Check out this DNA Article by Roshni Nair mentioning Tanqeed and me.
Once upon a time there were gossip columns that were daring, juicy and joyous even, free of PR pressures and vested interests. With corporate compulsions robbing columns of much of their spice, Roshni Nair walks down gossip lane to analyse changing trends and remember ‘stars’ like Devyani Chaubal, Baburao Patel and the unsung columnists who shaped our growing years
Photo Credit – Pinkvilla, Memsaabstory
It’s the stuff of gossip legend. The irreverent Devyani Chaubal, the queen of natter who spawned many an imitation, incurred the white-hot wrath of Dharmendra for writing about his alleged sexcapades. “He was known to be a bit of a stud; Devyani’s account made him out to be a superstud. She wrote about how he serviced two to three starlets every day in the studios before he returned home to do his ‘home work’ on his wife’s bed…” the equally-irreverent Khushwant Singh wrote in his book, Women and Men in my Life. That Devi claimed to have been chased by the actor at a rally is well-known. Only, opinions differ on whether it was because she went to town about his sex life, or called Hema Malini a ‘stale idli’.
Celebrity-driven and venomous vintage gossip was both juicy and joyous. It reflected the uninhibited personality of the woman who died in 1995, her lonely sunset years a sharp contrast from her incident-filled prime. She is largely remembered for her relationship with Rajesh ‘Kaka’ Khanna. Some say she was a friend, some say she was in love with him. Devi herself claimed in an interview that she’d slept with him.
Her column Frankly Speaking in Star & Style and Eve’s Weekly magazines struck fear in the hearts of film stars. With a stroke of her pen, she demolished carefully-moulded casts of celluloid gods, exposed their frailties, then rubbed it in with some merciless mocking. More often than not, Frankly Speaking allowed its witty maker to get away with murder.
Regardless of what one makes of Devi’s venom (she once said Anil Kapoor looks like “an ordinary pickpocket”) and Kaka obsession, there’s no denying her influence on the Indian gossip column. It was she who popularised Hinglish — a style taken forward by Stardust‘s first editor, Shobhaa De (then Shobha Rajadhyaksha).
“Devi had an outstandingly sharp tongue and mind and a good ear for chatter, much like you need a good eye to be a curator,” says author Namita Gokhale, who published the film magazine Super with her husband, the late Rajiv Gokhale. “Hers was a distinct voice. The writing reminded you of the confidential sharing between two people, making you feel like you were the only one privy to the information. This intimacy is at the heart of the gossip column. And you don’t see it anymore.”
The gossip column should have ideally gone from strength to strength as the years passed, but no. Today’s columns, pale shadows of their glorious antecedents, have diluted, planted or stale contents passing off as ‘gossip’. Their dull personas fill us with nostalgia for the gossip columns of yore and the man who started it all — 35 years before Devi.
It wouldn’t be right to call Baburao Patel, editor-publisher of filmindia, a gossip columnist. He was more a reviewer. But his fabled snark dwarfed even Devi’s and set the tone for the kind of writing one saw in columns over time. filmindia‘s three columns, Bombay Calling, You’ll Hardly Believe That… and Pictures in Making had Patel sign off as ‘Hyacinth’ or ‘Judas’. “The entire mode of gossip is marked by innuendo, and filmindia was a master of innuendo. Most of it was in answers to letters because people wanted to verify rumours they’d heard about stars and studios. Sometimes, it would appear in the Studio Notes section,” informs Neepa Majumdar, author of Wanted Cultured Ladies Only, a book on Indian cinema and actresses of the 1930s-1950s.
Patel’s deadpan, offensive humour, which found an audience in no time, has fans even today. One of them is Greta Kaemmer, a vintage Hindi film buff and blogger at Memsaabstory who scans whatever filmindia copies she gets her hands on. “Stardust magazines from the ’70s were gleefully gossipy, but filmindia is my all-time favourite because of Baburao’s wit. Today’s film columns are poorly written and researched, and mostly unimaginative,” she feels.
(An April 1957 celeb descriptor from filmindia‘s Pictures in Making column. Nirupa Roy was one of the many Baburao Patel loved to pick on. Source – Memsaabstory)
It’s an opinion shared by film historian SMM Ausaja, who says Patel’s vitriol was not only extreme, but also taken sportingly by most: “When V. Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje was released, the (review) headline Patel used was ‘Mental Masturbation of a Senile Soul’. He said Prithviraj Kapoor was an ‘uncouth Pathan who shouldn’t be in the industry’, that Dilip Kumar looked like ‘an escaped prisoner’ and Kishore Kumar reminded him of a monkey. But they took it in their stride.” Of course, there were exceptions. “Patel once said something that angered (actress) Shanta Apte so much that she went to his office and slapped him,” Ausaja says.
Baburao Patel went on to become founder-editor of the political magazine Mother India, establish a homeopathic company called Mother India Pharmaceuticals and member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (now BJP). But it’s filmindiathat he remains synonymous with.
(Baburao Patel being snarky like only he could. The ‘victim’ here was Padmini. Source- Memsaabstory)
Writing about gossip without mention of Nari Hira’s Stardust is like Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce. It was not only the cult Neeta’s Natter column, but the magazine as a whole that catapulted gossip to astral levels. The nicknames it gave people – from ‘La Tagore’ for Sharmila Tagore and ‘Mumu’ for Mumtaz to ‘Garam Dharam’ for Dharmendra and ‘Chi Chi’ for Govinda – became Stardust‘s calling card. “Stardust projected familiarity with the stars and caught on like no other film magazine ever had,” says film journalist Dinesh Raheja. Not least for the way in which it bared the stars of the day.
(Neeta’s Natter- ‘Gifts for Stars’. Source- Jai Arjun Singh)
Neeta’s Natter, honed by the raillery of Mohan Bawa but presented by a bejewelled black feline, was mostly about catfights and who was sleeping with who – sometimes in the form of a ‘blind item’ or a piece of gossip where people weren’t directly named, but alluded to. It took little time for Stardust to emerge a winner in the magazine wars of the 1970s. Veteran journalist Rauf Ahmed, who edited Super before moving to Filmfare, Movie, Screen and Premiere, harks back to the decade: “Stardust would tell you who did what at midnight and who was fighting with whom. Filmfarealmost collapsed as it became viewed as boring or ‘vegetarian’. I think much of the gossip was overblown – maybe not by Stardust, but by its sources, who may have added masala to seem more relevant.”
Super, which surfaced in 1976, had three gossip columns: Grapevine, Deep Throat and Bitchin’, fine-tuned by Dubby Bhagat (an alumni of the cult magazine, Junior Statesman). That’s how columns worked: industry insiders gave the dope, and writers or editors put the punch across. Super‘s sources would get Rs 50 for each piece of gossip, shares Namita Gokhale.
(Zeenat Aman on the cover of Super, October 1977. Source – Pinkvilla)
“Our gossip was sardonic and bitchy, not scandalous,” laughs Ahmed. “The staff at Super was carefree and enthusiastic. We didn’t seek favours – in fact, we’d be the ones taking actors out for coffee, not the other way round. I remember for our first cover story, Namita said ‘Take Dimple (Kapadia) to Rendezvous (at Taj Mahal Palace) and interview her there.’ That standard of interacting with people isn’t there now.”
The rampaging Stardust, meanwhile, was boycotted by Amitabh Bachchan, allegedly over a story on him and Zeenat Aman. Saumit Sinh, founder-editor of the Mumbaiwalla blog, provides the backdrop. “Bachchan met with Dilip Kumar and five-six others who were ‘harassed’ by the magazine. But Stardust got to know about it and published the story about the boycott. Later, during the Emergency, many publications such as Stardust were clamped down on. Thinking Bachchan’s friendship with the Gandhis was to blame, Nari Hira created an association of film magazines, which collectively decided to not write about him,” he says.
Regardless, Stardust continued with the gossip without directly naming Bachchan, instead referring to him as “‘Jaya Bhaduri’s husband’ or ‘Lambu’. The stalemate eventually ended after the release of Bachchan’s 1991 film Ajooba.
It is naive to believe that gossip wasn’t a bitter pill for some even in the bohemian 1970s. But compare the columnist’s autonomy then versus now, and one realises that it’s a sorry state of affairs, what with defamation or libel lawsuits flying in all directions. Legal charges against writers did exist, but they weren’t as plentiful as today. “I remember a gossip item about Raaj Kumar telling a director ‘Jaani, tumhare sar se Bijnor ke tel ki boo aati hai‘ when asked why he didn’t want to act in his film. Nobody could file a court case against something like this. It was such fun to read about,” says Gokhale.
Beyond (linguistic) boundaries
Gossip’s appeal took it beyond the confines of English magazines into regional publications, where it caught on like wildfire. Rangbhoomi, a Hindi magazine dating to the 1930s, may have been the genesis for others of its kind: Cinema Sansar, and the much younger Filmi Duniya and Filmi Kaliya. But the gold star is Mayapuri, the oldest Hindi film weekly that was – and still is – a staple in barber shops across the country. Its popularity has much to do with the late poet-dramatist KP Saxena, who with his Lakhnavi tehzeeb and biting satire infused new life into the Hindi gossip column.
“Saxenasaab was so gifted,” says Mayapuri editor PK Bajaj. “He was a perceptive social commentator, a fixture at Kavi Sammelans and the dialogue writer of Lagaan, Swades and Jodhaa Akbar. His writing, although never scandalous, had a pan-Indian reach. In fact, he had legions of fans even in Pakistan.”
(The December 29, 1974 edition of Mayapuri magazine, featuring Hema Malini on the cover. Source- Mayapuri)
KP Saxena, however, was of a rare breed. The English film gossip boom in the 1970s led to similar (and numerous) offshoots in vernacular media, and most tried to mimic Devyani Chaubal’s writing style. Author-journalist Dilip Thakur, who writes on Hindi and Marathi cinema, remembers the ‘Devi wave’. “Editors would ask us to write like her. Regional magazines ko itna readership mila ki poocho mat,” he says. “But this wasn’t so in Marathi publications. Gossip was muted until the 1980s – when Varsha Usgaonkar and Ashwini Bhave came into the picture.”
Marathi periodicals may have warmed up to gossip later than their linguistic cousins, but Thakur is quick to add that this doesn’t mean they were blind to it. An example is the hullabaloo raised almost 80 years ago, when Meenakshi Shirodkar – grandmother of Shilpa and Namrata Shirodkar – became the first Indian woman to wear a swimsuit on screen, in the 1938 Marathi film Brahmachari. “Marathi papers went berserk. It was a controversy so big that it sprouted andolans,” he laughs.
Is gossip dead?
Gossip of the scandalous kind became non-existent in the 2000s, giving way to tamer versions, including in Neeta’s Natter. Many hold the corporatisation of both, the Hindi film industry and publications, responsible. And although celebrity managers like Bunny Reuben (Raj Kapoor’s publicist) were around, they’d recede once a rapport with their clients was established. “We had personal access. This allowed you to observe stars closely, notice idiosyncrasies, be privy to interesting conversations, and bring that in your writing. You could also count the number of publications on your hand, so the celebrity-journalist equation was valued. Now they rarely remember names,” says Dinesh Raheja.
Rauf Ahmed also points to the influx of award shows. Publications need stars to attend their shows in order to get eyeballs, meaning they can’t be as catty as they once were. “Now there’s a fear of writing anything that would make a celebrity avoid your show. Earlier, stars were obliged to magazines. It’s the other way round today. We’ve now got a Gabbar Singh culture.”
Compulsions like these are downers for people who grew up in the golden age of gossip. Those were the days periodic subscriptions or visits to the library were occasions entire families looked forward to, just to get their hands on the latest gupshup tinsel town had to offer.
Rafi Mohammed was one of those people. He started his blog Tanqeed seven years ago to post film reviews, but veered towards posting old magazine scans, interviews and articles after spotting an old Gulzar interview on a fan page. That took Rafi back to his teenage years, when he’d buy magazines every Sunday from hawkers or hop over to a relative’s house to read Filmfare. “Actors back then weren’t accessible to the general public, so any news, gossip or interview was eagerly awaited. Today, most gossip is just PR for some upcoming movie. And celebrities no longer have mystery or enigma,” he says, listing Rekha’s Filmfare interview about Amitabh Bachchan and the Sanjay Khan-Zeenat Aman article in CineBlitz as his top picks.
Indeed, planted stories are a norm – which is why much of the gossip now finds its way online (an exception being Rajeev Masand’s column in Open). One such site is Pinkvilla, whose US-based publisher Nandini Shenoy says she started the blog to cater to the gossip-hungry crowd. “People like to read about scandals, affairs and controversies. This only reiterates that there’s interest in gossip. Yet, pressure to pull down stories through PR managers and other influencers is equally high,” she shares in an email interview, adding that the gossip column as it existed is dead.
Naysayers feel gossip columns allow for false claims, propaganda by vested interests and little to no fact-checking or research, but others beg to differ. Their sources, they say, are trustworthy, and claims or news are verified before being published. Archita Kashyap, senior editor at Pinkvilla, elaborates: “Even for blind items, we have solid information. For pieces in which people are named, we make sure there are at least two-three sources. Corroborating is important. If I don’t get a second corroboration, I keep things open-ended. At the end of the day, we’re all voyeurs. And what’s the point of being a journalist if you have to go through ‘right channels’ to get news? Then you’re not a journalist.”
The twilight zone
Gossip about actors, actresses and filmmakers is still easy to access compared to chatter about corporates and politicians. Just ask Delhi-based ‘Jack’, who manages the no holds barred Fashionscandal. A former journalist, Jack established his own site for gossip after the pressures of print journalism got his goat. His uninhibited way of covering the shadowy lives of the rich and famous culminated into 47 legal cases, of which four are ongoing. “I’m very proud of my reputation as a besharam, because I have reliable sources and people hate me for it. But gossiping about corporates and politicians is dangerous. I’ve been beaten, blackmailed and summoned by cops for writing about them,” says the man who’s written about Mallika Sherawat’s purported sugar daddy gifting her the Los Angeles villa she stays in for a good part of the year.
But it’s not just netas and businesspeople who seem safeguarded against gossip of the investigative kind. Saumit Sinh, who says he was arm-twisted by the National Stock Exchange (NSE) for writing about a supposed illegal lapse by the bourse, thinks social reportage is dead too. The belief isn’t far-fetched, for we’re no longer privy to ‘Page 3’ coverage and tell-alls about the affluent, the wannabes and everyone in between. High society isn’t covered like it once was. “All so-called entertainment pages would once cover society, but now, it’s like the only celebrities are Shahrukh and Salman,” says Sinh, who also laments the dearth of genuine, credible insiders.
Columnists today write several times a week, and much of it is boring, feels Outlook contributor and former UN diplomat Bhaichand Patel. Political columnists were always few and far between, with Khushwant Singh, Vinod Mehta and Behram ‘Busybee’ Contractor holding fort. But their writing was far superior to what you see today. And papers like Current — in which Devyani Chaubal broke the story about Dilip Kumar’s nikaah with Asma while he was married to Saira Banu – and Russi Karanjia’s political weekly Blitz aren’t around anymore. “People don’t write about politicians’ or corporates’ private lives. That’s an unwritten rule, unless they get into trouble. Then it’s a free-for-all,” says Patel, adding that advertising obligations double as muzzles. “Baburao Patel wrote scandalous things about actors and filmmakers of that era, to the extent that some stopped advertising in filmindia. But he didn’t care.”
A senior journalist, on condition of anonymity, bemoans that even vaunted columnists avoid writing about something as plain as tycoons or ministers having romantic liaisons. “A former PM had a journalist-girlfriend. He was unmarried, so it’s not like he was doing anything wrong. Yet, no one dared mention it. Another former PM has a biological daughter few outside political and journalistic circles know about. It’s not reporters, but newspaper proprietors who don’t want these things going public,” he says.
There is an invisible Lakshman rekha political journalists don’t cross. Which is why some anonymously share what they know on other platforms. “The Daily Telegraph or London Times‘ reporters often contribute incognito to Private Eye magazine if certain compulsions prevent them from writing about something in their own papers. We don’t have anything like that in India,” says Bhaichand Patel.
Gossip – or fact – may be circulating about the not-so-savoury private lives of politicians, but it rarely finds its way into the public domain. That’s the stuff confined to press clubs, drawing rooms and the various Lutyens handles on Twitter.
Devi and Baburao Patel may not have approved.