Although Hindi cinema has been fairly niggardly about representing itself, there is a moment in Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003, Chandan Arora) where the young Chutki stands in front of her first film 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 audience. The audience, with its savage post-release comments, is what the poster must seek. They are, as film scholar Raymond Durgnat says, “a reflection in which the public adjusts its own image of itself”.
Like all other forms of advertising, the poster too responds to its environment. When Bobby was launched in 1973, one of its most stunning posters had the lead pair on a psychedelic background. Nothing in the film had anything to do with psychedelia: no one tripped, there were no allusions to flower power. But the typography and the stylisation indicated that this would not be the common-or-garden Hindi film but one that was ‘modern’.
The legendary Raj Kapoor had had his heart broken when his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker (1970) flopped at the box office. Bobby was made abandoning all the artistic principles — an interest in social justice, the romanticisation of poverty, the glorification of the Indian farmer and worker — his studio had stood for. Bobby’s poster constituted an offer: the viewer would get a film in which there would be young women in short skirts and tight clothes. All this is to remind the reader, if such reminder is needed, that a poster is not just a free-floating signifier of an aesthetic or an industry.
When Zanjeer (1971, Prakash Mehra) was released, its first posters starred Jaya Bhaduri, then a successful film star with several releases to her credit. This should have been counter-intuitive since the film dealt mainly with the angst of the hero Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan). But when Zanjeer was released, Bachchan had had seven flop films and no doubt the producer felt that Zanjeer would have a better chance at attracting crowds if they played up the female lead. As almost everyone knows, this was the film that heralded the arrival of the Angry Young Man. Later posters in the second-run theatres would feature Bachchan’s face almost to the exclusion of the film’s other actors.
Mega successes generate other subsidiary posters. In the old days, producers would order a new poster for the silver jubilee (25 weeks) or the golden jubilee (50 weeks) or even the platinum jubilee (75 weeks). In recent years, these have only been ordered for Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995, Aditya Chopra), which has spent 12 years as a matinee in Maratha Mandir, a cinema hall in central Mumbai. Many say that this is as much a function of its qualities as a film as it is of its being a tax-free film, in an area where an air-conditioned hall and a clean toilet might draw in a huge number of people for a cool three hours at a minimum cost.
Today many of the old verities about the Hindi cinema have evaporated. Posters may be in English simply because a Hindi film may actually be targeting what is now called ‘a multiplex audience’. As Ram Gopal Varma, maker of films like Satya and Company has told Times Asia, “I’m targeting the urban multiplexes, the sophisticated media-savvy young crowd. Frankly, I couldn’t give a f*** for the villages.”
The poster was designed only to part the punters and their paise. This was its central function. If we have forgotten how powerful the poster once was, it is because the ways in which films are talked about have multiplied. The first intimation is often on the Internet; new television channels air pre-release specials; radio talk shows help publicise the films.
So what does a Bollywood poster on a wall out in the open mean? How does the woman with the gun turn from an invitation to a debauch to an invitation to a giggle? Why is it then that our favourite Bollywood posters come from a time when design was not such a self-conscious element of the processes of marketing or creativity? What does it mean when a young person hangs the poster of a film she has not seen in her living room?
If our heroine’s eyes follow you around the room, it may be because she has some questions she wants you to answer. At gunpoint.