Sense & sensibilities in Bollywood’s posters

From advertisements to art


February 4, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Sense & sensibilities in Bollywood’s posters

Posters provide the cine-goers with a basic sense of the narrative through a frozen image

Bollywood film posters have come a long way from hand-painted ones to the digital ones since past few years. Now used as decoration in dhabas and small hotels to big restaurants and art galleries, old Bollywood posters that were used to advertise films, have now become a cultural icon.

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Like the Indian cinema, its film posters have also gone through a radical transformation linked to new technology and the proliferation of visual culture in the 21st century. In India, like in most parts of the world, film posters have historically been integral to the distribution and circulation of films. These posters provide the cine-goers 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.

Though it is difficult to get an exact date for the origin of the film poster, they have been around for as long as the films themselves.

The first full-length feature made in India, Raja Harishchandra by Dada Saheb Phalke in 1913 was based on mythology and its posters had hand-painted images of religious importance. This began a trend of creating posters to advertise films, to attract people’s attention in order to pull the audience into the theatres.

After Baburao Painter’s film poster, film posters depicted images of main actors prominently

The trend of using posters for films went on for just over a decade and then came the revolutionary Baburao Painter. The poster of the film Kalyan Khajina, directed by Baburao Painter in 1924, is perhaps one of the earliest to depict the images of the actors in the film and moved away from religious symbols. It was designed and painted by the director Baburao Painter himself. Still, at this time, posters were usually hand-painted on canvas and then used as the design source for printing on cheap paper.

“Hand-painted Bollywood posters were designed with the sole purpose of grabbing eyeballs and they did precisely that,” Simrat Brar, a 55-year-old designer in Mumbai, who has been designing posters for Bollywood films since 1995, tells Media India Group.

She says the manually painted posters were loud, over-the-top, too colourful, kitschy and had bohemian appearances. This was the trend for most vintage hand painted Bollywood posters. Another striking characteristic was the use of broad visible brush strokes and 3D styled typography. “For that time, loud posters meant people would notice it from a distance and which eventually meant more audience in the theatres,” she adds.

Talented, self-taught Bollywood poster artists of the past such as Baburao Painter are credited with inventing the art of designing Bollywood posters completely by hand. Brar says although hand painted Bollywood poster art was no doubt a commercial art stream, several world-renowned artists such as M.F. Hussain also made their beginnings in this field.

A single image of the actors, as well as depiction of a scene on the film posters, was on a decline during the last few decades of the 1990s and rather, Bollywood posters gravitated towards depicting a collage of various actors, scenes or even writing the film’s dialogues on its posters. Another trend that became very popular was playing with the background in the poster. While most artists stuck to the images of a fight scene, or romantic scene or even a beautiful scenery from the film, a few experimented with the concept and created something different.

“When Raj Kapoor’s Bobby released in 1973, one of its most stunning posters had the lead pair on a psychedelic background. Nothing in the film had anything to do with psychedelia. But the typography and the stylisation indicated that this would not be the common Hindi film but one that was ‘modern’,” says Brar.

Bobby’s theatrical release had the lead pair on a psychedelic background

She says a poster is not just a free-floating signifier of an aesthetic or industry, it is a complete artform in itself. However, she feels that those artists who put such creativity in posters did not get due credit and laments the loss of this form. “Their brilliant brush strokes infused hand painted Bollywood posters with raw energy and emotion. Sadly, most of the early work of these legendary Bollywood movie poster artists from the 1930s – 1940s has perished,” she says.

During the late 1980s and 90s, Bollywood producers started using multiple posters to depict various aspects of the film, to reach out to a broader section of the audience. Depending upon the reaction of the audience towards the film, other subsidiary posters were created. Producers would order a new poster for the silver jubilee (25 weeks) or the golden jubilee (50 weeks) or even the platinum jubilee (75 weeks). In the recent past, the most number of posters have been generated for Aditya Chopra’s directed Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), which stayed continuously for 12 years in Maratha Mandir, a cinema hall in central Mumbai, Brar remembers.

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 home, has made it a more exclusive item to be studied, looked at and placed within 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 artistic 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.

A corner in vintage Bollywood themed Posterally gallery

Exhibitions of framed film posters are now held at galleries in many cities in India and overseas. For an auction, last year curated by Neville Tuli, a UK based businessman and art enthusiast, more than 100 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 INR 15,000 to 40,000.

Very few authentic, original vintage hand painted Bollywood movie poster prints have survived the onslaught of time. Most surviving old Bollywood movie posters have been discovered lying neglected in dingy warehouses, where they were stored decades ago and forgotten.

The visual treat of hand painted Bollywood movie posters was earlier available only via museums and exhibitions. Today, big restaurants like the Bollywood Dhaba in Kolkata, museums like the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai, art galleries like the Posterally in Noida or even individual collectors aim to make this beautiful vintage art form accessible to people from around the world.

“The magical old world art of hand-painted Bollywood posters has come full circle – from being plastered on walls outside cinema halls in the distant past to being framed and artistically displayed as the centre of attention in luxury homes, restaurants, hotels, cafes,” says Brar.



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