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Origins and history of hand painted Bollywood movie posters

Although the exact origins of Bollywood movie posters are relatively unknown, it is widely believed that the first Bollywood movie to use a poster as part of its publicity was Kalyan Khajina (1924). Vintage Bollywood movie posters have traveled a long way since then – from serving as media for publicity and advertising in the golden film era, to the present day where they serve as a subject of much curiosity for art lovers, historians, vintage & antique collectors, Bollywood movie poster aficionados, interior decorators, premise owners, etc. Vintage Bollywood movie posters regaled audiences in the past with their kitschy, bohemian appearances – broad visible brush strokes with a striking array of colors and typography. Their visual treat today is accessible mainly via museums and exhibitions. In summary, vintage Bollywood movie posters have had a fascinating journey over the years, from gracing walls outside cinema houses in the past to occupying center stage in the chic modern day homes of the elite today.

Tracing their origins, vintage Bollywood movie posters were created by talented Bollywood movie poster artists of yesteryears – a special community of artists who laid the foundation for hand painted Hindi cinema poster culture when none existed. Using a wide array of locally available colors mixed with linseed oil, these Bollywood movie poster artists created larger than life designs, which were then translated into hundreds and thousands of Bollywood movie poster prints via the most commonly used printing technique available at the time – i.e. lithographic printing. This staggering number of Bollywood movie posters once adorned walls close to theater houses, barber shops, tea stalls, etc. – generously lapping up every bit of advertising space they could find.

The Bollywood movie poster artists who created these masterpieces quickly shot to fame – many attaining such a cult status that Bollywood movie producers would agree to pay any amount that the artists would deem as fair compensation for their work. Several internationally acclaimed Indian artists such as M.F. Hussain and the likes made their humble beginnings as Bollywood movie poster artists. Decades later, Bollywood movie poster art still lives on through the humble vintage Bollywood movie poster prints surviving today. A far cry from its previous publicity avatar, Bollywood movie poster art is now taught in prestigious art colleges across the world as a unique culture that simply has no parallel to it.

Eye catching colors and brilliantly added highlights are the hallmarks of vintage Bollywood movie posters – captivating the onlooker’s attention. Bollywood movie poster artists created their art work with a larger than life perspective – catapulting actors to superstardom and cult recognition & giving Bollywood movies the grandeur that they continue to be identified with. There is perhaps no stronger example of this than the superstar of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan himself. The actor’s angry young man image is widely credited to being created by Bollywood movie poster artists who combined unique art styles such as painting with a knife instead of brushes, and gave Amitabh his angry action figure look.

Vintage Bollywood movie posters attempted to capture the essence of the plot of the film – as well as the shades of the different characters which were distinguished by different hues. For example, pink was the color of love used liberally on the leading couple, whereas blue was the color of choice to portray villainy.

Bollywood movie posters continued to be designed largely in hand painted format, up until the 1970s when cut-paste techniques came into being. These techniques were much faster and required little creativity. Using the cut paste technique, Bollywood movie poster designers/artists would simply cut the images of the actors out from still photos and then paste them in a collage fashion on to a canvas board with a hand painted background, which would then be replicated in print. These cut paste designed Bollywood movie posters followed an interesting arrangement of the figures, taking up every inch of available poster design space. Most Bollywood movie posters quickly began to break away from their hand painted stereotype and began to get photographic through the cut paste technique which caught on in the Bollywood movie poster design community like wildfire throughout the 80s.

Bollywood movie posters were created for marketing/advertising of the films they represented – but quickly acquired an artistic status due to the creativity used by Bollywood movie poster creators. With Hindi cinema drifting quickly towards the action genre, Bollywood movie posters became more colorful and dramatic – typified by a heady mix of bright colors like red. Songs became the mainstay of most Bollywood movies, as a result of which dancing figures made regular appearances on Bollywood movie posters.

Once the art work was designed and approved by the Bollywood movie production house in question, hundreds of thousands of Bollywood movie posters were printed on low quality paper either via lithographic or offset printing and sent out to distribution houses. Up until the 1950s, vintage Bollywood movie posters were commonly printed via lithographic means, which eventually gave way to offset printing up until the late 1980s. These Bollywood movie posters, once printed, were handed over to Bollywood movie publicity agencies as well as distributors and cinema theaters – which in turn plastered these Bollywood movie poster prints on every available inch of wall space. The trend continued unabated until the late 1970s when restrictions on outdoor advertising on walls started to gradually fall into place. Areas (walls) on which Bollywood movie posters were traditionally plastered on for years, were now declared no-bill zones, and the act made a punishable offence to deter advertisers. As such, the utilization of Bollywood movie posters for film publicity began to decrease marginally in urban areas.

Several local distributors as well as cinema houses designed their own re-release movie posters to suit the tastes of local audiences – many of them now sought after because of their “kitschy” element. Re-release prints of Bollywood movie posters also typically announce the success of a movie – such as awards or the number of weeks they have been running for in cinema halls, and even highlight certain popular characters of the movie that the audience has started to relate to.

Several vintage Bollywood movie posters were also tailor made to suit the tastes and acceptances of local audiences in rural and non-metro areas of the country. A one size fits all concept was often not the best strategy, especially considering India’s diverse mix of cultures and communities. Often, localization was required from both a textual (writing the film title and star cast in local dialect) as well as graphical perspective (highlighting those characters that were more popular in the region).  The positioning of a Bollywood movie through publicity of the poster was extremely important to its success – a fact that is substantiated by several poster designs being introduced after the release of the film in order to attract newer audiences.

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