The Art of Bollywood: Ode to a pre-digital era in Indian film poster art

The Art of Bollywood: Ode to a pre-digital era in Indian film poster art

Alisha Patel spends an afternoon with Rajesh Devraj, co-author of "The Art Of Bollywood", absorbing the historical outline of Bollywood poster art from the silent movie era onwards
Bollywood posters
'The Art of Bollywood' written by Edo Bouman and Rajesh Devraj, edited by Paul Duncan and published by TASCHEN 2010.
In "The Art Of Bollywood" authors Rajesh Devraj and Edo Bouman document the hand-painted movie posters that made Bollywood the love of the East and the fascination of the West. Devraj and Bouman successfully map a design history that extends over 70 years in their ode to one of India's most unique art forms. The book, which spans the silent era through to the 1980s and 1990s, covers a pre-digital time in Bollywood poster history. 

The period from the 1920s to the 1990s was a time when Hindi cinema developed its own distinctive visual language and produced its most magnificent images. These images, both well-known and rare, grace the pages of a book that is unique in that the focus is original poster art, as differentiated from re-prints, re-release posters, and regional variations. The crudely lithographed copies that are all-too familiar have been excluded and instead the publication embraces many other great visuals created by authentic poster artists, such as old movie magazine ads and booklet covers.

When the filmmaker painted the publicity posters

Art of Bollywood, Taschen Poster for "Pooja Ke Phool" (1964), courtesy Movie Tee Vee Enterprises and Taschen 2010.

Mumbai-based co-author Rajesh Devraj may never have been an artist, but as a child, Devraj spent time in Jaipur where his father had an outdoor advertising service and distributed films. It was during these years, in the company of Coca-Cola billboard painters and the occasional movie-poster artist, that his love for the visual arts formed.

Devraj says, "Hollywood posters switched from illustration to photography at an early stage and they also tended to use a lot more textual information. In India, by contrast, the focus remained on painted images for most of the 20th century, and that's what made Bollywood so special.

"Additionally, if you look at the way banners, billboards and cinema displays were created here -- that was such a unique system as well. In Hollywood, the studios commissioned designs which were reproduced everywhere in exactly the same way. But here, you had dozens of painters across the country, using publicity stills to create their own handmade versions. I don't know if there were many other countries that had a similar wealth and diversity of images."

In the early 1920's Baburao Painter, one of the pioneers of Indian silent movies, used to take great care to oversee the publicity and art direction of his movies. A painter as well, the story goes that he was the first Indian filmmaker to use posters and painted cinema displays. Though most of his images are untraceable, there are numerous accounts that describe his work and his dedication to art. In legendary actress Durga Khote's autobiography ("I, Durga Khote: An Autobiography", OUP, 2006) Khote mentions that Baburao called her to Kolhapur for a film, but instead of shooting he spent most of his time painting her portrait.


Diversity across decade and region 

Says Devraj, "There's something I like about all the artists included in the book; it's very much a personal selection. But I do consider D. R. Bhosle one of the most consistent and skilled poster artists in Hindi cinema. Most people think of Bollywood images as over-the-top, but Bhosle's work was quite restrained. He could create the most stunning posters simply by placing a single expressive image against a stark black background."

He adds, however, that the overcrowded "masala poster" often identified as typical of Bollywood, was merely a phenomenon of the 1970s, reflecting the nature of the movies during this period. "The product of the 1950s, Hindi cinema's Golden Age, is a lot more restrained in comparison. The artists would use devices like colored faces sparingly, while in the 1970s, a single image could employ every imaginable trick in the book," he says.

Art of Bollywood, Taschen Poster for "Free Love" (1974), courtesy Movie Tee Vee Enterprises and Taschen 2010.

While most think of the 1950s as an age of purposeful cinema, "The Art of Bollywood" book proves otherwise. Demonstrating the pop side of that decade, one can see the emergence of pin-up art in images for movies such as "Ada" and "Miss Bombay". The demise of the chaste 1940s brought about attitudes that were more relaxed in the era post Independence. Raj Kapoor's early films like "Awara" represent a new brand of romance, which can be seen in the publicity images for the movie -- S.M. Pandit's image, reproduced in the book, is highly sensual.

The poster-art, which changed over generations, also had regional differences. Delhi artists created their own lurid style in the 1970s and 1980s -- oodles of blood and AK-47s in both hands, even when the movies were relatively harmless. Looking at a poster for "Pooja Ke Phool" (1964) (art by G.H. Rao) (left), Devraj points out the difference in images created by south Indian artists for Hindi films. "They stand out for their saturated colors, which are used in unusual combinations. Faces are smoothened out and given bright red lips. Everyone got this treatment from south Indian printers in Sivakasi -- Hindu gods and he-men alike. If you think about it, it's quite an achievement, making Dharmendra look effeminate." 

The poster for "Free Love" (1974) is by another one of Devraj's favorite artists, Ramkumar Sharma, "who sometimes brought a surprising allegorical touch to his images." According to the author, Sharma was uninterested in painting conventional star images, and liked to insert twisting serpents and other such graphics into his pictures, to suggest a character's mental state. The Western semi-nude figure here represents free love I guess", muses Devraj. "But I’m not too sure why Yogita Bali is holding money in her hand!"

In the 1980s, many commercial movie producers moved to photographic images, though sex and horror movies continued to use painted images with gruesome monsters and nubile nymphets. The result may have been some very pulpy and entertaining images, but unfortunately Bollywood's long tradition of hand-painted images seemed to have ended sordidly. When trends changed in this decade, veteran poster artists retired and the younger generation took to mass-produced photo-collages, and later, digital images. Then there were also those whose workshops churned out large banners and cinema displays which were, in turn, threatened by the introduction of vinyl in the 1990s. Today only a handful have survived across all of India.

Is there any art in film promotion today?

"There's a great deal of polished work today, but if you have to look for truly iconic images, I think you'll find no more than a handful, among them "Lagaan" and "Swades" are the examples that come to mind. I don't think the poster artists of the past had a better hit rate, but then, each one from Diwakar to D. R. Bhosle had his individual style, which transformed even the most mundane film stills. You don't really get that individual expression today," feels Devraj.

And has the all-pervasive commercialization of Bollywood been a cause for the demolition of traditional poster-art?

"Not at all. It's always been a commercial industry. The painted image survived as long as it did, only because there were restrictions on technology in the pre-globalization era. Blame it on the Khadi Curtain."

"The Art of Bollywood" written by Edo Bouman and Rajesh Devraj and edited by Paul Duncan is published by TASCHEN 2010 (Hardcover, 23.1 x 28.9 cm, 192 pages), priced at £17.99 and is available online at Taschen via Amazon. Leaf through the book digitally courtesy Taschen. Distributed in India by Timeless Books, Rs 2,000.


A Bombay-born writer, Alisha Patel has travelled the world in quest of all she dreams to write about - people, places, culture, food and design.
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