I had long heard of Baburao Patel, read excerpts from Filmindia’s reviews, and marveled at Patel’s outrageous comments on the films, actors, directors and writers of his time. But these glimpses remained sporadic, though tantalizing.
Sidharth Bhatia’s book, The Patels of Filmindia, is in format, a coffee table book. The book is well designed with an easy to read layout and lots of picture plates adding much value to it.
This design serves well for the material compiled here – a variety of articles and reviews that appeared in Filmindia, a magazine which was published for 50 years from 1935-1985, though as Mother India from 1961 with far more political overtones, several Q&A posts that appeared there with Baburao Patel’s witty and opinionated one line answers to questions from readers and lots and lots of plates of illustrations of advertisements, film posters, actors’ photos from the magazine. These are not only a delight to flip through but also valuable archival material, so rare, of the films and film history of the time.
The one photo that to me is the most priceless in the collection that Bhatia has presented, is the one of the writers of Filmindia at Prabhat Studio with V Shantaram. During a Christmas visit, Shantaram made them all wear the traditional headgear from the costumes department and pose for the camera. Manto and Baburao stand amidst the group, obviously at unease in their fancy dress.
Thankfully, much of this material was lovingly preserved by Sushila Rani Patel, Baburao Patel’s wife and partner over 40 years, and generously handed over to the writer for the purpose of the book. Bhatia’s 2-3 years friendship with Sushila Rani before her death in the course of his research for the book, and his affection for her, jumps through the pages. Her memories of the time, the people Baburao Patel and she met and mingled with, add a lively touch to the history of Filmindia. The love story between Baburao Patel and Sushila Rani and their relationship, not quite perfect, though spoken of with reticence, lend a personal dimension to their public profiles. We get a glimpse of the varied interests Baburao had, from homeopathic medicine to poster girls, to travel, elections and the sacredness of Indian culture. And also of Sushila Rani’s struggle to keep her music alive, in the face of Baburao Patel’s possessiveness and demands.
Bhatia’s own account of the Patels and Filmindia is limited to recounting the lives of the Patels and the magazine. He does not elaborate on the context or the times in which they wrote and lived. But the excerpts from the magazine somewhat make up for this, giving us a vivid enough account of the time in which Baburao wrote, not only of the world of cinema, but also of politics and the nation.
Baburao Patel’s reviews of films are not limited to story synopsis but also talk of technique, craft and production values. His opinions on films, politics and Indian culture are unashamedly strong and frank, which makes him a delight to read even when one may not agree with his opinions and positions. He was completely politically incorrect in his writing, and the fact that the magazine ran for so long with advertisements from the very people whose films he trashed, speak of the popularity Filmindia enjoyed.