Simrit Brar was happy as the head of Contract Advertising's graphic design cell in Mumbai till one fine day she took a shot at making posters for her husband Govind Menon's film, Danger. The brief encounter had the NID alum hooked to a totally new vocation: visualising the calling cards of Hindi films. Her CV now boasts some of the most talked-about movies of recent times: Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Kaante, Astitva and Aks, which even got her Screen magazine's best publicity design award. Poster art is now her bread and butter; and more. "I love movies," she says, "so it's an ideal mix (of work and hobby)."
She has company. In the likes of brothers Rahul and Himanshu Nanda, sons of film screenwriter Gulshan Nanda. Having designed posters for about 250 films in the last decade, including Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Rangeela, Asoka and Devdas, they're credited with giving the age-old trade a new, respectable signature. "There was no organised way of advertising movies," says Rahul. "All the industry relied on was the brand value of the filmmaker and the stars."
That was then. Today, publicity design is emerging as a substantially profitable spin-off for the film industry, with an approximate annual turnover of about Rs 150-200 crore. It is also contributing to the steady rise in the number of agencies promoting, marketing and designing movies; at present there are about 35 such agencies. Among the oldest is the 22-year-old Studio Link run by partners Vivek and Atmanand. They have worked with a range of filmmakers—from Shyam Benegal to Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Younger ventures like Epigram and Endeavour bring up the rear. Freelancers like Ravi and Binny Paddha don't just do the publicity and promos, but also opening titles, graphics and SFX. Even established ad and marketing firms like Ernst & Young and Perfect Relations are branching out into marketing movies. Leo Burnett did the publicity for Ajay Devgan's Raju Chacha.
Ironically, the flurry of activity comes at a time when poster art is acquiring a nostalgia value. In March this year, a 2,50,000-strong vintage poster collection went under the hammer at a Mumbai auction, the first time Indian film memorabilia was sold on such a large scale. London's Victoria and Albert Museum played host to Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood, an exhibition showcasing a history of posters. The filmi images were also on display at the Selfridges store as part of its Bollywood celebrations and in Delhi, Priya Paul's personal collection of posters was displayed in an exhibition that went by the name of Cinema Still.
There is no doubting the hold film posters have had over the masses. Who can forget the garish, giant cut-outs of the lanky angry young man, spread all over India's urban and rural landscape, and instrumental in making Amitabh Bachchan an icon and a demigod? "The cult following of the superstar was underlined and blown up by poster art," writes columnist Ajit Duara. But while poster-makers made stars out of nobodies, very few of them gained recognition themselves, except perhaps for one M.F. Husain. Now, publicity designers get not just credits in movies but also awards. That's the reason lots of ad professionals are gravitating towards them. "It's a more creative outlet than designing commercials for products," says Rahul. "A movie is a product with emotions. It's tough to devise a campaign for it."
But poster art as we've known it is changing with the advent of this new breed of professionals. The paints and brushes have given way to the computer and camera, the painted image to pictorial representation. Painting hoardings, in fact, is becoming rare and Balkrishna Arts Studio remains one of the last surviving painting studios in Mumbai. "Digitisation is determinant," says film scholar Ranjini Mazumdar.On the positive side, the printing is getting better, and the huge, hitherto imported, vinyl printouts are becoming commonplace.
The cinema poster today is not just a scene out of a film, it's an expression of an entire attitude. Of the posters she curated for the London show, Divia Patel says: "In addition to promoting the film, advertising employed the aesthetic vocabulary of the period to reflect the ideas, beliefs, attitudes and values of the contemporary cultural environment." Ditto today, but the realities are shaped largely by TV and advertising imagery. Kitsch art no longer entices, the Channel V and MTV brand of slick packaging does. "With TV emerging as a major marketing avenue, the poster had to change its style. It had to match TV's visual scape," says Mazumdar, researching Indian film posters for the British Film Institute.
And so, the glitz and glamour is translating onto the placards. More is being spent in terms of money, time as well as effort on advertising films. If the publicity cost for a big film was two per cent of its budget before, it has now risen to 10 per cent. "Marketing a film has become as important as making it," says trade expert Komal Nahata. "Directors and even stars have become very conscious of the film's looks and spend hours in the studio giving inputs," says Binny. Thus for Brar, Dil Chahta Hai's spiffy publicity was as much a result of Farhan Akhtar's strategy as a producer as of his vision as a director. Says she: "We took cues from his thoughts and articulated and verbalised it visually," says Brar. Of course, with a lot of help from fashion photographer Tejal Patni. For Kaante, Brar got associated with the film even before they started shooting for it. She designed the brochure and the look for the photoshoot with the cast. These were then sent to the crew abroad to work on the concept and theme of the film. Hollywoodish in its feel, it has a clean, simple logo while layered images in red and green—taken from the film's theme—impart it a brooding, menacing look.
But however glitzy they might get, posters alone cannot make a film. The public is getting smarter and knows a good-looking package may not necessarily mean a good film. "If the film's bad they get a whiff, you can't fool them," says Brar. In fact, Nahata feels "filmmakers are giving more importance to publicity than the script or the subject." "Where are the good films?" asks Nanda, a fact reinforced by Bollywood's current spate of box-office duds. With every other film a romance or action drama, "it's hard to capture moments, there's not much ambience in the films to use for posters," he says. "Movies have to be good, only then will the publicity get better," says Rahul. If a film is bad, there isn't much that can salvage it. Not even its calling cards.