In a panel discussion, people talked about the art and effort of making these posters and what they have come to mean in different times.

Archive photo of a Nayagan banner with two autos parked in frontYouTube Screengrab/Chennai Photo Biennale
Features Cinema Tuesday, September 01, 2020 - 17:21

Artist Jeevananthan, who started out as a banner artist in Tamil cinema, having closely followed in his father’s footsteps, recalls a 10x10 magnificent banner he helped put together on a busy road in Coimbatore sometime during the ‘80s. It was a stunning portrait of Rajinikanth’s face wearing dark shades with his head tilted up. And reflected on the sunglasses, were tall trees.

“It was a real sensation on the main road in Coimbatore, a road like Chennai’s Mount Road. People used to stop their vehicles and look towards the opposite direction of the banner to see if there really were trees on the other side of the road. That is my most favourite banner,” Jeevananthan shares. 

The artist was speaking at an online panel discussion on Saturday, organised by Chennai Photo Biennale titled “Banners, Cutouts and Posters: Tamil Cinema's Tryst with Visual Art”, moderated by Dr Uma Vangal, Fulbright Scholar and film professor. Other panelists were film historian and author S Theodore Baskaran, author and art historian Dr Preminda Jacob and cinematographer and filmmaker Rajiv Menon.

The art of banner making

Jeevananthan, who says that he was “born with banners”, given that his father was already painting them since before he was born, also spoke about the laborious process that goes into making a banner or a cut-out for films, which was among the highlights of the session. In fact, the banner culture was born here in Chennai and spread to other parts of the country. “SS Vasan’s Chandralekha was a breakthrough in that sense. Just TR Rajakumari’s jimikki (earring) in the banner would be 10 feet high and movie-goers in Mumbai and Calcutta would stare at it in amazement and shock,” Jeevananthan shares.

The ‘gada’ cloth bought in pieces is stitched together to make for the big canvas. Wooden pieces are nailed together to make the frame. The banner-making studio, that has at least 10 to 15 workers including tailors and carpenters, is now at a point of high activity. The water coat, a particularly smelly gum called ‘vajram’ mixed with chalk powder, goes first on the canvas followed by an oil coat. Barrels of linseed oil are stocked for this purpose. Then comes sketching.

Artists made use of magic lantern technique, in which a rudimentary projector cast the images from a photograph onto the canvas. “Even until the ‘70s and ‘80s, distributors or producers (who commissioned these banners) would give us black and white stills. The stills would be copies, made into negatives that would be mounted on slides to be projected onto the canvas,” Jeevananthan explains.

Artists perched upon makeshift high-tables begin with broad strokes, then add a touch here and a flourish there as the full picture is completed. After it dried and rolled, it is transported to the theatre where it is reassembled with the frame. All of this happens in breakneck speed, with the artists getting about three days to finish one banner. “You have to remember – the film industry is a very unorganised business. Even a day before the release reels are passed from one hand to another. Different theatres come with different size requirements. So this work definitely requires extraordinary stamina,” he adds.

Cut-outs, a different ball game altogether, required artists working on wooden planks and fitting them together in the end like a puzzle. Cut-outs may sometimes go up to 60 feet high!

The early years

Film historian Theodore Bhaskaran, who has authored books like ‘Eye of the Serpent’ and ‘History through the Lens – Perspectives on South Indian Cinema’ provided insights into the evolution of display art for cinema. “Tamil cinema had 15 years of silent films during which time 124 feature films were made. But not one single document we have from that period,” he said.

Then later on, production houses came up with innovative ways of marketing the film. “Flash cards were popular in the late 1930 when below the still from the film, there’d be a space to insert details about the cast. In 1942, SS Vasan made posters announcing interesting competitions. These were unique ways of promoting the film,” he said.

Interestingly, these posters in those days had only the film’s actors. “Actors like PU Chinappa, TR Rajakumari were painted big to draw the crowd. The director’s name too started featuring much later. Also, later on, other departments started gaining spots on these posters. You could see Kalaignar’s name on it if he had written dialogues. Then, after a point in time, the film’s music team gained a spot on the poster. It has changed gradually over the years,” he explains. The same artwork was usually repurposed and used in posters and other promotional material.

Bhaskaran also spoke about the significance of songbooks. “These books would have the film’s premise and would end on a cliff-hanger. They would also have the song’s details, the raagam in which it was composed, credits, etc. The last songbook I saw was in 1993 for a film called Tirudathe Tirudathe. It came inside a cassette. The Roja Muthaiah library, we have 2,000 such songbooks. They don’t make them anymore,” he added.

Poster art and changing times

Rajiv Menon, who has worked as cinematographer in films like Mani Ratnam’s Bombay to making his own films like Minsara Kanavu, Kandukondein Kandukondein and Sarvam Thaala Mayam, spoke in detail about what goes into making movie posters that condense the complete idea of the film into one still imagery, to appeal to the masses. Referring to a particular Bombay poster, he says, “How does a film like Bombay translate into poster art? There’s the geography of Bombay established by showing the Gateway of India, there’s a scene from the ‘Kuchikuchi Rakkamma’ song to show that there’s love and on the other side there's a still from the riots. This is how it comes together.” 

“The visual imagery which is a shorthand condensing and compacting an image and the whole visual medium comes down to one icon,” he added. Pointing out that stills of songs were an important aspect of posters, Rajiv said, “Costumes in songs are solely designed for featuring on posters. Increasingly, representation of film songs on Indian film posters is reducing. Our posters are looking more and more western. We are losing out on uniquely Indian and great artists like Jeevananthan. Our visual culture is getting closer to the international cinema but we are also losing the uniqueness.”

An unexplainable fascination

Dr Preminda Jacob, who has authored ‘Celluloid Deity’ spoke about how she rediscovered banner art after having moved to the US for her studies. “I called my brother to send me photographs from the streets in Chennai and I was amazed to know how I failed to notice them during my growing up years there!” she says.

Going on to talk about the impact these large hoardings had on cinema fans, she explains, “The intensity of response that banners and cut-outs generated speaks to the power of celebrity. The thrills of entertainment and the pride of being part of a cosmopolitan modernity. In this sense, they exceeded their function as advertisement and became a focal point for fans to come together as a community and celebrate their star and the phenomenon of entertainment cinema.”

“The convalescence of cinema and politics that has shaped the modern history of Tamil Nadu was enabled through the visual art of banners and cut-outs. The medium produced images for film stars and politicians that towered over the city,” she adds.

“To help explain their fascination, this art form combines people’s affective response to three powerful mediums - cinema, photographs and paintings,” she concludes.

The full session is available to stream here: 

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