Indian posters lose local touch

The art of Bollywood posters, hand-painted by local artists, is fading.

Standing shirtless on a scaffold with a paintbrush tightly in hand, artist Sheikh Rehman leans forward to add another layer of gloss and pout to the super-sized mouth of a Bollywood actress.

"In the old days movies were sensible,'' Rehman says of the tacky movie banner he's completing. "The whole family could go. They were relevant, they had a story. These days, it's all action.''

Rehman sees himself as perhaps the last master of a dying art, the famed Bollywood movie poster. To others, artists like Rehman are simple tradesman painting at the edge of obsolescence.

India's growing economy has caught up with the movie business. Formula films are suffering record losses. Multiplexes are outpacing single-screen movie halls. And distributors have left behind the familiar hand-painted posters that once papered walls from Kashmir to Kerala for slick digitally designed ones.

The posters are far from their former glory. India's movie industry used to produce thousands of hand-painted posters and billboard-sized banners a year. Some theaters even had in-house artists to keep up with the torrent of releases.

Now, all but a few dusty holdouts are opting for the infinite palette and increased efficiency of mechanically reproduced posters and banners.

Rehman's studio for the past 20 years (it was his father's before that) is located in a cavernous space behind the screen at the Alfred Talkies in Bombay's red-light district.

Where once he painted giants of Indian film like Raj Kapoor and the actress Madhubala, now Rehman and his close-knit crew deliver broad-brush images of sultry sirens and hunky heroes of third-run action flicks.

"It's true, even I'm facing poverty,'' Rehman says. He can name only three other cinema painters still working in all of Bombay. "The rest are painting election posters - it's more money.''

"The artist, the painter himself, was a hero,'' Rehman says. "If people came to see the movie, it was because of the way the artist painted it. But that's gone.''

As Rehman's way of life fades, those film posters of old have been transformed by their very obsolescence from cheap advertising to coveted art. Classic Bollywood posters have been the subject of art exhibits in New Delhi, London, and, most recently, Milan. Collectors will pay hundreds of dollars for a hand-painted poster of "Mother India'' or other classic films.

While the posters are reappraised as art, not everyone thinks the painters are true artists. Indrani Chakravarty, a curator at Bombay's Osian auction house, tracked down several movie painters while researching a poster archive.

"I was rather disappointed,'' he says. "They all approached it just for the sake of money.''

There's much less money to be made now. A hand-painted canvas movie banner today costs between $80 and $100 and can be used outside three or four theaters before the elements take their toll. A computer-designed banner printed on plastic costs up to $300, but can travel to over 20 theaters before it fades.

"After that it gets tied to the roof of somebody's shack because it's still waterproof,'' says Hyder Ali Gola, whose father, Rahat Gola, now retired, is probably Bombay's most famous living poster artist. Hyder has since put down his paintbrushes for more lucrative work. "I have a family now,'' he says. "They can't live on paint.''

As cable television spread across India in the 1990s, commercials and music videos gave movie advertisements a look they hadn't had before: sharp and slick. Soon movie posters came to resemble the ads on TV.

"Nowadays if you are using a hand-painted poster the public will think it's a cheap movie,'' Hyder says.

Besides, says his sister-in-law, with the computer's palette, "you can finally make out who's who.''

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