The Bombay film poster
THE film poster created for the popularization and marketing of the moving image has enjoyed a unique history ever since the birth of the cinema. Like the cinema, the poster has also gone through radical transformations linked to new technology and the proliferation of visual culture in the 20th century. In India, like in most parts of the world, film posters have historically formed an integral part of the distribution and circulation of films. These posters are supposed to provide the viewer with a basic sense of the narrative through a frozen image whose form is derived from different traditions of popular, traditional and modernist art cultures.1
To explore the status of the film poster in contemporary India, I will try to adopt a biographical method, however sketchy. Biographical details like where and how and for whom is the poster produced, its relationship to technology, how it travels, who designs them, its life span, its typical cultural markers, how its value changes over time and who owns the object. All these questions will inevitably take us into a complex maze of cultural, aesthetic and social values that shape the way the poster functions as an object of art, an icon, a semiotic moment and a commodity.2
Commodities, as many have pointed out, are forms located within complex patterns of desire, need and cultural transactions.3 The film object and its spinoffs like posters and fan magazines travel a complex journey as a commodity form whose material culture is so embroiled in the dynamics of everyday life and culture that it requires a method of study free of disciplinary boundaries. As an emblematic instance of popular culture, the poster’s entanglement within forms of experience, performance, fashion codes, urban spectacle and desire are clearly evident. But these are difficult to pin down unless we trace the poster’s life as a journey that moves through the complicated routes of film production, distribution and circulation.
It is for this reason that I have suggested a biographical approach which assumes some broad conceptual assumptions.4 An object can have many biographies based on the desired focus of the narrative. And like every other biography there will be gaps and absences, particular thrusts and engagements. What is offered here is a preliminary engagement that is based on early research, a narrative with a particular focus on the poster’s contemporary manifestations in the era of new visual technologies.
It is difficult to give an exact date for the origins of the film poster. Lithographic printing was introduced in India in the late 19th century and was used to first print religious imagery.5 The first full length feature made in India, Raja Harishchandra (Dada Saheb Phalke: 1913) was a mythological. Newspaper advertisements, handbills and publicity booklets of the film can be traced, but no references to the use of posters have been found.
The poster of the film Kalyan Khajina (Baburao Painter: 1924) is perhaps one of the earliest to have survived.6 It was designed and painted by the director Baburao Painter himself. Posters were usually hand painted on canvas and then used as the design source for printing on cheap paper. Since print publicity was the most important form of publicity, booklets of film songs and stories, handbills and posters flourished in the studio era with the poster becoming the most significant and dominant form.7
Historically the poster has been important as a travelling form that moves from city walls to lavatories, from pan shops to huts. Used as a decorative form in dhabas and small hotels as well as to promote film culture, the poster is both an advertisement as well as a cultural icon. Posters have circulated within urban centres for many years. Their presence outside cinema theatres and on city walls has been a prominent visual aspect of most cities of the country.
In many parts of small town India, posters are pasted on to covered rickshaws with a man making announcements over the loudspeaker. In the big cities, the older forms of film promotion are slowly undergoing changes with the arrival of new digital technologies and the powerful presence of neon light advertisements in the streets. Unable to compete with the glittering lights of the new city, film posters seem to have moved away from the centre to the periphery. In Delhi for instance, posters are displayed primarily in the old city or in the dilapidated cinema halls of the eastern and western parts.8 In small town India or what film distributors refer to as the ‘interiors’, posters continue to be plastered on walls.
The poster has always existed as a form that relies on distracted reception as people view them during their travels within the city. It has constituted itself as a form of ‘street art’ articulating a series of signs and symbols devised to arouse the curiosity of the passer by. The urban landscape is a giant exhibition site within which the poster exists as one of the many elements that make up the semiotics of the city. As an iconic image, the poster is organized through a complex network of meanings which are produced, reproduced, contested and negotiated from within the dynamic flux and flow of everyday life.
Unlike calendar art which is also a mass printed form, the poster does not immediately have a buyer.9 Because of its direct relationship to film publicity, the narrative composition of the poster is linked to practices of film production and distribution and like the form of popular cinema, the poster’s semiotic value is created both internally and externally as it negotiates the industrial values of genre and stardom, audience expectation and desires.
Acombination of image and text, the poster is created through a complex ordering of various elements that are based on an assumed hierarchy of information. For the designer, this hierarchy would be in the order of star/story/title and production credits. The textual material usually includes the name of the producer, director, script-writer, music director and lyricist. Stars and genres are two of the primary modes of meaning and pleasure offered by the film poster.10 Genre implies a set of stylistic devices that can identify a set of films from another. The term ‘genre films’ is now commonly used to classify films from Hollywood which bring together a series of familiar stories through a combination of repetitive and familiar codes, narrative structure and plots. Genre is also about the different ways in which producers, audiences, distributors and critics create, organize and interpret a system of visual signs.11 Similarly, the film poster’s production and circulation relies on a series of accepted codes that emerge out of the social and cultural life of both films and their posters.12
In India, posters negotiate thematics of melodramatic conflict and action, romance and the family. Generic elements are compositionally arranged to reflect the multi-genre look of popular Bombay cinema. Simrat Brar, a well-known poster designer in the industry, today recognizes that the film poster needs to cater to some forms of categorization. Most films have four to five different posters, each negotiating a different thematic of the film. For Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowarikar: 2001), Brar created three versions based on the different thematic elements of the film.
The first poster foregrounded the triangle love story. Therefore Elizabeth (the Englishwoman) was profiled with Gracy Singh with Khan placed centrally within the frame. The second poster for Lagaan focused only on Amir Khan and Gracy Singh’s romance. The third version had a lineup of the village cricket team facing the camera. This was considered the most unusual. In retrospect, Brar recognizes that the cricket team poster was not really spectacular but stood out amidst the clutter of other posters.13 Here the poster’s difference lay in moving against the dominant generic codes of other film posters.
Similarly stars have always played an important role in the compositional pattern of the poster. Modern publicity methods require a high degree of familiarity between the star and his/her potential audience. Several scholars have written about the process that goes into the buildup of this familiarity which is worked out not just through the filmic image but also through a whole array of images generated by fan and gossip magazines, radio, television newspapers and the film poster.14
Designed to make the star familiar and endearing for a wide public, the star becomes the central governing reference point for film publicity. Our access to the stars are also created through photographic still images like production stills, celebrity photos, press handbooks, interviews, reviews and finally the film poster. All these images are generated during production and distribution and help to persuade and prolong the power of the moving image both before and after the release of a film.
In the 1970s when Amitabh Bachchan was the reigning superstar of the Bombay film industry, the posters often only used either his singular image or made him the dominant icon. Deewar (Yash Chopra: 1975) had several posters for its release. The story of two brothers, one a policeman, the other an outlaw was established clearly in the posters through costume, posture and demeanour. In one of the versions, Amitabh Bachchan was placed in the foreground standing in a defiant position looking directly at the spectator. Shashi Kapoor’s face with his police inspector’s cap was placed in the background. Bachchan’s blue coloured dock worker shirt was recast as a red shirt in the poster. This was intended to make a connection with the red colour that is worn by coolies at railway stations while at the same time present the superstar in a colour that was more visually striking than the royal blue he actually wore in the film.
Coolie (Manmohan Desai: 1981) has a poster that shows Bachchan in the centre of the frame, his red attire highlighted along with his badge number-786 (the numerical total that stands for Bismillah-e-Rehemane Rahim). Here the poster relies on pre-existent knowledge available from his earlier films (The number 786 was used in Deewar, the film that catapulted Bachchan to stardom). Thus stars are presented through techniques that create a larger than life image enabling forms of identification within a wide film public.
Star discourses are also linked to cultures of fashion, beauty, sexuality and style. The look of the main stars is carefully orchestrated through a play with costumes, gestures, jewellry and expression. In Hum Apke Hain Kaun (Sooraj Barjatya: 1994), actress Madhuri Dixit’s purple designer sari was displayed on almost all the posters as a frozen pose taken from the well-known dance ‘Didi Tera Dewar Deewana’. In the initial posters Madhuri’s image was placed alongside that of Salman Khan. Subsequently individual posters of just Madhuri were also brought out keeping in mind her popularity at the box office and the popularity of the pur ple saree as a major fashionable wedding attire.
In the Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra: 1995) poster, the traditional lehenga costume of the ‘Mehendi Lagake Rakhna’ song was a major part of the poster but the foreign locations and Kajol’s mini skirt were also introduced quite carefully to highlight the actress’ ability to present herself as both ‘western’ and ‘Indian’, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. Fashion designer Manish Malhotra’s costume extravaganza for the film was captured in the poster indicating the importance of fashion for stardom and the need to highlight both through a range of posters both before and during the running of a film.
In Lagaan, the producer and director wanted the poster to just have the village team placed centrally with the caption ‘once upon a time in India’ written below the image. After much deliberation Simrat Brar, the designer for Lagaan’s print publicity, placed Khan’s face in a stylized form looking directly at the audience. So while the team was in the poster, Amir Khan’s star power was also established to aid in the publicity.15
The journey of the poster even after it departs from its original place of production is multilayered and enables us to make sense of both diverse audiences placed within particular geographical spaces, as well as the perceptions of distributors and producers who play with the desires of what they conceive to be the disparate audiences of India. Film posters are used primarily to advertise a film’s initial release. However, as I have indicated, they are also reprinted with changes as the screening proceeds. In the reprints, the posters usually announce the successful run of a film or highlight those aspects which are seen to be popular with audiences.
Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay released in 1975 had several posters released during the running of the film. Since Sholay was being promoted as a significant multistarrer film, the first poster had passport photo images of the entire cast placed in a line at the bottom with the wild brushstrokes of smouldering orange flames and the title occupying the rest of the frame. The first week was a difficult one for Sholay, creating a minor stir amongst the producers and distributors.16 Subsequently another set of posters with Bachchan and Dharmendra prominently in the frame along with Amjad Khan (as Gabbar Singh) were printed.
A few weeks later, Sholay was declared a success at the box office and Gabbar Singh its most popular character. A new set of posters were made with Amjad Khan as the dominant icon of the poster, clearly indicating the film industry’s perception that Gabbar’s persona had been successful with audiences.17 These changing perceptions that guide the final image of the poster become very important for any understanding of poster culture.
Following design, around 1,50,000 posters are printed and then sent out to the various distribution territories across the country along with the film prints.18 India has five major distribution territories with Bombay as the largest one. Given the scale of diversity and the vast interiors of the country, audiences are often segmented and fragmented according to what the distribution network sees as culturally and socially specific. Therefore, the A, B and C centres have come to represent three different streams of audience composition for the distributors.
A centres constitute the big metros like Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, Chennai and other big cities. The B centres are the smaller towns, also known as the interiors and the C centres are the places where a special group of films, usually low budget semi-porn films, circulate. The compositional life of a film poster in India depends on the way the distributor works through these territorial divisions.
Sanjay Mehta, a leading distributor based in Delhi suggests that the ‘urban cosmopolitan’ sensibility of the A centres gives the distributor some freedom with the poster. The use of a guitar in a poster may not be acceptable in the interiors. Therefore, a new set of posters are usually designed locally to match the audience taste of the interiors. Mehta suggests that the guitar is then turned into a gun for the benefit of the B centre audiences.19
Similarly the popularity of particular stars in certain regions can change the look of a poster. A multistarrer film with actors like Sunny Deol and Saif Ali Khan would be organized to highlight Deol’s masculine presence for the benefit of the North Indian territory and the interiors. The principles of star power according to regional sensibilities and audience expectation work to influence the design of the poster just as they play a role in star decisions for particular films. Action films are usually considered successful in the B centres and in some A centres. Here the posters highlight the melodramatic power of anger, the male body, guns, technology, cars and stunts. The figure of the woman is fairly marginalized here.
The family films on the other hand, a big staple of the A centres, highlight the carnivalesque aspects of the new Indian family – joyous celebration, coy gestures, colourful wedding attire and the presence of many women. Romance plays a crucial role in the projection of the family films. For instance Yash Chopra’s films which are usually successful with the A centres, are seen as a genre that articulates a ‘soft, bubble gum, romantic look’.20 Here clothing, pastel colours and a dreamlike fantasy disposition becomes important.
Most distributors and printers feel that posters coming from Bombay offer a generic form that attempts to create a universal appeal for a stratified and highly differentiated audience structure. While these posters remain very important, distributors feel it is imperative to address the tastes and preferences of their specific audience base. Local designs are therefore made to buttress the publicity mechanism for particular geographical territories.
In North India, the local designs use Hindi writing as opposed to English which is what Bombay sends out today.21 In Bengal the posters sometimes use Bengali titles. Popular religious festivals can also shape the look of the poster. In U.P. during Id, the local designs have ‘Id Mubarak’ written in bold right on top of the poster to cater to what they see as the ‘Muslim belt’. Similarly, Diwali and Holi also play an important role in projecting particular films as festive offers for the holiday season.22
Around 70 to 80 thousand local posters are printed for a big budget film. Usually if a film does well in the first week, no new posters are created. However, if the first week goes badly, alternative designs are created to attract audience attention. As many printers and distributors have indicated, the clock starts ticking for them on the first Friday of a film’s release. The fate of the film at the box office shapes the way the distributor makes ‘judgements’ about his audience. If the returns are low then elements that are seen as popular and acceptable get added to the local design of the poster, irrespective of their actual existence in the plot of the film.
The fate of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s first film Baazi (1995) at the box office offers us an interesting story. Baazi was a film whose intention was to reinvent Aamir Khan’s romantic image into an action one. Aamir Khan plays the role of a police officer in the film. In one of the high points of the film, Aamir is shown dancing in drag (a disguise) on stage at one of the criminal owned nightclubs. This song had been repeatedly telecast on television much before the films release and became extremely popular. When the film was actually ready for release, the first poster projected Aamir Khan in drag keeping in mind the popularity of the song with audiences.
Following the film’s failure at the box office, Aamir Khan himself blamed the producer for ruining the publicity. Instead of promoting the film as an action film, the actor felt the producer had used the dancing image incorrectly since it conveyed precious little about the film.23 A new set of posters were subsequently brought out presenting Aamir Khan in different forms of action. Some showed Aamir’s profile holding a gun, in others he looked directly at the audience, the gun in hand matched by an angry expression. The film could not recover its costs, but Khan’s own perception regarding the publicity and the producer/distributor’s attempt to change the look of the poster shows how star power, generic codes and audience acceptance constantly play themselves out in the constitution of the poster.
The network of knowledge that circulates between the production and reception of the poster constitutes a zone of co-authorship between the public/audience and the mediated product. The circulating mythology of what works and is acceptable enters the language and parlance of the film industry’s marketing strategy and gets assimilated as ‘knowledge’ of popular taste and the box office. While these perceptions obviously shape the actual production of films, its impact on poster culture is more dynamic. Once a film is released its fate is decided by the box office. Nothing can be done to change the film itself, steps can only be taken for future productions.
The poster as we have seen can be continuously reinvented and worked upon to help the film get its maximum profit at the box office. Therefore, the different versions of posters brought out during the running of a film, offer us a fleeting glimpse into the way distributors, audiences and stars negotiate the hidden terrain of desire, taste, pleasure and expectation. The poster then does not simply exist as both use and exchange value. On the contrary its life clearly indicates how it is marked by cultural, social and cognitive processes that work to make it a particular kind of product.
Posters travel an elaborate journey moving through techniques of production, design composition, right from the colours used to the layout, and the final printing process. In the past photographs provided by the producer were creatively duplicated on canvas by painters. It took one week to design a hand-painted poster image which usually combined elements of action and stars, along with the credits. The artists were specialists in poster designing. The average canvas image was 30 inches wide and 40 inches in length. In the absence of enlargement lenses, the size had to be the same as the final poster print.
The canvas image was then photographed in natural sunlight using a traditional camera. The original design size was reduced after 1985 when new enlargement lenses arrived in India. This was followed by a period when the poster industry adopted what they popularly refer to as the ‘cut and paste’ method. Here photographic images of the film were cut out and compositionally arranged to create the final poster. The colour scheme for the background and other embellishments were added with the paint brush. The cut and paste has therefore been a combination of the photographic and the painted.
The poster industry itself is an elaborate structure today that requires about five to ten per cent of the overall budget of a film.24 It is a crucial part of the print publicity packet designed for every film.25 In all there are seven or eight major design houses, all located in Bombay.26 Work is contracted to these design houses who then prepare the print publicity package. The designers work through their ideas in consultation with the producer and the director. The designer is sometimes given the script and in the absence of one has to rely on the different ways in which the film is represented by its creators.
The key issues that any designer would look for are songs, script, actors, locations and so on. The designer is also provided with many stills from the film. If these are not good enough, studio and outdoor photo shoots are organized with the lead star cast. All the photographs are then scanned. The process of selection takes days as the designer tries out different ways to layer and compose the posters with the available stills. The arrival of computer technology has made way for greater digital manipulation, forms of layering, colour corrections and multiple images. The ability to try out different compositions on the computer is seen as enabling greater flexibility to represent the multiple dynamics of any film.
Along with the breed of high profile established designers in Bombay, a parallel economy of local designers has emerged in other cities. These designers are comfortable with computer culture and regularly download star images from the internet to design local posters. The proliferation of computer shops of every kind has made accessibility to this technology easy. There are many former designers who are now sitting in computer shops, composing for election posters, low budget films (particularly C circuit and local designs for the interiors), government health campaigns and so on.27 Despite their creative skills, none of the local designers get paid like their high profile counterparts in Bombay.
Given the chaotic nature of the film industry, almost all the decisions concerning the design composition are taken on an ad hoc basis. There is rarely a script for the designer to see. Simrat Brar who designed all the posters for Lagaan recalls that this was one of the rare projects for which she was given access to both the script and the songs which had already been shot. The theme of each film is usually broken down into two or three central thematics. Brar saw Dil Chahata Hai (Farhan Akhtar: 2001) as a film that dealt with ‘attitude, freshness and an international disposition.’ Brar subsequently tried to establish the three themes together in different posters.28
Trained as a designer at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Brar started her career in advertising. While the Bombay film poster has always had its own unique form of presentation, Brar recognizes that today the look of the poster, its design aesthetics and paper quality is increasingly dependent on various trends within commercial advertising. Since many of the designers are now joining the film industry with a background in corporate advertising, the overlap of techniques is not surprising. The fluid movement between advertising and the film industry is also reflective of the new aesthetics of consumption emerging with globalization.
The link between consumption and the aestheticization of urban space has been explored by several scholars the world over. It is in the processes of circulation that the commodity form acquires magical properties. In India the visual power of globalization can be easily seen in the radical transformation of many parts of the city. The rise of multiplexes and refurbished movie theatres, the emergence of shopping malls, coffee shops, ATMs and neon light advertisements across the prime districts of many of the big cities have introduced a different regime of spectacle.
Added to this is the transformation of both the home and the outside where cable television has in a dynamic way changed the eye’s optical capacity to wander through diverse locations of the world. The proliferation of visual ‘surfaces’ linked primarily to the spectacularization of consumerist display has transformed the nature of street interaction in some parts of the city, even as the coexistence with older forms of display continue to be present in other parts of the city.
Whatever the exact nature and extent of the transformation in India, there can be little dispute about the emergence of a distinctly different regime of visual culture where electronic surfaces and other forms of aestheticized display seem to have created a scopic fascination for visual euphoria. In the midst of the visual sensations that define the times that we are living through, like the cinematic form itself, the poster has also acquired that distinctly ‘new’ glossy look.
The coming of cable television in the 1990s created a new space for film publicity. Initially, song sequences were released for count down shows. Soon organized short trailers were created to publicize the film. The trailers have to make their presence felt in the clutter of programming, advertising and music. People from the world of advertising are now asked to make the trailers spectacular and dramatic. The trailers make sure that the audience is given an array of foreign locations, action, romance, music and star presence.
Having emerged as a prime site for film publicity, the relationship between television and the film industry has deepened as virtually all the channels are now showcasing ‘Bollywood’. Rahul Nanda, the man responsible for introducing digital technology in 1992, wiping out the ‘cut and paste’ method that was still prevalent at that time,29 sees television as the main reason for the ‘new look’ of the poster. Nanda saw the big painted hoardings as ‘kitsch’, where ‘actors looked dirty, painted and tacky.’ He introduced the first digitally created billboards into the city.
For Nanda, film advertising in the 1990s ‘started looking classy and sophisticated.’ Nanda faced initial resistance from traditional designers but computer technology finally became the dominant mode of poster designing. ‘Today print media can look like electronic media,’ says Nanda who sees the internet and global television as the markers of a new era where visual culture moves in a seamless loop between the print and the moving image.30 Clearly the desire for gloss and sophistication is fuelled by a transformation of the visual scape that is visibly articulated in the arenas of architecture, advertising, film and fashion.31 The site and street specific visual cultures of early modernity are being challenged today by ‘the stasis of the fluid mobility granted to our perception by the technologies of television, the VCR, the World Wide Web, and virtual reality.’32
As the texture of the built environment undergoes changes through novel uses of steel, glass and light, we enter a zone of urban movement in certain parts of the city that is spectacularly aestheticized, magical and seductive. One of the major additions to the built environment that we have seen in the last few years is the entry and presence of television in public space. Television in its new incarnation has also entered the dynamic rhythms of public life and space in seemingly unobtrusive ways. As coffee shops, restaurants, airports, department stores, bars, shops that are both small and big, fast food chains and other public spaces generate the visual culture of ‘ambient television’, the perceptual sphere of the distracted gaze experiences the visual dynamics of the electronic media.33
We encounter the television set in more places than just our home as it integrates itself within the rhythms of urban life. This pervasive and continuous interaction with the rapid movement of images, whether MTV or news, film songs or cricket, both at home and in public (in small towns and big cities) pushes the film poster to match the aesthetics and the shiny quality of the television screen while at the same time also appear in a more organized and ordered pattern.
Both Simrat Brar and Rahul Nanda have indicated how the look of the poster needs to overlap with the promos appearing on television. The visual appearance of both forms need to be similar in order to create a seamless engagement with the films publicity. The spectacularization of urban display requires a different order of aesthetics since as many have suggested, new technology has enacted ineradicable perceptual shifts on the spectacle. In this scenario, the hand painted cinematic image, once ordinary, now a lost art, acquires the status of a unique ‘art’ object.
Walter Benjamin, in his well-known theses on the destruction of aura after the birth of the photograph had envisioned a time when multiplication and mechanical reproduction would enable the possibility of art becoming a genuinely democratic form, accessible and available outside the rarified space of the art museum.34 In a strange twist, the original hand-painted film poster which was seen plastered on walls in various parts of the country and available for a price of five rupees in the streets till the early 1990s, has now acquired the status of an ‘art’ form as collectors enter the field of preservation, display and sale of the traditional poster.
This process can be seen as an instance of what Arjun Appadurai has described as commoditization by diversion where value is ‘accelerated or enhanced by placing objects and things in unlikely contexts.’35 The objects referred to here can be seen in the domain of fashion, domestic display and collecting. Appadurai suggests that this narrative of diversion rests on the commodities removal from its customary circuits through a coming together of the ‘aesthetic impulse’ and the ‘entrepreneurial link’.36
Initially overlooked as an art form because of its direct relationship to commercial networks of publicity, today the gradual disappearance of the traditional poster from the streets and public places where it had traditionally found a home, has made it a more respectable item to be studied, looked at and placed within the rarified atmosphere of galleries and homes. Just as the photographic, digitally created image becomes the dominant icon in contemporary poster culture, the hand-painted, ‘authentic’ Bollywood poster acquires auratic power as collectors and museums compete with their own collections.
Now framed as a dying art form, or as a print of cultural history, the traditional poster acquires the status of a new commodity even as the contemporary form itself gets more commodified and influenced by techniques of advertising. As collectors vie for the possession of posters that are subsequently sold in the market at exorbitant prices, the former film poster enters the chain of commodity exchange, once easily accessible but today a rare item and piece of artwork. Collectors deploy their entrepreneurial skills to divert the poster away from its customary circuit, in the process accruing it with ‘aesthetic power’.
Acollection can be defined as ‘a set of natural or artificial objects kept temporarily or permanently out of the economic circuit, afforded special protection in enclosed places adapted specifically for that purpose and put on display.’37 Here the collected objects are not preserved for their usefulness but for their ability to produce a regime of meaning that can participate in the exchange process between visible and invisible worlds.
This formulation is interesting in the case of the film poster. Once the digitized image became the dominant form, the older hand painted image which evoked a cinematic past different from the one we are living through, had to be made invisible for a while. Suddenly the easily accessible poster, once available in the streets and with distributors, has today become inaccessible.
Something has clearly changed. Several collectors who had been collecting for a while became important players. Exhibitions of framed film posters are now being held at galleries in Bombay, Delhi and London. For an auction last year curated by Neville Tuli, more than hundred film posters were up for sale. The interesting thing about this exhibition/auction was that film posters were included as part of an art exhibition. The average price of a poster is anything between rupees 15,000 to 40,000. In the introduction to the catalogue, Tuli says that by positioning ‘a Deewar poster, with all its loud colours, seething energy and emotional links, "besides" the tranquil contemplation of a Gaitonde water colour, many new and unseen inter-relationships will open up, naturally changing the perception of each in the process.’38
As the aura of ‘art’ descends to swallow the popularity of the former film poster, we are left in a quandary about the future of this image. The inaccessibility and exclusivity of the ‘rare’ film poster can be easily overcome by almost everyone who has access to computer technology. A simple scanned duplication, colour corrected digitally to make it sharp can then be printed out for mass marketing. If done so it will surely disrupt the current status of the classic film poster as ‘art’ object available only to a select few. What exactly led to this sudden desire for the old poster is difficult to chart out instantaneously but clearly the rise of nostalgia in a moment of hyper visual intensity needs to be recognized.
While there is little dispute about the existence of a new regime of visual culture linked to television, the persistence of older images that signify a different register of time has also proliferated with the entry of cable television. Channels like Star Gold, Sony and Zee are all engaged in the telecast of older films which in the pre channel days only had Doordarshan’s Sunday night screening time as its exhibition outlet. The proliferation of channels and particular programmes geared to evoke a nostalgic journey into a cinematic history has led to a situation where the hyper moment of the here and the now co-exists almost spectacularly with past images.
Star Gold’s black and white films, Javed Akhtar’s programme Rahen Na Rahen where he introduces older films, the evocation of memory in the programme Yadein on the same channel, documentary programmes on stars and directors of yesteryears, are now being churned out to occupy the space and time offered by so many channels. Bombay films, both old and new appeal to a cross generational audience which is what television tries to negotiate through its programming. As black and white and colour, old and new, then and now, past and present coexist in the landscape of the contemporary in more powerful and spectacular ways than before because of television, nostalgia and popular memory come alive.
The flashback into the past, a common trope of many Bombay films, works through television to create multiple time zones, generating the desire for possession, control, sustenance and tactile fulfilment. Collectors of artifacts and objects, posters and photographs, paintings and old books recognize the power of nostalgia within modernity. The collector engages in the process of diversion precisely to enhance the aesthetic power of his/her collection. The hand painted film poster today is a collector’s item, a commodity enclosed and rarified, a product of nostalgia, ‘entrepreneurial genius’, popular memory and modernity.
1. This essay is an initial attempt, part of ongoing research that tries to understand the material life of the Bombay film poster. The research is supported by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), Bangalore and the Fundacao Oriente.
2. The biographical method adopted here is inspired by the work of Igor Kopytoff. See his ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1986, 64-91.
4. Op. cit. Kopytoff, 67-68.
5. Kajri Jain, ‘Of the Everyday and the National Pencil: Calendars in Postcolonial India. Journal of Arts and Ideas, No. 27-28, 1995.
6. Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, The Visual Culture of Hindi Film. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2002: 110.
7. It is not my intention here to chart out a historical chronology of the different influences and artistic achievements of the poster. For a history of the development of the film poster see ibid. Patel and Dwyer’s chapter on film advertising presents us with the details of early film publicity and the transformations over time.
8. The Bengal Act 21 of 1976, section 3(1) says ‘whoever defaces any property in public view by writing or marking with ink, chalk, paint or any other material… shall be punishable with imprisonment… or with fines… or both.’ This was later extended to other states like Delhi. The implementation of this act has affected both Calcutta and Delhi. Bombay continues to be a city where posters are plastered regularly. Even in Delhi and Calcutta, there are many areas of the city, particularly the older parts where posters can still be seen on the walls.
9. For interesting accounts of the production and circulation of calendar art see op. cit. Kajri Jain. While Jain makes a distinction between the cinema and calendar art, she does see a similarity in the role and movement of the poster and calendars. I do believe the direct relationship to film publicity makes the poster somewhat different.
10. Steve Neale, ‘Poster – Film – Industry’, in Selling Dreams: British and American Posters 1890-1976. Welsh Arts Council, 1988, 4-8.
11. Toby Miller, Technologies of Truth: Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 1998, 18.
12. The role of genre is clearly a universal phenomenon amply demonstrated through analysis of posters in other parts of the world like Hollywood, Mexico and Turkey. See Rogelio Agrasanchez, ‘Poster Art from the Golden Era of Mexican Cinema’, in Archiro Filmico Agrasanchez, Universidad de Gnadalajara Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, 1997, and Steve Schapiro & David Chierichetti, The Movie Poster Book. E.P Dutton, New York, 1979.
13. Interview with Simrat Brar, designer for Glamour Publicity, Bombay, November 2002.
14. Christin Gledhill (ed.), Stardom: Industry of Desire. Routledge, London, 1991; Jacky Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. Routledge, London, 1994; Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies. St. Martins Press, New York, 1986.
15. Interview with Simrat Brar, Bombay, November 2002.
16. Conversation with scriptwriter, Javed Akhtar, Bombay March 1995. Akhtar recalled how Ramesh Sippy called a meeting of the lead stars and the scriptwriters to discuss possible modifications to the films ending and a reworking of the Gabbar Singh persona which many had seen as excessively cruel. Everyone decided to wait for another week. The story of Sholay’s subsequent success is now part of film folklore.
17. Interview with Ajay Kapoor (poster printer), Delhi, February 2003.
18. Interview with Gul Sugandh, the owner of Glamour Publicity, Bombay, November 2002.
19. Interview with Sanjay Mehta ( a distributor based in Delhi), August 2002.
20. Interview with Fayaz Baddrudin, designer for Yashraj Films’ Design Cell, Bombay, November 2002.
21. Interestingly all the early posters used to have Hindi, English and Urdu titles.
22. Interview with Ajay Kapoor (printer), Delhi, February 2003.
23. Conversation with actor Aamir Khan, Bombay, November 1997.
24. Interview with Gul Sugandh, Glamour Publicity, Bombay, November 2002.
25. Posters are usually released in two batches. The first release is concurrent with the music/audio release, usually seen in music shops and electronic markets like Palika Bazaar in Delhi.
26. Some of the well known design houses are Glamour, H.R Enterprises, Abel and Will, Studio Links, Epigram and Endeavour.
27. Interview with Ajay Kapoor (printer), Delhi, February 2003.
28. Interview with Simrat Brar, Bombay, November 2002.
29. The ‘cut and paste’ method is still prevalent in the local designs of some of the smaller budget films, particularly in the C circuit.
30. Interview with Rahul Nanda (HR Enterprises), Bombay, November 2002.
31. Janet Ward, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2001: 1.
33. The term is taken from Anna McCarthy’s work on the role of television in public life. See her Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2001.
34. ‘The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, Schocken Books, New York, 1969, 217-251.
35. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1986: 28.
37. Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 1500-1800. Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990: 9.
38. See the catalogue, A Historical Mela: The ABC of India: The Art, Book & Cinema. OSIAN’s and Mapin, 2002.