine in 1960. The “accident” was Sushila Rani Tombat, a young singer from Chennai, who was the daughter of a lawyer. After finishing school and college, Sushila moved to Udaipur to become a teacher, but a medical problem took her to Bombay for treatment, where she met and married Baburao. But Sushila would always remain Baburao’s second wife, a situation made even more awkward when Baburao moved Shireen and his family into a large house he acquired along the way. There were other liaisons too, some as steamy as those of the celebrities that Filmindia featured.

The magazine evolved. From being a gossip journal, Filmindia slowly became a more political publication, its pages echoing with the strident sentiments of Baburao’s commentaries. Finally, in July 1960, Baburao announced that since his magazine no longer dealt exclusively with film-related content, it would need to be renamed: Mother India was born two months later. Even after Baburao’s death in 1982, Sushila continued to publish the magazine until its 50th anniversary — that was something they had decided. Once that task was completed, she went back to music, performing frequently at concerts, which her husband had prevented her from doing when he was alive. Sushila taught a selective few students and supported the cause of classical Hindustani music tirelessly. She kept the memory of Baburao alive until she passed away on July 24, 2014.

Bhatia chronicles this story with precision. He takes a dispassionate feature-reportage approach, but his liking for Sushila is clear in his introduction. What makes this book a treasure is the second half, which is a compilation of film reviews, articles and segments of Baburao’s famous questions and answers. Many film writers and readers today may never have seen a copy of Filmindia, some may not even have heard of it, but with this volume, they will all be able to appreciate that slice of our journalistic heritage.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 2:13:36 PM |

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