The present generation surrounded by digital displays in cinemas would probably find it hard to believe the way they used to do it before the mid-90s. Though the extinct art of handmade posters and billboards is now widely considered a part of our cultural history, the truth remains that the art form actually never received the respect and attention it truly deserved.
In the last few years, documentaries have been made on this subject and we also have dealers selling these posters at a heavy price. However, those creators are still not known to the general public, despite contributing to every single film’s release for more than half a century.
Recalling the past, hand-painted posters and big billboards/hoardings was always the most common as well as prestigious way of promoting films right from the initial decades. For generations, these were the only means through which people were informed about the new releases. Apart from the outdoor displays in cinemas, major traffic signals, buildings and roadside locations, these manually drawn artworks also got published in the popular film magazines in both Hindi and English.
As their display stayed for weeks, their making also went through a long process with a group of artists collectively working on one huge hoarding, contributing a lot to its mood, colour schemes, expressions of actors and placements of images along with the title logo. Amazingly, this all had to be done looking at the small pictures of few inches provided by the filmmakers, either shot on location or from the film itself. Hence, it’s a fact that many famous posters from the golden era of Indian cinema had a lot of creativity contributed by their experienced and exceptionally talented artists, for which they were rarely given credit or any prominent mention.
Such was the expertise and reputation of these creators that the filmmakers used to wait for them and made advance bookings. At times, directors insisted to get it done from a particular artist with whom they had a perfect tuning. Post finalising the initial design of the film, the hoardings then used to get painted by other reputed artists in key cities like Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad along with the smaller centres. That remained the reason, there happened to be minor differences in the replicated hoardings, especially in the interiors. More so, as this was widely taken as a labour-based work, instead of an art, with little wages paid for per square feet painted on the big canvas.
After the large-sized hoardings were ready, it was another herculean task to make them reach the venue or cinema undamaged. This was done in the late-night hours, loading them on the top of autos or other vehicles either in complete form or in parts. This installation process was mostly done on Thursday nights before the new release as a pleasant Friday surprise for the viewers. Many a times, the installation of one huge hoarding of a mega venture was spiritedly celebrated as an event too with brass band groups playing the already-hit songs.
During the decade of the ’80s, this poster-art went through a critical change with the re-releases of old films, for which new artworks were designed, adding many fresh elements not related or featured in the film. So one could see guns, bomb blasts and even sensual pictures added into the hoarding of an old venture, which was actually neither a thriller nor an action film. Participating in the industry’s fight against video piracy, this was deliberately done to impress the viewers, bringing them back to the theatres.
The creative profession involving both time and effort started dying in the ’90s with the introduction of digital designs and the multiplex culture hammering the last nail in its coffin, leaving it as an extinct art form. That forced even the renowned artists to look for another option in their old age. As a result, many had to take up other jobs to make a living while looking after their families.
Thus, an art form that never got its due, silently witnessed its death in the new millennium. Ironically, now we only remember those artists through expensive coffee table books written on their poster-art or through articles remembering them all, when one of them departs suffering a lonely end.
No doubt cinema continues its journey in its new digital form, but the feel and warmth once experienced in those huge hand-painted hoardings is certainly not to be found in the present digital posters. In fact, in the era when films have been cut short to a two-hour outing, who will believe that there was a time when people used to reach the theaters an hour early just to see the new hoardings and posters, discussing and guessing about all the forthcoming films.
(The writer is a critic-columnist, an explorer of cinema and author of ‘Did You Know’ series on Hindi films also active at bobbytalkscinema.com)