She acts well only above the shoulders, especially in pathetic situations. But in the dance sequences her deformed back and squeezed up figure without any grace or contours become repulsive.”
This, describing Nargis’ performance in Aag (1948), was part of a typical review one found in Filmindia, a popular movie magazine of its time that was owned by Baburao Patel, famous Publisher, Editor, Film Critic, Filmmaker, Writer and Rajya Sabha member.
Patel launched Filmindia on his 31st birthday in 1935. The magazine was known for its style of writing, in particular, its harsh and merciless critiques of films. Hugely popular, it is said Patel’s reviews could make or break careers. Quoting Dev Anand, “He made and unmade stars. He established or destroyed a film with just a stroke of his pen. That much power he wielded then.”
Another area of close scrutiny in Filmindia was the female anatomy with various issues having a two-page spread of a scantily clad Venus Bannerjee demonstrating exercises for better breasts and buttocks among other things! Kalpana Kartik was referred to as a pigeon-chested heroine, Naseem Banu was chastised for having ball-bearing breasts, Mala Sinha was attacked for her ‘potato face’, Suraiya had to bear the insult of being called one of the Hindi screen’s ugly ducklings besides being told told her nostrils were repulsive while Noor Jehan’s face was descibed as looking aged, having seen two World Wars. The review of Bahut Din Huye (1954) says, “Savithri as Mohini cannot help being noticed because of her ample proportions. She has some oomph and looks juicy in parts!”
It is easy to see why actors and filmmakers dreaded Mr Patel. For instance, in his review of Baazi (1951), he says, “And if you forget the unholy mess the director (Guru Dutt) and those two new girls (Roopa Verman and Kalpana Kartik) make, Baazi can be seen for its beautiful bits.” In Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), for all her fine work as Chandramukhi, Vyjayanthimala was assessed as having made an emotional mess of the role while in Awaaz (1956), Mr Patel declared Rajendra Kumar looks stupid and acts stupid. The reasons? He looks stupid because he tries to look like Dilip Kumar and acts stupid because he tries to act like Dilip Kumar! For the same film, Usha Kiron’s acting talents were described as decreasing in proportion to the increase in her bulk.
Here are some more gems from the Filmindia reviews, which make for some extremely entertaining reading today…
Shree 420 (1955)
It is a pathetic piece of confusion, a sight of empty vessel making most noise, a spectacle of half-baked knowledge emitting odious odour, a sight of limited imagination fluttering gawkily in the wind. And when all is seen and heard, Shree 420 strikes one merely as to put it in the old words of the bard of Avon, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
CID is not merely an unpleasant crime tale. It is a stupid crime tale. It is thin as air and as unconvincing as a Russian prisoner’s confession.
Sippy Films Chandrakanta is another insipid costume picture, clumsily produced, stupidly directed and crammed with boredom. It makes one regret the money and time spent in seeing it and it makes one feel sorry for the money and material wasted in its production – money and material which could have been utilized for a better purpose than for turning out a trash on celluloid.
Boring, stupid and incoherent – that is Sailaab in three words. It is a picture made without imagination and without any thoughts of mercy to the spectator. As an entertainment it is miserably amateurish but as a torture it is perfect.
Shrimati 420 (1956)
In short, Shrimati 420 is one of the most stupid pictures ever produced. It is not only concentrated nonsense but the carrier of an empty-headed, anti-social philosophy.
Besides showing racketeering and deadly duels, it shows Nutan baring a nice shoulder and Dev Anand a little hairy chest and them rubbing cheeks with each other and bringing to the tropical picturegoers of India some easy lessons in air-conditioned romance.
Even in looks the picture is quite poor. The sets are cheap and crude. The photography is erratic. The sound recording is generally incompetent. The dialogue is lethally dull. The lyrics are just commonplace. The music is nothing to sing about. The direction cannot be accused of any skill, intelligence or imagination. From the performers, Tiger the dog, gives the best performance in the picture.
Kaagaz ke Phool (1959)
Guru Dutt Films’ Kaagaz ke Phool is a dismal incoherent funeral-paced picture which has hardly anything more remarkable about it than that it is the first Indian picture to be made in cinemascope, a process designed to provide an image that has more than twice as much width as height and to which squint-eyed spectators can perhaps do more justice than those with normal eyes.
Miya Bibi Razi (1960)
Stupid writing, clumsy direction and generally pedestrian performances drag the picture deep down into the squalid gutter of sloppy filmmaking. It is, in short, a picture which seems to be capable more of killing the picturegoer than his time.
And, undoubtedly, the icing on the cake…
Navrang (1959): Mental Masturbation of a Senile Soul!
With all the colour it splashes, Navrang is a colourless affair. It tells a story, of a sort, but conveys no theme. It tries to weave a fantasy but manages only a fancy-dress show. It flirts with some vague history and turns it into farce. It toys with patriotic sentiments and reduces it to sour pantomime. It promises to tell about an inspiring poet and to provide glimpses into his inspiration and a taste of his poetry and imagery. Instead it tells about an effeminate creature who looks like a street-singer and produces relentlessly pedestrian verses that might have been written by a third-rate film lyricist’s ex-cook.
But that is not say Filmindia detested all films. Sometimes the reviews were lavish in their praise as well. For instance, reviewing Ray’s masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955), the magazine noted, “It demands attention because it is truly a work of art, a picture of great lyrical charm and intense poetic power. It is a picture, which shows how celluloid can be moulded into a thing of art and beauty, how it can be made to yield poetry and emotion. Pather Panchali is a fascinating result of a creative conspiracy between a highly imaginative and sensitive director and an intensely honest and conscientious camera.”
Describing New Delhi (1956), it conceded, “New Delhi, Mohan Segal’s maiden effort in production and his third attempt in direction is a picture, which is entertaining, enlightening, purposeful and topical – all at once. In our sorry industry it is indeed an unusual feat and its young producer-director therefore draws all praise for making an intelligent effort to entertain through the usually abused film medium.”
Filmindia continued to be published till 1961 after which Patel launched Mother India, which continued with film reviews but which had far more political overtones.