Baburao Patel’s Filmindia was the only film magazine of any significance for 20 or so years from the time of its launch in 1935. There were many imitations but none came close in content or popularity. It was written in a style all its own—witty as well as outrageous. It loved exposing the shenanigans of filmstars and was not afraid of taking names. As a teenager, I used to wait impatiently for the next issue to arrive by boat in distant Fiji. It was not the most reliable magazine but was fun to read. The film reviews were often very rude and got personal. Kalpana Kartik was ‘pigeon-chested’, Mala Sinha had a ‘potato face’ and poor Suraiya was an ‘ugly duckling’. Buxom actresses were praised for their ‘assets’. Dev Anand was ‘spineless’, V. Shantaram had ‘negroid characteristics’.
Bhatia’s book traces the life and times of Baburao Patel, who had the reputation of being anti-Muslim, even though his three best friends—Mehboob Khan, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala—were Muslims. Mehboob migrated to Pakistan at Partition. When he realised his mistake and came back, Baburao helped him get his Bandra studio back. Dilip was having an affair with a popular filmstar who happened to be married and Hindu. Her brother, an army man, was after them with a pistol. He turned to Baburao for help. As for Madhubala, she was the darling of Filmindia and Sushila Rani, Baburao’s wife, gave her English lessons.
Filmindia’s popularity came to an end when Filmfare, slicker and smarter, arrived in 1952. With its virtual monopoly on films coming to end, Filmindia turned more to politics. In 1967, Baburao stood for Lok Sabha elections on a Bharatiya Jan Sangh ticket and won from Madhya Pradesh. He was a Maharashtrian, whose real name was Baburao Patil. Sushila Rani Tombat was a beauty and a trained classical singer whom Baburao pursued and married. The bride soon found out that her husband was a man of many parts. She knew that Baburao had another wife and children, but that was allowed for Hindus under the laws of that time. What she didn’t know was that there was also a third wife tucked away, someone he had married when he was nineteen. There was more. Sushila Rani was distressed to learn that she would not be able to bear children. Her husband had undergone a vasectomy, presumably to avoid impregnating his girlfriends. Surprisingly, the marriage to a man 13 years her senior was a happy one.
With the magazine’s circulation continuing to dwindle, it was renamed Mother India in 1960 in the hope that it would attract a wider readership. No such luck. After Baburao’s death, his widow kept the monthly going for three more years in order to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It had become a lost cause many years earlier. A few years back, Sushila Rani sued me for defamation for something I had written about her late husband, but we sorted out the matter amicably.
Sidharth Bhatia’s book is invaluable to anyone interested in the early history of Indian cinema. Some of Filmindia’s columns, reviews and the delightfully malicious ‘questions and answers’ pages are reproduced. They give us the essence of the magazine. The reproductions of some of the covers and film advertisements are by themselves worth the price.