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Remembering Baburao Patel, Filmindia’s fearless creator and editor

The witty writer, who was born this day (4 April) 113 years ago, enthralled thousands with his popular film magazine for nearly three decades. Journalist Sidharth Bhatia, who wrote the book The Patels of Filmindia, speaks to Cinestaan.com about what made Patel unique.

Sushila Rani and Baburao Patel

Sonal Pandya

There probably never was a man quite like Baburao Patel. The journalist, who was born on 4 April 1904 in Maswan, Maharashtra, was both loved and feared by the film industry. A former filmmaker himself, Patel launched his second film magazine, Filmindia, on his 31st birthday.

Patel had written the screenplay for and directed a number of films, including Kismet (1932) and Bala Joban (1934). However, film journalism seemed to be his calling. Sidharth Bhatia, founder and editor of The Wire, wrote the book, The Patels of Filmindia, in 2015 after discovering that Baburao's widow, Sushila Rani Patel, had preserved all the magazine copies over the years.

Bhatia, who has a deep interest in films and in history, "saw value in the personal story of love and running a magazine in difficult times. [It was] a story about what Bombay was in the 1930s and 1940s and what the film industry was. So, to me, the fascination lay in all those things. At the centre was this absolutely fascinating man who was like a colossus of his time, a kind of journalist who is difficult to find today."

Until he married Sushila Rani, Baburao Patel mostly wrote the monthly editions of Filmindia by himself. Sushila Rani came on board and helped him organize the making of the magazine. "She was like a secretary-cum-managing editor-cum-everything," Bhatia said. "[Baburao] used to receive hundreds, if not thousands, of letters per week and it was her job to list them and put them all together. He didn’t want to throw away anything. So she chose the best questions and passed them on. It was a very close working relationship."

The cover of the November 1955 edition

The much younger Sushila Rani was Baburao Patel's third wife and he already had three children when he married her. Sushila Rani's parents were initially worried about their daughter marrying Patel, but the two were extremely devoted to each other.

Filmindia was famous for its letters to the editor, to which Patel responded in style. Behold a sample question from a reader, T Ramalingeswara Rao from Gudivada, who asked Patel, 'Do you know that people write bad of you in the vernacular journals (in languages which you don't know) and what do you say about it?'

Patel's response was priceless. It is reproduced below:

Dancing at the Casino in Venice I stepped on a lady's toe. It was a clumsy thing to do and I apologised to the lady profusely. But she wouldn't have the apologies and burst out in beautiful Italian. Not imagining that so beautiful a thing can abuse and not knowing what she was saying, I said "Thank you". She got exasperated and put in some more lung exercise. My friend afterwards told me that the lady did not abuse only me, but when she was about it, she took in all my ancestors. A beautiful language from beautiful lips, who would think that it was just filthy abuse? That day I was glad, I did not know Italian. And so were my ancestors. Do you think I should learn the Vernaculars to know what filth people write?

By the way, do you mind shortening your name for postal and economic reasons? It is a bit too long for one man.

This was precisely why Baburao Patel was admired by the people who read his magazine and disliked by most of the industry. Calling Patel 'forthright’, Bhatia said, “He was also very critical about [the stars’] talent. He used to rubbish a lot of their movies and suddenly, in the middle of all that, he would take one film and praise it to the skies. Like Mother India (1957), for example, he was completely impressed with, because much of his entire effort was to promote Indianness.”

Baburao Patel

The word “fearless” came up many times during the conversation. Because that’s how Baburao Patel was. Besides questioning the talent of certain actors and actresses, he cruelly picked on certain physical attributes and was especially fond of giving nicknames to artistes in his columns. In the ‘Howlers of the month’ section of the magazine, Patel wrote, “Minerva’s next is 'Mitha Zahar' (Sweet Poison). It is coming to the Minerva Talkies sometime in December. If they are suggesting “Nasseem” [Naseem Banu, the film's leading lady] as “sweet” and “Mody” [producer-director and lead actor Sohrab Modi] as “poison”, then they are justified, as otherwise don’t risk visiting the theatre without an antidote previously poured in.”

Few stood up to the man with the acid tongue. One of them was Shanta Apte, a fiesty actress with Pune's Prabhat Films. She went to Patel's office once and whipped the editor with her riding crop.

Bhatia also recounted another incident where filmmaker V Shantaram, Patel's former friend, stated that he was a blackmailer. “Patel then issued a challenge in the magazine saying if anyone can prove that I’m a blackmailer, there is a prize of Rs500 for you. Then the producers' association issued a statement, a lot of people issued statements saying we have worked with Mr Patel and we have found that he is absolutely above board in his dealings. Despite this, the reputation of him being a blackmailer stuck."

Bhatia own view is that there was no blackmail. He said reading Baburao Patel's reviews proved that much. "I’ve not seen a single good review," he said. "So what blackmail is this? Every review is negative except for ones for Mother India or Pather Panchali. Clearly, there is no quid pro quo with Mehboob Khan, no? Or Satyajit Ray?”

The era of the outspoken film magazine ended with Filmindia. When other film magazines came on the scene from the 1960s onwards, they rarely criticized the stars or got their bad side.

Patel became a member of Parliament in 1967 from Gwalior from the erstwhile Bharatiya Jan Sangh, precursor to today's Bharatiya Janata Party. In 1960, Filmindia became the Mother India magazine and offered more political content. But through it all, Baburao Patel stayed firm in his beliefs.

“[Baburao was] against the idea of Bombay going to Maharashtra in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement," Bhatia said. "He was a Maharashtrian, but he said no, Bombay should not be handed to Maharashtra. So he was a man who wrote unpopular views and his only constituency was his readers. The readers knew this, so they praised him. I’ve seen letters from places as far as Kenya, Lahore, everywhere. The readers were everything to him.

"If you are ready to take on the biggest names, if you were to think of it in today’s terms, think of a journalist who is critical, no matter how powerful that person is,” he added.

Yet, Baburao Patel was “never offensive about the powerless and the poor. He only took on people that were well-known and powerful and I find that really gutsy."