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By Irna Qureshi on

Decoding the Bollywood poster

Irna Qureshi traces the history and meaning of a fascinating variety of movie marketing: the unique, hand-painted Bollywood poster.

Hand-painted Bollywood (popular Hindi cinema) movie posters are as distinct as the genre they promote. In fact, it’s difficult to believe this form of advertising wasn’t used to publicise the earliest movies made in India. When the country’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was screened one hundred years ago at Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema, announcements in the prestigious Times of India publicised the event. Even on the release of India’s first sound film, Alam Ara (Ardeshir Irani, 1931), the screening was promoted with text-based handbills and newspaper adverts, as was the norm among theatre companies of the time.

The earliest surviving Indian movie poster is believed to be for a 1924 film called Kalyan Khajina (Baburao Painter). Vintage hand-painted prints, which remained in vogue until the 1980s, now offer a wonderful sense of nostalgia about a film industry which they helped to portray as larger than life. In today’s glossy digital age, hand-painted prints are highly sought after by private collectors, museums and auction houses in India and beyond.

Although some of these Indian posters took their inspiration from the imagery of Hollywood, the former served a somewhat different purpose. As well as promoting the latest film in one of the most prominent film-producing countries in the world, the posters had also to respond to the audience’s unique cultural needs. In a nation as vast as India, with its inherent linguistic, religious and regional differences, Bollywood is a significant unifying thread. Thus, the film poster acted as a tool to cut across cultural barriers to make the film appeal to a mass market.

Historically, film posters have used language quite strategically. Text was kept to a minimum to accommodate the low levels of literacy when trying to appeal to a mass audience. Part of Bollywood’s appeal is its universal language, which traverses religious and regional boundaries to make films accessible to a broad multilingual audience. For instance, two of India’s major languages, Hindi and Urdu, are regarded as sister tongues, sharing a large common vocabulary. Bollywood films tend to use a colloquial blend of these, and increasingly a mix of Hindi, Urdu and English (known as Hinglish) which makes the films intelligible to speakers of several languages and dialects. It is for this reason that Bollywood is so popular among a wide British Asian audience; whether they’re Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, and regardless of mother tongue, the language of Bollywood brings them together.

While the language of Bollywood is intelligible to a broad audience when spoken, the unique writing systems for Urdu and Hindi make their scripts mutually exclusive. This is another reason to keep Bollywood posters so light on text; a quote or tagline in one script would exclude large parts of the audience, particularly in rural centres. Conversely, the film’s title on the poster for the epic Mughal-e-Azam appears in three different scripts—Hindi, Urdu and English—to attract the largest audience possible.

Mughal-e-Azam
Mughal-e-Azam

The poster for Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) features the title in Hindi only, suggesting this particular version was created for a specific region. In the absence of a central publicity machine, local cinemas would hire an artist locally to paint their billboards, trusting them with a set of publicity stills, which were probably little more than stock shots of the film’s main stars. The artist would then re-imagine the film’s key themes, infusing the images with drama, romance, regional nuances and their own aesthetic sensibility. This also explains the existence of multiple versions of the same poster.

A second poster for DDLJ illustrates how posters are modified in accordance with a film’s post-release publicity strategy. The later poster replaces the original stylised image of the fun-loving couple with a simple photograph to emphasise the film’s central theme of romance. The image is taken from DDLJ’s most popular song, ‘Tujhe Dekha To Yeh Jaana Sanam’, which was famously filmed in the mustard fields of Indian Punjab. The poster text here is critical, highlighting the film’s runaway success; DDLJ ran for a record-breaking 500 weeks in the same cinema in Mumbai!

The Indian star system also determines the nature of the film poster. With text usually diminished to the background, the star becomes the key focus. But then, a Bollywood star always has been the film’s main commodity and draw. Fans will choose a film based on the star it features. His or her name is not required on the poster; the star will be instantly recognisable anyway.

In the era of Bollywood film studios during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, artists were contracted to work on publicity posters. As specific studios developed their own distinctive styles of film making, the poster painters played a vital role in perpetrating the star’s persona—creating an iconic representation and simply carrying this persona from one film to the next. This was the case with Fearless Nadia, who went on to marry her director and owner of Wadia Movietone, the studio which made all her films. The English-Greek actress, born Mary Evans, was reinvented as Indian cinema’s original stunt queen. Posters for films like Bambaiwali (Homi Wadia, 1941), depict her repeatedly as a larger-than-life, weapon-wielding, ‘fearless’ huntress.

Bambaiwali featuring Fearless Nadia, 1941, Homi Wadia, Irna Qureshi Collection
Bambaiwali featuring Fearless Nadia, 1941, Homi Wadia, Irna Qureshi Collection

The film poster artists are also credited with creating one of Bollywood’s most iconic images, Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man. In order to imbue the image of Bachchan with anger, the artists created their own visual language by blending distinct art styles such as painting with knives instead of traditional brushes. The unusual technique and its powerful effect are clearly visible on the celebrated poster for Deewar (Yash Chopra, 1975), which is dominated by Bachchan’s enraged, darkened expression.

Following the demise of the studio system in the 1970s, independent workshops such as Jolly Art Studio, Kalarath and Om Studio were established to cater exclusively for the film industry. Between them, these workshops employed around 200 artists to paint their posters and banners. The employees were usually self-taught, learning their craft from senior artists before setting up on their own. Incidentally, one of India’s best known artists, M F Hussain, famously began his creative career as a painter of Bollywood film posters.

Film producers had their own priorities for poster design. They wanted the poster to act as a safety net. It had to offer value for money by appearing to be all things to all people. Thus, the movie had to appeal to as many different segments of society as possible by offering comedy, romance, action and melodrama all on one poster, as a promise of the different ingredients the film contained. And so, rather than highlighting the most compelling image to offer one strong key message, some producers preferred to consolidate every highlight from the film. This inevitably made the posters seem cluttered, as did showing the main character in different guises. Yet, the lure of variety was deemed to make it appeal to many different markets simultaneously.

Cut and paste techniques became dominant in the 1970s, when posters began to resemble montages. Images of actors were clipped from still photographs and pasted into a collage, cramming as much as possible into the available poster space, with a barely visible hand-painted background, ready to be reproduced in bulk. The posters from this era favoured pragmatism over creativity. The collage aimed to offer a glimpse of different aspects of the film, for instance the cast in a multi-starrer like Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977) which features three heroes as well as three heroines.

Amar Akbar Anthony featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, 1977, Manmohan Desai, Science Museum Group collection
Amar Akbar Anthony featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, 1977, Manmohan Desai, Science Museum Group collection

Film posters in recent times, as well as the stars that appear on them, have become slicker and slicker. The poster as a key marketing tool has also given way to satellite television, where promotional budgets are now diverted. Meanwhile, it’s also worth remembering that Bollywood posters were originally created specifically for outdoor advertising. The posters complemented the oversized cinema hoardings at major road junctions. In a nation renowned for its vibrancy of colour, outdoor advertising by nature needed to be louder, more animated, eccentric and mesmerising to stand out from the crowd.


More from Irna Qureshi

Further reading

  • Rajesh Devraj and Paul Duncan, The Art of Bollywood (Taschen, 2010)
  • Rachel Dwyer, 100 Bollywood Films (Roli Books, 2005)
  • Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film (Reaktion Books, 2002)
  • Nasreen Munni Kabir, Bollywood (Channel 4 Books, 2001)
  • Jerry Pinto and Sheena Sippy, Bollywood Posters (Thames & Hudson, 2008)
  • Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (British Film Institute (London), 1999)

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