On the streets of the vibrant and anarchic city of Mumbai the film poster unfurls as a familiar splash of vivid color. It acts as an attractive, instant invitation to the pleasures of Bollywood the largest film industry on the planet. It is also a dynamic fusion, where the world’s most democratic art form meets one of the most exciting movie genres known. The result? A bold ever-changing explosion of colour form and typography that weaves together to tell the compelling story of Hindi cinema down the decades. The film posters of Bollywood have always had a long and glorious history which is only now given the attention and recognition it richly deserves.
This book a celebratory and provocative look at a stunning art form that has come into its own in very recent times is a must have for all cinema buffs and art lovers alike.
In the small space afforded to me by the window near my computer a thousand message war on each other. My mind revives them momentarily but each can only take so much of my time before my eye is dragged on to the next. This is because I live in Mumbai the economic engine of a country of more than a bullion people and the ultimate testing ground of every product idea or message in the country.
Mumbai the city of a million glossary Bollywood dreams is also one of the most visually cluttered landscapes of the world. On every inch of space a Darwinian struggle for survival take place and the combatants include political slogans (“Cast your vote for elephant), public service message (“Don’t waste, You’ll need it later”), government diktats (“pay income tax. Walk tall”), health regulations (“get your child immunized”), advertising challenges (are you in the loop?), a million entertainment options from music videos to new television serials and of course invitations to the main event: Bollywood. The posters or hoarding for Hindi films have a certain primacy. They start with an advantage over all other contenders.
India is a nation obsessed with cinema. When Dhundiraj Govind “Dadasaheb” Phalke (1870-1944) showed his first film, Raja Harishchandra in 1913, India began a passionate affair with celluloid Approximately 800 films are made every year a large percentage of them coming out of the studies, big and small, of Mumbai. Although most of these fail each year brings a fresh crop with no diminution in numbers. In other words these is no economic sense in this business it runs on glamour on its own solipsistic appeal and on its self-generated aura. It defies economic logic and market forces even as it offers employment to about six million people and has an annual turnover of a billion dollars.
And because India is home to several languages because it is home to nearly half the extant scripts in the world because it speaks and loves and rants in several tongues, it is home to several cinemas attention these, Bollywood is the star of the show the cinema that has achieved some international attention and collected almost by accretion by accretion a gathering of loyal fans across the world. There are many debates around that simple term, the world has come to take as shorthand for a certain kind of cinema coming out of Mumbai the commercial Hindi film.
The name Bollywood is itself contentious of course. Some argue that “Bollywood” is a derogatory term used to indicate that the cinematic produce of Mumbai is a derivative of that produced in Hollywood. Others accept the term but apply it to a certain kind of film alone that which is made with only commercial intent which takes no risks in terms of its storytelling which uses big stars and cushions them in high production values which drives the plot through song and melodrama which seeks to preserve the moral and economic status quo in term of its plots and in the resolution of the predicaments that it posits as plot devices. We use the term in this book because it is current and because it is communicative with an acceptance of its pejorative roots and the confidence that it will transcend such condescension.
But even if we accept that are two kinds of films made in Mumbai the Bollywood and the art house variety the title of this book would stand the test. The more serious cinema (called parallel cinema or middle-of-the-road cinema) that was pioneered in the 1970s by Shyam Bengal rarely had recourse to hoardings. Their posters were generally also to be found only outside cinemas where they infrequently played. This some might argue, was because art-house film directors did not see Hindi Cinema-gores as their audience. A more elite class of viewer was sought, one would be familiar with the nouvelle vague in France and Satyajit Ray’s work in Bengal. This class of audience they probably believed was more likely to be influenced by critical reviews and word-of-mouth reports then posters on the street.
An argument more in keeping with ground realities of cinema might be that since most of these films were would have no advertising budgets or be able to afford commercial space. Nor were the producers under great pressure to recover their investments since they were in novelist Upamanyu Chetterjee’s felicitous phrase to recover their investments since they were n novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee’s felicitous phrase still sucking at the mammaries of the welfare state. Even those hoardings that were not directly related to cinema came from the denizens of the mainstream commercial industry. Each year for instance the vamp Bindu hired a hoarding in central Mumbai to wish her fans a very happy Diwali.
Whatever the reason few art-house films has hoardings on the street. One of the exceptions was Chakra (1981, Rabindra Dharamaraj), a film set in the slums of Mumbai. The protagonist of the film was Smita patil and an image of her bathing in the open at a street tap with only a petticoat covering her body seemed central to the campaign. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that movie mogul Manmohan Shetty was the producer of this film and not the national Film Development Corporation.
But it is not just name Bollywood that contentious. The language is itself contentious. There are those who claim that the films are made in Urdu, that the finest thoughts and most elegant sentiments are always couched in the hybrid tongue that arose in the 16th century in Emperor Akbar’s camp and which slowly rose from the argot of the barracks to the language of the salon. As Mukul Keasavan argues in his elegant essay, “Urdu, Awadh and the Tawaif” in The Ugliness of the Indian male.
The prehistory of Hindi cinema is located in theatre and the language of this theatre-the Parsi theatre of the 1870s, for example was Urdu. Any repertory company that aspired to a national metropolitan audience as opposed to a provincial one, had to operate in a language that has the largest possible urban middle-class reach. This language was Urdu. The same logic applied to cinema. Why wasn’t this language Hindi? Because the administrative and literary tradition of islamicate empire survived into he colonial period and received the patronage of the colonial state. Under the aegis of the British, Urdu succeeded Farsi as the language of administration on north India, just as Urdu had gradually supplanted Farsi as the language of the cultivated Islamicate elite. Official patronage and the weight of history queered the pitch for the debutant player, literary Hindi in search of its Sanskrit roots. Urdu the language of public affairs of the state had more opportunities and more arenas in which to extend its range. In pidginised form, it become the vernacular of the Indian army: it was the language of law and justice. When the Anglican missionaries translated the Bible for a north Indian readership they rendered it into Urdu.
Although Kesavan continues over several persuasive pages to make the case for Urdu familiar with the bloody history of the subcontinent will known that there are too many colonialisms underlying this history to make it easy to accept to accept. And finally just to make things a little more difficult, Urdu borrowed its grammar and its syntax from Hindi linked to it a symbiotic relationship.
While scholars and practitioners debate the nomenclature those films in that language simply continue to be made and consumed and win new audiences across the world. Each year, 3.6 billion people watch Bollywood films across the globe but each film must prove itself in its home city with local audiences before it seeks its fortune in far-off lands and on other alien screens.
Whether filmmakers and films distributors admit it or not Mumbai is the psychological test. Perhaps it has something to do with film industry being located here, against all odds. (Hindi Hindustani or Urdu are not native tongues. Northerners laugh at the way the Mumbaikar speaks “their” language) perhaps it has something to do with the western-facing seaport being the economic engine of the country therefore the place where fashions explode and implode first the city that is always the first to take on a fad and the first to discord it. Perhaps it has something to do with driving down the roads and seeing your own poster plastered on the walls. In his autobiography, Dev Anand records his excitement at seeing a representation of himself on a railway platform.
One day as we were traveling together by train in Bombay guru Dutt suddenly gasped looking at a poster on the station platform.
That’s you! Hum Ek Hain was about to be released. The posters were up. By the time I looked back the local train had moved on, and I could only see the poster as it passed out of sight I could not register anything of its contents.
It’ll probably be boring you but I’d like to get back and see myself hanging at a railway platform, like I had seen Ashok kumar’s banner once!’ I told Dutt.
He agreed to indulge me. We came back in the same train without getting off and postponed the proposed destination we were off to, to a later time.
Standing at the railway watching my face on a movie poster for the first time with a few people staring at it with pleasant curiosity was thrilling experience. I looked at Guru Dutt-He smiled and simply said, Good.
And although Hindi cinema has been fairly niggardly about representing itself, there is a moment in Main Madhuri Dixit Hoon (2003, Chandan Arora) where the young Chutki (Antara mali) stands in front of her first hoarding and looks at herself up there outside a theatre. This is a moment to be cherished but as she discovers, it is also a moment that could end in the cruel laughter of a jaded Mumbai audience.
This audience with its savage post-release comments is what the poster must seek. It does began with some advantages. The nation’s best known faces peer out of these posters. They are among the best paid of Indian thus adding the ineffable power of money to the already potent combination pf physical beauty and success. They are as film scholar Raymond Durgnat says, “a reflection on which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself.
Every Bollywood film gets a once-over from potential ticket buyers, even if is only to check which stars are involved or to reassure themselves that none are. Other consumer products my camouflage their advertising in order to resemble Bollywood posters and hoardings hoping for the rub-off-effect. And of course there are celebrity endorsements, equally divided between cricketers and Bollywood stars, although the latter are seen as more dependable since their fortunes do not fluctuate with each match. When there are several films being released almost every week the Bollywood poster must compete against itself. It must send out a powerful message. It must shout. Much of the sheer melodrama you see in the page that follow is part of the economic imperative of attracting the attention of a heterogeneous mass of people and redefining then as a public audience.
Over the years what public has that been? In poster across these pages you will notice that language is English. Yet for many decades filmmakers maintained that they made films for the “masses”. When a director was asked about the melodrama with which he had concluded a film or the improbability of same plot development or even a failure in continuity he would simply take refuge behind the catch-all excuse “my film was made for the masses, “the masses was a codeword for the illiterate Indian, the man in the stalls, the man who squatted on the unfamiliar seats in theatre often the man who would donate his blood to afford seeing a film.
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend