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Bollywood's Iconic Image

November 2008
Bollywood's Iconic Image

?Hema Malini hanging from a ceiling fan?Pran with his bloodshot red eyes—these are just a couple of the countless endearing and exciting visuals embedded into the memories of Indian film fans who grew up in an era of those potently stimulating Bollywood posters that appeared in every nook and corner—from railway stations to huge billboards at busy metro landmarks.


“Amitabh destroyed the careers of so many people in their prime,” laughed my friend, referring to the superstar’s impact on many starstruck young men of the glory days of ‘70s and the early ‘80s. “Almost every guy thought he spoke, walked, and looked like Mr. Bachchan.”

I nodded as incredible images of my own Amitabh-obsessed days flashed in my mind. One of the wackiest things I did as a kid was to try and run at a 45-degree angle. No, it wasn’t for a bet; it was the influence on my young and impressionable mind of the massive, eye-catching billboards of the movie Don that showed up at every other turn in Mumbai. The posters portrayed the hero, a rugged and dashing Amitabh, bolting at that absurd angle.

Those hand-painted, giant-sized posters were widespread across the country, and the impression they made was potent. Be it a sword-fighting Tamil movie legend, M. G. Ramachandran, or a bold Shashi Kapoor nuzzling Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, or a naughty Hema Malini swinging from the ceiling fan in Seeta Aur Geeta, the posters were exaggerated yet colorful, amateurish yet impactful.

“A hero should look like a hero, a villain like a villain,” says Balkrishna, a veteran artist who has painted posters for classics like Sholay and Mother India. “We [used to] make green faces for villains so that people would know by the expression and the eyes what kind of characters they were.” Poster art as we knew it in the heady days of the ‘70s and ‘80s is breathing its last. Artist Dewoodalker believes that now there are around 70 painters in this business. “We pick up any odd jobs to make ends meet. We do what we can,” he says.

In those days, the preparation for a movie release would start several months in advance since the posters took time to take shape and then gear up for mass production. Once the lead artist conceived a movie design and finished the master print, his workers stepped in to reproduce the product in laboriously large numbers. To keep up with the spate of releases, some movie halls kept in-house painters who worked every week to update the posters.

In contrast to the banners made today, the old ones were gutted by the elements, which dramatically shrank their life spans. Parag Jog, a native of Mumbai and now a Los Angeles resident, says, “Thanks to the monsoon seasons in Mumbai, I have seen funny merging of colors on the big posters, where the red from the hero’s angry face would spill on to the heroine’s yellow sari.” Pankaj Pattewar, an avid Bollywood fan from Pune, points out that he still sees such hand-painted posters in India, albeit not in bigger cities. “I’ve seen them recently, usually at single screen theatres, which are small and old, or for those substandard horror flicks, or movies that are A-rated.” Hyder Ali Gola, another poster artist, finds it difficult to identify the cause and effect: “Nowadays if you use a hand-painted poster the public will think it’s a cheap movie.”

Today, the billboards are digital images of blown up movie stills and photographs of heroes with their glaring muscles, alluring heroines with their well-endowed features. The technology that can produce crisp pictures of a svelte Aishwarya Rai has vanquished the raw portrayal of a coarse-looking Amjad Khan.

As I regarded the extravagantly mounted canvas of Jodhaa Akbar at Galaxy Cinema in Atlanta recently, I found myself liking the pretty faces but missing the old art form. I’m like my father-in-law who for years refused to accept the incursion of the digital camera. “For some reason, I like my old one,” he maintained, although he knew that the newer devices had features that comfortably exceeded those of his outdated gadget.

I have wondered what happened to the scores of painters who were crushed by the advent of modern printing. Reportedly, some shut shop and accepted their doom philosophically, some ventured into election posters, and a few—like Balkrishna and M. F. Husain—chose to adapt and re-channel their skills. Balkrishna has traveled worldwide selling his creations to Bollywood fans, often customizing the posters to include the faces of his clients. Husain, of course, has become so famous that the Forbes magazine recently called him the “Picasso of India.”

I found some solace when I realized that I was not the only one who grieved over the fall of hand-made banners: my friend, Chandan Gokhale, savors wistful posters of classics like Mother India that become his computer screen savers, and I read about patrons who spent generously on old Bollywood posters at auctions held in London, Milan and New Delhi, including the one organized by Osian, a popular art house in India. The International Film Festival of India paid tribute late last year in Goa to the diminishing world of “Friday-to-Friday art,” as Guruji Vinod, a Mumbai-based poster artist, called it. Pankaj recalls, “I had a favorite bus route that took me to my grandma’s house in Solapur. I always took it just so that I could feast my eyes on my favorite star’s flashy poster that I could see en route.”

From the standpoint of today’s technology-generated slick posters, the old billboards may be seem garish, inaccurate in the depiction of facial features, and in-your-face. There are some who recall the more pedestrian ones. Lavanya Chandrasekar, a Bay area resident, notes, “Enlarging a snapshot manually to 350 times its original size requires a certain level of skill and creativity; but then, it was also prone to a lot of faults and shoddiness. As a gawking teenager standing near Shanti Theatre in Chennai, I remember staring at misshapen Madhuris, sunken-cheeked Jayapradas, and odd looking Rajnikanths.” However, despite all their flaws, my mind refuses to dismiss them because more often than not, they did the trick: stoked our dreams and imagination, brought masses to the cinema halls, charmed fans into taking specific bus routes, and even made little boys run unsuccessfully at half tilt. Today’s canvases are so perfect that they are boring, so formulaic that they lack character.

Alok Mishra, my former roommate, commented on an interesting facet. “The old posters brought out emotions through clever blocking of canvas space, use of color, 3D font and other techniques,” he said. “In short, these master craftsmen were graphic designers, more than just painters.”

My compassion for this vanishing art probably reflects my nostalgic resistance to the disappearance of the remnants of days gone by. For years now, I’ve been telling myself to let it go. During my father-in-law’s recent trip to the United States, I realized that it was time to take my advice to myself seriously; he made us stand for a group photograph and pulled out his new digital camera.

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