Hand-painted movie posters that made Bollywood a winner.
Since its inception in the second decade of the 20th century, the Bombay-based Indian film industry— Bollywood—has developed a unique visual language, articulared by the vivid hand-painted move posters have since become highly-desirable collectors’ items. While Bollywood poster artists produced a staggering number of these hand-painted images, their ephemeral work has traditionally been presented unevenly, with shoddy reprints and re-release posters. Art of Bollywood digs deeper into the tradition, presenting the original art in its true glory-from seldom-seen posters to rare images of street publicity cinema displays. The text provides a detailed discussion of the works of key artists, in this, the first comprehensive overview of a previously neglected and underrated artistic genre.
Rajesh Devraj is a writer and filmmaker based in Mumbai, India. He has worked in advertising and television, and is the author of several screenplays.
Edo Bouman is a researcher and collector of Indian posters and Indian film music, and runs the Amsterdam-based record label Bombay Connection, which specializes in South Asian film scores and soundtracks.
Paul Duncan has edited more than 50 film books for TASCHEN, including the award-winning The Ingmar Bergman Archives, and authored Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick in the Film Series.
It has been called an independent state of the Indian union, a domain with its own language, customs, and codes. The claim is not exaggerated, for Bollywood is indeed an alternate reality far removed from the drab gray world we inhabit. It is a land populated by luridly dressed heroes, leering villains, weeping mothers, and simpering virginal heroines; a world with infinitely more music, drama, and spectacle than reality could ever accommodate.
Bollywood’s sheer size alone justifies the claim that it is a separate world. Cinema in India has a history almost as long as the history of Western cinema and, currently, the country makes the most films in the world, twice the number produced by the United States in a year. The subcontinent’s cultural diversity is comparable to Europe’s: India produces films in 39 languages and dialects, of which at least five have industries larger than most national cinemas. What is generally referred to as Bollywood is the commercial film industry based in Mumbai, which produces films in Hindi, the lingua franca understood by viewers across the nation.
Over the years, Bollywood has given birth to a famously hybrid form of cinema that mashes together Indian and foreign influences. For Western viewers accustomed to their own traditions of storytelling, the Bollywood narrative often seems a mere device to present extravagant song-and-dance numbers, high-strung emotion, comic interludes, fights, and a host of other elements. This kind of film is commonly known in India as the masala film, after the Hindi word for a spicy mix. Bollywood has evolved many other uniquely Indian genres as well—mythologicals and devotionals, which draw inspiration from the Hindu epics; socials, which are essentially urban melodramas; stunt films, which are an eccentrically Indian take on the American B movie; and so on.
All these genres feature songs, of course—it seems redundant to call Bollywood films musicals, since songs have been an integral part of almost every Indian film since the first Indian sound movie, Alam Ara (1931). While stars sang their own numbers in the initial years, the 1940s saw the introduction of “playback” singers, whose songs were mimed on-screen by actors. The Bollywood sound incorporates many eclectic influences, from classical ragas to Punjabi folk rhythms, from swing jazz to rock and roll beats, from sublime Urdu poetry to pop inanities. It has inspired filmmakers to develop their own lyrical styles of picturization, and also to think up some decidedly strange song situations: Bollywood actors have sung songs to pigeons and dead elephants, traded verses over games of badminton and cricket.
Music is only one of the features that enhance the “repeat value,” or drawing power, of a Hindi Mm. The chief attractions in any Bollywood movie are its stars, who in India command devotion to the extent that temples are built in their honor. Gossip magazines and national newspapers alike track their every move and every aspect of their personas, from their haircuts to their fluctuations in weight. Their loyal followers tend to watch their films again and again, which is why certain cult films, such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Sholay (1975), have run for many years in theaters. For its obsessive fans, Bollywood’s escapist cinema is a highly addictive drug, a habit they can’t shake.
Movie mania runs deep in India, and over the years, Bollywood has colonized the nation’s popular culture thoroughly. For decades, filmi music was the only pop music in India, and the music industry condescendingly referred to non-Mm releases as “private albums.” Other arts were also pushed to the margins, and today, Hindi cinema’s influence can be seen everywhere, from television, fashion, and advertising to the very language of the streets. Its images pervade the visual culture of the subcontinent, leaving their mark on religious prints and street signs alike. They dominate public spaces everywhere—Bollywood produces publicity images on a scale that has transformed the urban environment in India, turning entire cities into galleries for its giant displays. In many ways, its art is the most visible representation of Bollywood’s hold on the public imagination.
For all its spread and influence, Bollywood’s poster art has not been studied in any great depth. In over 90 years of prolific creation, the Hindi film industry has produced a staggering number of images and evolved a complex tradition with many regional variations and styles. Yet little is known about the creators of these images, and few of their original designs have been preserved. The tradition itself may now be considered extinct in some ways. Its roots he in a pre-digital age—the period spanning from the early decades of the 20th Century to the mid-1990s, when handmade images prevailed in Bollywood. Long after photography had replaced illustration in Western posters, Indian Mm artists continued to paint publicity images by hand, creating in the process their own unique visual language. This practice came to an end in the last century. Subsequently, digital technology changed the very nature of the Bollywood image, just as recent changes in the methods of financing, producing, and exhibiting films have radically transformed Indian filmmaking.
Today, the Indian film industry is becoming increasingly corporatized and has adopted international practices. Filmmaking in Old Bollywood was a far more erratic process. A studio system prevailed in the early years of Indian cinema, but it fell apart after World War Two. After this decline, Indian movies were made largely by family-run outfits, none with the clout and control over distribution and exhibition that the Hollywood majors exercised. As a consequence, the risks involved in film production were enormous. In the absence of bank loans or institutional funding, producers had to rely on financiers—sometimes dubious figures who used the trade to launder black money—or on distributors who offered advances on the basis of a project’s perceived market value. Finances often ran dry, and it wasn’t unusual for projects to stretch over many years. While film production anywhere in the world is an unpredictable process, it was even more so in Bollywood, where detailed scenarios, binding contracts, fixed budgets, and production schedules were largely unknown.
Complete written screenplays were so uncommon in Bollywood that they are still called “bound scripts” to distinguish them from the other, equally important scripts in directors’ heads. Filmmakers and writers developed their plots orally in “story sittings” until they were considered sound and ready to shoot. Stars were signed, technicians briefed, and funds raised on the basis of further narration, the story evolving organically with each retelling. Virtually every aspect of Bollywood production relied on similar informal practices. Industry professionals were hired on a freelance basis, and they usually juggled dates to work on several productions simultaneously. Few of them had any formal training—despite the establishment of a state-run film school in 1960, the industry’s technicians continued to learn their craft through a system of apprenticeship. Each department of filmmaking, from art direction to cinematography, thus evolved its own practices and traditions far removed from the Hollywood system.
Bollywood’s poster art too has its own tradition, which goes back to the early years of silent cinema. Far from being anonymous, as some accounts of the Indian film poster suggest they were, Bollywood’s poster artists proudly signed their work and were as obscure or well known as any technician in the industry. Many lineages can be traced back to the artist-filmmaker Baburao Painter, who is believed to have designed the first Indian film posters. Shrikant Dhongade, whose design studio handled recent hits like Vivah (2006), learned oil painting from the veteran artist D.R. Bhosle, who claimed that it was Baburao Painter himself who taught him how to hold a brush: A couple of steps takes us from the contemporary poster to the dawn of Indian cinema.
North Indian Music (285)
Original Texts (60)
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