Vijay Kumar boasts that he was once a "star" sought out by several Bollywood worthies. But Kumar, a Bollywood poster artist, went from being a "hero" to a "zero" about 12 years ago when most cinemas ditched painted posters and began using digitally printed vinyl ones.
For three years, he was out of work and depressed. "I did not even have the money to pay the school fees of my children. What pained me more was the loss of an art that was so dear to me," says Kumar, sitting at Jain Studio in Daryaganj, his workplace then and now.
But Kumar's fortunes took quite a filmy turn a couple of years ago. After doing several odd jobs for years, he was back to painting Bollywood posters - albeit of a different kind.
"I do bespoke posters for foreigners who want me to paint them in place of the stars of super-hit Bollywood movies," says the 45-year-old, who is the city's most sought-after bespoke Bollywood poster artist.
The studio, his workplace for over 30 years, is a decrepit spot, where five-six people drop in from time to time to do odd artistic jobs, including paintings of gods and goddesses and personal portraits.
Damaged cut-outs of film stars and posters are strewn about. There are dilapidated beds, wooden cabinets filled with brushes and colour boxes all around. Kumar says the place was not always so.
"A large number of Bollywood banners and billboards that once loomed over cinema halls across the city were painted here. The studio was a bustling place, and so were other studios in the city such as Kalarath Studio, Om Studio, Khosla Studio and Jolly Art Studio, places where about 200 poster artists worked, and top-notch film distributors of the city sat through Thursday nights to ensure that movie posters were ready in time to be put up at cinemas by the morning. Filmmakers such as Boney Kapoor too dropped in," he says.
"After all, those billboards and posters were the only means of outdoor advertising for movies those days and played a key role in their successes or failures. I would made good money," says Kumar, adding, "The first poster that I made was of Ek Duje Ke Liye."
By the late 1990s, digitally printed vinyl posters had arrived on the scene. Within a few years, painted banners and billboards were dead and Kumar's life was rendered colourless. "Most Bollywood poster artists were in dire straits and were forced to take up odd assignments such as painting walls of play schools. Some even had to sell vegetables, and they are still doing it," says Kumar,
who continued to practise his art at the studio.
In 2006, a Frenchman came calling at the studio. He wanted Kumar to make customised Bollywood posters for him - painting his face in place of that of stars on the posters of vintage Bollywood movies.
"I did about 10 posters for him. And soon, the word spread and I started getting a lot of offers from foreigners who wanted me to paint their faces, along with their partners', in place of those of the stars of Bollywood movies."
In the past few years, he has been doing customised Bollywood posters for people from the UK, US, Australia and France. Kumar has been named in several books and blogs written by expatriates about their Delhi experience.
"Customised Bollywood posters for individuals do not give the same joy as Bollywood posters. But, at least, this new craze among foreigners and expatriates have allowed to me remain an artist," says Kumar, who charges R15,000 onwards for the posters.
He says the most popular poster is that of Om Shanti Om: "My clients want their faces painted instead of those Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone in bold, bright colours. They love to be seen holding pistols or swords in the posters. I am surprised by their knowledge of and love for Bollywood," says Kumar, who has done over 1,500 bespoke Bollywood posters, mostly 5-4 ft tall.
While his clients, he says, are particular that the body and facial expressions match that of the stars, the original Bollywood posters were more difficult to paint.
"Painting actors who played villains such as Amrish Puri was quite a task as their actions and outfits were pretty quirky and changed with every film. But the most challenging was to paint actor Raj Kumar on a poster: it was difficult to get his lips right," he says, adding, "Among actresses, getting the facial features of Hema Malini right was pretty difficult."
Kumar says that these days, a lot of Delhi residents commission him to do posters of vintage Bollywood movies on the walls and windows of their houses and canvass.
"A few days ago, I was commissioned to paint portraits of several Bollywood stars on the windows of a house in Green Park. While Bollywood posters may have died, a new kind of Bollywood art is now emerging. I am happy I feel connected to Bollywood again," says Kumar, his eyes wistful.