It was either obsession, or passion till the other day. For many a diehard film fan collecting film posters, show-cards, song booklets, working stills and action photographs as well as other tinsel trivia served as some sort winning a treasure house even for those who did not have enough place in their shanties or dilapidated habitats. This memorabilia generally was either tucked away behind or atop steel cupboards in production offices or dumped in some corner of a godown soon after the release of the film. Worst was the case with unused stocks returned by the distributor, if the film turned out to be a flop. In the narrow corridors of Delhi’s Bhagirath Palace in Chandni Chowk, which houses most distribution offices, torn pieces doubled-up for paper napkins. In many cases the surplus material was allowed to languish with the printers or other craftsmen engaged in making them.
In the eighties, Muslim dhaba food used to be our prime reason for visiting the infamous Chor Bazaar on Mohammed Ali Road, in South Bombay, with many shops on both sides of the road window-displaying assorted stuff, stolen antiques, and Bollywood trivia. Amit Khanna once picked up an old gramophone which still occupies prominent place in his living room. We would laugh rather than feel intrigued at the display of heaps of hand-painted film posters, and other tinselville memorabilia selling at dirt cheap prices. They had obviously been obtained from the kabadiwallahs. We often wondered who the potential buyer would be, though one had seen some of these framed single-sheeters, as they are called in Bollywood, in cheap restaurants and the now nearly extinct Irani eateries.
Many possessed the material as a hobby where they were available in single units. Posters of Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam and others, once suspected, were displayed for the Muslim pride, and what the makers had contributed to Indian cinema. These posters and other trivia would be available anywhere between Rs 10 and Rs 50. And it was still available for Rs 200 to 300 until Osian and Neville Tuli stepped in, picked up the stuff lock, stock, barrel and made it into big business. Some of these golden oldies have reportedly been sold in the international market for up to Rs 2,00,000 a poster. This has suddenly made some collectors so wise that someone like Shahid Mansoori, who has around 60 rare posters, from Aan, Awara and other films, is refusing to sell them even for Rs 50,000 each. The memorabilia from the Mohammed Ali Road shops and production houses has suddenly become a prized commodity. With the result that while earlier producers happily gave away booklets and languishing still photographs content only with a few for record no one is willing to part with them anymore without a price. Producers like Dev Anand, who hated reverting to the past, regret not having retained the precious stuff. He, in fact, ordered destroying rare stills while shifting office from Santacruz to Pali Hill some years ago. Of course, his generous carelessness resulted even in the destruction of the only copy of the English version of Guide.
The concept of hand-painted arrived in India with cinema itself. Apart from their ingenuity other sources of inspiration were more European than American, though the latter has continued to dominate since. The practice of hand painted, first hoardings, and then posters (the most famous of these has come to be known as MF Husain) continued till the advent of offset printing, and now the digital technology which has totally eliminated this beautiful art and craftsmanship which is, probably, the reason for their market value. Nostalgia redeemed is nostalgia achieved. In the 50s and the 60s Balkrishna Vaiya’s studio in Dadar attracted crowds because film stars, in their fancy cars but without the now infamous retinue, arrived at the small atelier to pose in person for these. That’s why those posters looked more artistic and vibrant than what is being mass-generated at Glamour and other Mumbai studios. On screen images are transferred on computers to be subsequently mechanically produced. That’s perhaps why collectors and distributors like Abid Husain Vora prefer to trade only in nostalgia. However, this dying art form still holds a position of pre-eminence in South where cut-outs and big hoardings from the movies and their stars stand illuminated on the streets.
But one learns there have been many enthusiasts in Mumbai and elsewhere with whom collecting tinselville trivia is a passion. Many have spent precious time and money in collecting, preserving in restoring it. Doordarshan sometime ago made a documentary on Pritam Meghani who has a vast collection of old music records. Movie buff, Sharad Dutt, a former DD producer, has rare recordings, booklets, photographs of KL Saigal, Master Madan, Anil Biswas and others. But this obsession with an icon and his works is not unusual. There are obsessed Indian movie lovers the world over who have archives of materials on their idols. Sheer doggedness has made Subhash Chheda, a chartered accountant by profession, is being regarded a pioneering archivist who has a records and a database of film titles, their lengths, credits, story synopsis, music and playback details, awards, major technicians and censor certificates with date and number, posters, photographs and other related stuff from the silent to the present era. Datakino the archive in Dadar, Mumbai, reportedly has over a lakh items scanned and preserved in high resolution CDs and DVDs.
Similarly, SM Ausaja, not the only diehard Amitabh Bachchan fan, who came to Mumbai from Lucknow after a management degree, and began with collecting photographs, posters, and trinkets along with other assorted jobs to make a living, now has more than 5000 hand-painted framed posters, including one of Amitabh Bachchan staring out angrily in Deewar. His collection includes posters and other trivia from 1931 to 2008. Amongst his collection are posters of Ramarajya starring Shobana Samarth, Mahal, Kagaz ke Phool, Pyasa, Ganga Jamuna, Ram aur Shyam, and, of course, Big B whose family history he is in the process of writing, apart from a coffee-table book, Bollywood in Posters (Om Books International, New Delhi, Rs 2,500). This, probably, will be, with an introduction by Bachchan, the first book of its kind in India though in the West exists but almost invisible in India David Blamey’s Living Pictures: Perspectives on Film Poster in India.
But for every passionate collector of movie trivia, there is a reckless, and uncaring one like the present writer whose collection of much trivia from mid-70s to mid-90s either got consigned in shifting residences or made its way to various newspaper and magazine offices in pursuit journalistic endeavours, making no attempt to either retrieve or preserve it. However, miraculously some black and white and colour stills, booklets somehow survived not because of the writer, but their own tenacity, or because of loyalty and proximity to their famous actor/producers. Now is there a lesson in it for others?
By Suresh Kohli