A song and dance

India’s vast cinema industry has spawned an accompanying graphic genre, clamouring for attention on the subcontinent’s busy streets. Mike Dempsey casts a critical eye over the first book devoted to the Bollywood poster.

India’s vast cinema industry has spawned an accompanying graphic genre, clamouring for attention on the subcontinent’s busy streets. Mike Dempsey casts a critical eye over the first book devoted to the Bollywood poster

Living Pictures consists of connected essays on the art, history and social context of the Indian cinema poster with hundreds of illustrated examples. For me, it is 260 pages of the kind of crass commercial art that I have spent my life fighting against. Having said that, for someone – in this case two – to painstakingly record this sometimes hideous, and very occasionally charming genre is probably worthwhile, if only to have the book on the cultural study shelves of the reference library. I can’t see much else in it.

What this book really demonstrates is the commercial manipulation of a vast population – the majority of which are poor, ill-educated and speak in a plethora of languages – into flocking to see these knocked-out movies (a staggering 800 each year), often viewed in tents, provided by the travelling projectionists who move from village to village.

Audience figures in India are vast, drawn from a population of one billion. They are fed with simplistic narratives, accompanied by extravagant song and dance routines, in exactly the same way that US audiences were tranquillised by Hollywood, during the great depression of the 1930s.

These Indian posters sell dreams, adventures, thrills and sensuality, but never sex – a wet Sari is the limit. They take their inspiration from the heyday of the Hollywood posters of the 1930s. You won’t find the Indian equivalent of Saul Bass within these pages – these are formulaic paint-by-numbers pieces, cramming in as much imagery as possible, with lashings of portraits of the Bollywood heart throbs.

What also infuriates me about what these posters represent is the strangulating dominance that the Bollywood industry has over any serious form of Indian film-making, which struggles under the weight of this mighty commercial machine. The master of Indian cinema was Satyajit Ray, whose films were full of intelligence and humanity, and diametrically opposed to the laughable storylines churned out on the back-lots of Bombay. It is a sad state of affairs, but apparently audience attendance is dramatically down this year, which may be a sign of change.

The book’s reportage-style photographs show grim, litter-filled streets and corrugated backdrops, and go some way to explain why the Bollywood movie and its posters are so colourful. They help to lift the burden of the daily life experienced by most and are a means of escape.

The influence of all things Bollywood is also evident in the UK – my own young daughters have taken to dancing along to a Bollywood dance video bought as a Christmas gift. Much of our music has appropriated the distinctive string arrangements so evident in Bollywood movies, and fashion, too, has not escaped its clutches, which all adds a new layer of richness to the cultural diversity of the UK. I also can’t help thinking that with the creeping realism of European cinema, with its depiction of sex, all bravely executed by dedicated actors being true to their art, is perhaps putting pressure on the Bollywood fairy tale-like world, which perpetuates the myth of perfect romantic love, rather than the realities of life.

Moving back to the book, it is a surprisingly utilitarian piece of work from the very talented Graphic Thought Facility. Perhaps the subject didn’t turn the designers on either?

I can see that one of these crazy posters, beautifully framed, placed on the wall of a minimalist Clerkenwall loft apartment, would stoke up a conversation. But I think the same could be said of a Carry On movie poster – they have the same kitsch fascination, like those embarrassing holiday fashion purchases that seemed to look so great on the beach in Thailand, but languish in the bottom draw back home.

Ironically, while writing this piece, a Bollywood DVD called Paheli, starring legends Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, dropped through my letterbox – sent by Bafta for consideration in the first round of voting for the 2006 movie awards. I hastily popped it into my player, anticipating that it might just reveal something new. Half a dozen songs and endless dance routines later, the answer was no. But no doubt my daughters will love it

Mike Dempsey is chairman of CDT Design and current Master of the Royal Designers

Living Pictures/ Perspectives on the Film Poster in India, edited by David Blamey and Robert D’Souza is published by Open Editions, price £23

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