Why you should care

Because he made Bollywood bristle.

When a famous actress called on Baburao Patel at the headquarters of movie magazine Filmindia in the late 1930s, she was angry and carrying a really big stick. Shanta Apte wanted a word — and a pound of flesh — from the founding editor and film critic after he derided her in his magazine.

On another occasion, two film producers assaulted Patel in front of Bombay’s Imperial Studio after the reviewer lambasted their movie. And filmmaker V. Shantaram once a close friend — accused Patel of blackmail. These were just a few of many scorned subjects who wanted to inflict pain on the writer, but by courting reader-wooing controversies for decades, Patel recorded and profoundly influenced the early days of Bollywood.

He was not only unsparingly acerbic, but also puerile and petty.

Skimming through his opinion columns and film reviews, it’s easy to see why Patel had enemies. He was not only unsparingly acerbic, but also puerile and petty. Actresses bore the brunt of Patel’s gratuitous obsession with their anatomies. Kalpana Kartik was “pigeon-chested,” Naseem Banu had “ball-bearing breasts,” and Noor Jehan had an aging face that had “seen two World Wars.” Patel wasn’t too impressed with V. Shantaram’s 1955 film, Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, and his headline made that point clear, reading “Mental Masturbation of a Senile Soul.”

And yet, Patel — founder of one of India’s first film magazines, set up in 1935 — mattered. He wielded clout unheard of today, with his reviews able to make or break a film. Before Patel married his third wife, Sushila Rani, in December 1945 — she later helped run Filmindia — he practically wrote the entire magazine by himself. His column, “Bombay Calling,” written under the pen name Judas, was a tongue-in-cheek take on the bigwigs of Indian cinema. Filmindia’s Q&A section invited questions from readers, who sent letters by the hundreds every month, and the answers bore Patel’s signature style: brimming with candor, humor and bite.

His reviews did suffer, however, from a lack of nuance and insight. “I don’t think he understood the complexities of filmmaking and cinema,” says Sidharth Bhatia, whose latest book, The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism, chronicles the lives and times of Patel and Rani. Patel also subjected movies to strange standards. He never warmed to crime capers, for example, because they advocated an ignoble worldview, and he attacked movies that violated the tenets of Hinduism. In 1947, Patel wrote to the Central Board of Film Certification, wanting the Dilip Kumar star vehicle Jugnu banned from cinemas because he felt it “spoiled the moralities of the country’s youth,” according to film journalist Rauf Ahmed.

For all his griping, Patel did stand up for Bombay’s film industry. Through his editorials, he complained about the lack of hygiene in theaters, criticized American filmmakers for stereotyping India and Indians, and championed better working conditions for film technicians. He also recognized and praised cinema’s rising stars, calling Pather Panchali (1955), a film that opened to poor critical response, a movie of “great lyrical charm and intense poetic power.” But most important, Patel’s writings documented a large chunk of Indian cinema’s history, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s — a period that has lost around 80 percent of movies to film decay and lack of archiving.

His reviews also caution against romanticizing the past. With only a handful of film publications in the country at that time, and with the most popular ones like Filmfare and Screen treating movies with kid gloves, Patel’s no-holds-barred reviews provide a fresh perspective to those interested in old Indian films. If Bhatia goes to Bennett Coleman’s library to look at past issues of Times of India or Filmfare to learn about flicks from the ’50s, “I just get gushy stuff,” he says, noting how Patel was “a great counterpoint.”

From that decade, shortly after India became a newly independent state, Patel’s writings in Filmindia grew increasingly political. He constantly rebuked the ruling party, the Indian National Congress, and never failed to assert his right-wing views. By the time Patel’s political ambition broadened — he contested but lost the parliamentary election in 1957 — Filmfare and Screen had begun eating into his magazine’s readership. Filmindia folded in 1960, 25 years after it opened, and resurfaced as Mother India, a magazine that focused mainly on politics but still published Patel’s film critiques.

Supported by the Jan Sangh, an Indian nationalist party, Patel fulfilled his political ambition of becoming a member of Parliament in 1967. His film-related writing dwindled, and by the time he died in 1982, Mother India was on its last legs.

Thanks to Rani’s efforts, Filmindia continued for another two and a half years, eventually folding in 1985 — 50 years after it had first launched — and giving Patel’s life’s work a climactic finish.

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