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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 15:42 GMT
The dying monsters of kitsch

By Soutik Biswas
BBC correspondent in Madras

For over half a century, they dominated the skyline of India's cinema-crazy southern cities, dwarfing the buildings and the traffic below.

Cut-out in Madras
A typical 'cut-out' in Madras

The gargantuan, hand-painted cinema posters were an integral part of the cityscape.

They showcased scenes of usually rotund heroes and heroines.

Often the central character would be 'cut-out', as in the picture on the right here, giving them an eerie life-like two-dimensional character.

But today these monsters of kitsch are dying.

They are being replaced by glossy, digitally-produced billboards.

Ashvin Rajagopalan is a Madras-based art gallery owner who took several southern cinema poster artists to an exhibition in Berlin, Germany, last year.

He says that four years ago there were at least 400 of them belonging to a professional association.

Now two of the big six cinema poster 'studios' in Madras have shut up shop and he reckons there are no more than a dozen poster painters left working out of four derelict studios.

Most of their children are going to art college and learning digital poster work.

They know there is no future for painting the posters and cut-outs, says Mr Rajagopalan.

'Vibrant art'

The cinema billboards of southern India could be considered an assault on aesthetic sensibilities.

But artists and critics argue that they have been a vital and vibrant source of popular art by largely untutored painters.

They are fantastic artists - they can enlarge anything, they can copy anything
Thotta Tharani,
painter and art director

Beginning as watercolour painters working on pictures of deities and mythological tales on temple walls, these artists moved on to the movies, adding the longer-lasting enamel paint to their palette.

Using bright and loud colours, they honed the art of speed-painting garish cinema posters in studios that employed up to two dozen workers each.

Typically, a secretive movie producer would give them a few publicity stills days before a film's release.

The master painters projected the stills on a white cloth, sketched the outlines on the cloth and then went to work with their helpers.

They could complete up to 200 gigantic posters in a week.

At night, a posse of cyclists pedalling in a row with billboards perched on their head would carry the artwork to wherever they were to be put up.

Innovative approach

The billboard painters were also known for their creativity.

Film poster in Madras
Digital versions are now replacing the hand-painted

Once they put up a traffic-stopping billboard featuring actress Silk Smitha, pasting on a skirt that would flutter in the wind, much like Marilyn Monroe's skirt in The Seven Year Itch.

Sometimes their imagination ran riot - and foul of the law.

One cinema poster had caged birds hanging from it, till the wildlife department stepped in, climbed up the billboard and freed them.

The artists used colours innovatively and could cram in a lot of detail and action on the cloth or tin-sheet canvas.

Noted painter and art director Thotta Tharani says of the artists: "Their art is unconsciously Impressionistic in nature. They are fantastic artists - they can enlarge anything, they can copy anything and it is kitsch art of the highest order."

Losing battle

But this is not helping the art to survive. Digital posters look slick and are cheaper and easier to produce.

It costs 25 rupees (55 US cents) per square foot to produce a 600-sq-ft digital poster, while a hand-painted billboard of the same size would cost up to 200 rupees per sq ft.

Billboard painter Bala
"The golden days of cinema posters are gone," says painter Bala

Clearly, the painters are fighting a losing battle.

In a narrow Madras lane, Bala, 35, a second-generation billboard painter, says: "The golden days of cinema posters are gone. There is no hope."

Last year, he did only 20 posters, many of them of politicians, out of his garage studio.

Cinema provided his bread and butter, but nearer election time, politicians order huge posters and cut-outs.

"Now I do whatever job I can get. I can't be choosy," says Bala, working on some cut-outs for a government function.

His brother Venkatesh, a billboard painter, threw away his palette a few years ago and became a motorcycle mechanic.

Poster in Madras
Hand-painted posters - kitsch art of the highest order, say critics

The formulaic brew of popular southern cinema - schmaltzy, moralistic love stories, violent caste battles and mythological stories - remains mostly unchanged.

But the actors are younger and more rakish, the actresses more svelte, the seduction scenes and songs are played out in discotheques and foreign locales, while production values are much higher.

"The way the look of our films has changed, maybe we couldn't change our style the same way; maybe we can't make our posters look as catchy," says Bala.

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