Filmindia to Blitz: The Inside Story & Spice of B’wood Magazines

Today, there are just three major English language film magazines – Filmfare, Stardust, Cine Blitz – exclusively devoted to Bollywood.

Back in the 1950s to the 1990s, their number was uncontainable. That a handful have survived – along with internet editions – and combated the competition from a plethora of film-centric websites is a miracle by itself.

Print Then and Now

A film magazine from the 1930s.

Over recent years, talk had circulated that Nari Hira’s trend-setting Stardust was heading for a shutdown. Yet Neeta’s Natter – albeit with clipped claws – continues to purr on. Chatfests about star liaisons or the lack of them are spicier on TV shows, led by Karan Johar’s long-running Koffee with Karan. Cine Blitz, which had been taken over by the fugitive liquor baron Vijay Mallya has now reportedly changed hands, and is still visible on book stores’ racks.

To estimate the circulation stats of the surviving magazines is hazardous. As a fanzine freak from the early 1960s onwards, I can merely say that the movie magazine fever of the earlier decades is done. And that’s no trade secret.

The profusion that was of film trade weeklies and of film magazines in Hindi and Urdu are another epic story altogether.

There’s been a twist in the plot since the turn of the millennium. Covers of high-glossy fashion magazines – Indian progeny of their international big daddies – are being way more hankered after by the Bollywood A-listers. In addition, exclusive destination wedding pictures are believed to fetch cushy sums for the movie couples.

Be that as it may, the flourishing fanzines of yore can still boast of the most memorable covers and colour spreads in the inside pages, clicked by photographers who became legends in their own right, be it the late Jitendra Arya, Dhiraj Chawda and Gautam Rajadhyakshya.

Their credo was to make stars look flawlessly beautiful, the film shoots enhancing the star mystique. No press agents would dare to intervene or insist on monitoring the styling and costume designs. No fashionistas and stylists would be plugged.

Yesteryear actor Nutan photographed for Filmindia magazine.

When the intervention reached absurd proportions in the digital era, most glam photographers chose to extend their metier to advertising and portfolio shoots.

The subject of movies, itself, has been blindsided since the focus is infinitely dedicated to fashionware and lifestyles mores, complete with plush interiors of star homes, holiday vignettes and largely innocuous tetes-a-tetes.

This changeover of film print content has been inevitable, in sync with the norm established by Hollywood’s mega-stars. Right down from Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie to Idris Alba and Jennifer Lawrence on the eve of their just-about-to-premiere projects feature in exclusive chats and cover clicks for Vogue, Elle and Vanity Fair to name three prime examples.

The vintage mags Photoplay, Screen Stories and Silver Screen have evaporated with the wind.

Fighting for Survival

Mumbai-based magazines have been dependent on televised events – particularly the annual award presentation – for sustenance. Although the revenue from the sales and subscriptions mostly cover the infrastructural costs, the widely rotated sponsored events, on the air, assure that revenues from the telecasts keep them alive and kicking. 

Filmfare retains its position as the awards leader. Stardust strived to get a share of the award pie but so far, hasn’t touched astral heights.

The venerable broadsheet Screen is no longer in print; the online edition has been preserved, culminating in an award show before the end of the year. Its advantage point, to a degree, is that the Screen Awards in late December kicks off the award season.

Indeed, there has been a sharp rise in the number of award ceremonies – notably organised by the Zee TV channel group and presumably the year’s last but not the least overseas show organised by the grandiose-sounding International Indian Film Academy Awards. Balaji Telefilms’ Film Awards show, helmed by Ekta Kapoor, surprisingly turned out to be a flash in the pan.

Glossy Heydays

A cover of the erstwhile Filmindia magazine.

So am I complaining about whatever happened to the good old film magazines which held the immediate pre-Independence in a thrall? Categorical answer: NO. With technological evolution accompanied by the shifts in readership tastes, the multitude of platforms accessible to stars for publicity and the natural shifts in cinema content, it would be foolish to cling on to ye old memories.

Nostalgia is a mist-mufflered emotion which differs from every individual to individual. The clear picture is that there isn’t anything like “buy your copy now from the nearby stall.” A majority of stalls and vendors – whether at Mumbai’s Churchgate station junction or at New Delhi’s Connaught Place – have long moved hopefully to greener pastures. Glossies, offered at discount subscriptions, are delivered at the doorstep. That market element of ‘impulsive’ buying from the stalls is extinct. Quite curiously, down the decades research teams of film magazines have indicated that a female star on the cover is snapped up way faster than those of the heroes.

For instance, during the ’90s a Madhuri Dixit or Sridevi on the cover of Filmfare would outsell even a scoop picture of Aamir Khan-Shah Rukh Khan together. There would be exceptions, of course, like the Movie magazine cover of Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan, which was an instant sell-out.

The issue of Movie magazine with Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna on the cover was a hit.

Experimenting was a no-no. A Filmfare Annual cover showing Kajol with the real-life Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi, was a certified flop.

The marketing of film magazines needed ingenuity. When the Filmfare circulation was dipping towards the early ’90s, the attachment of a free consumer product (a shampoo sachet or a soap) worked wonders. In addition, special monthly editions with pages devoted to Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam cinema proved to be a rescue factor.

Gossip mattered, and always will. There has never been another Devyani Chaubal, the doyenne of scandal and scoops, who wrote the column Frankly Speaking in Star & Style magazine edited by Gulshan Ewing. The columnist didn’t spare any of the superstars, be it Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh Bachchan.

Chaubal and Krishna, columnist of the tabloid Blitz, were threatened in the midst of a public film rally. Krishna was beaten up black and blue by ‘Garam Dharam’. Chaubal, who had incurred the actor’s wrath for calling Hema Malini ‘a stale idli’, had taken to her heels.

Sharmila Tagore on the cover of a vintage issue of Filmfare.

Gossip and star profiles-cum-interviews were shunned by the mainstream newspapers till the advent of Sunday colour supplements. The ‘chi chi’ attitude towards Bollywood faded steadily but surely, even becoming the subject of Sunday lead stories and front page anchor analyses, mid-1980s onwards.

If I am being evasive of my stint as editor of Filmfare for nine years till 2002, it’s because I was more its fan-boy than an editor. For better or worse, I attempted to play a dual role simultaneously by keeping my post as the media editor and film critic of the Times of India newspaper.

Filmfare had its heyday between the ’60s and ’70s.

Truly, the magazine, had experienced its best days during the tenure of BK Karanjia (1961-1978), who doggedly worked towards supporting the parallel cinema movement, in his ancillary capacity as the chairman of the central government-backed Film Finance Corporation (later to be named National Film Development Corporation).

Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil as much as stalwarts Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak, and the young Turks –Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani – were promoted zealously by Karanjia, with Bikram Singh as his deputy and then the magazine’s editor. Would a mainstream film magazine dare to do its own thing today? Not likely.

Neither would an editor have the guts to speak his mind like Baburao Patel did with Filmindia, later renamed Mother India. His reviews often went over the top, his choice verdict being that most films were suitable for viewing only by ‘criminals and congenital idiots’. Once Filmfare entered the scene in 1952, Patel tried to keep afloat. Filmfare celebrated the Bombay film industry, while FilmIndia and Mother India sought to desecrate it.

Portrait of a Time

According to film research analyst Rohit Sharma, vintage copies of Filmindia, Filmfare and even a quaint pocket-sized monthly, Picturpost, published from Chennai, are accessible on select internet sites at prohibitive prices. In the absence of books and archived material on the film industry, they serve as vital research sources.

“Old Indian films magazines now listed on international auctions and e-commerce sites, are priced between $ 75 to $ 100 a piece,” Sharma points out, adding, “Pages torn out of the magazines, carrying portraits of heroines Madhubala and Meena Kumari or simply cover portraits of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand are most-in demand by collectors. Sellers based in Jodhpur and Jaipur are believed to have a list of NRI clients in Canada, the US and UK who have a penchant for movie memorabilia.”

Informative and profusely illustrated, indeed there’s been so much more to fanzines than that all-too-handy term, nostalgia. Believe me, it’s all there in yesterday’s magazines, fair or unfair.

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