Dirty Posters On The Wall
Censorship of films as always courted controversy in India leading to much debate and controversy whenever the disciplinary body has either disallowed or demanded substantial cuts for footage deemed unfit for public screening. One of the earliest of such decisions, leading to a historic Supreme Court judgment in favour of the film maker, was delivered in 1971. It was a long drawn battle that the independent-spirited nationalist, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas won with regard to just a single scene of bare female legs shutting the door, ostensibly after a customer had left, in his landmark documentary, A Tale of Four Cities. Though often sought as a referential whenever similar situations come into play, the Central Board of Film Certification has frequently found strong reasons, while trying to allow for Constitutional sanctity to freedom of speech and expression, especially where artistic merits are concerned, to impose restriction for a vehement exploitation.
The Government responded to especially producers from Bombay, criticism that bureaucrats heading the body were unfamiliar with vagaries of film making—by appointing a succession of film people as chairpersons and also revamping the regional boards. These included Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta, Anupam Kher, Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore, Vijay (Goldie) Anand who, in 2002, resigned when his proposal to legalise screening of x-rated films in designated theatres across the country. His argument was: “Porn is shown everywhere in India clandestinely… and the best way to fight this onslaught of blue movies is to show them openly in theatres with legally authorised licences.” Wonder where Mahesh Bhatt then was?
That Bollywood suffers from herd mentality and lack of morals or ethics have been amongst the high points of its commerce is no longer a matter of discussion. Many in the social sector have tended to compare it to prostitution. The upholding of Calcutta High Court of painting actor Paoli Dam’s bare back poster of Hate Story, an erotic thriller that tells the story of a sex worker, written and produced by Vikram Bhatt and directed by Vivek Agnihotri was, perhaps, in the right direction. The honourable court also directed that another one with her in a compromising position should also meet the same fate. But here what is important is to observe how and why none of the regional or the Central Board of Film Certification has objected to the blatant skin show. Although Hate Story is being painted as her debut film, Paoli’s bold act first came to light when she did a 4-minute oral sex cameo in the Sri Lankan flick, Chatrak or Mushroom.
Despite all the flak the film poster universally received, an unfazed 31-year old Paoli Dam speaking to a section of the press reportedly said: “It’s the story of a woman who uses her body to take revenge, so there had to be some skin show. We’ve just tried to be honest with the audience instead of beating around the bush.” She also said: “What’s bold for you may not be bold for me. Boldness is a state of mind…And my parents have no issues with my bold act.” Similar sentiments and statements had also been issued by other starlets who essayed similar roles or characters. After her debut film Musafir, Sameera Reddy had commented: “Boldness is not about doing sexy scenes or a sexy movie, it’s about having an attitude…given my background (big sisters Meghana and Sushma had been models), I have full independence with the kind of work I choose to do.” Bipasha Basu went a step further in defending her choice: “I played a bold character in Jism. It was the demand of the script as it was an adult love story. I am comfortable wearing short skirts and I always do even in my normal life, so I do the same on the screen. The exposure should blend with the demand of the script.”
But while the starlets made bold statements, the film makers seemed somewhat apologetic about including such scenes until about a decade ago and did not try to make capital out of it by allowing this skin show in the film’s posters on the wall.
In fact, the very trend should have been nipped in the bud a long time ago. Especially snuggled in the form of scantily-clad-leggie-bosom-heaving divas in item numbers. What probably saved those bare-bodied displayed titillates were the ones in the crowd syndrome. But the slide of these into fashion or unwarranted trend was solely because of the Bhatt Brothers’ sex and sleaze shows. Almost all their productions in the past few years have had sex, in its various manifestations, is the mainstay. And Mahesh is totally unapologetic about it: “Sex is what sells. Why blame me when it is what people want to see, they buy tickets to see my films.”
The trouble is, other middle level producers have been emulating his formula, and they are getting bolder by the week, whether it is suggestive one in Love Sex aur Dhoka or a seductive Mahie Gill in a green sari lying bare backed sending vibrations in Sahib Bibi Aur Gangster, a man staring hungrily eyeing a bare-backed woman in underpants standing flaunting a bra in Bhindi Bazaar; Hrithik Roshan about to kiss Barabara Mori’s legs entwined to his torso in Kites; Kangana Raunat in backless green with the film’s title emblazoned on her bare back, like Paoli in Hate Story, in Raaz, another Vishesh Films special; bared torso Kareena Kapoor and a blood oozing Saif Ali Khan in Karan Johar’s Kurbaan; Chitkabrey Shades of Grey has a girl lying cross legged on a floor with part of her panties vying for attention. Some other such posters were Bipasha Basu flaunting assets in a skimpy top and left leg exposed up to the thigh in Jodi Breakers; Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture with Naseeruddin Shah necking and Tushaar Kapoor’s lips resting on the edge of the bra. A lot of angst has been voiced at the Central Board of Film Certification and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s decision to disallow prime time screening of the film on satellite channels. There was nothing draconian or moralistic about the decision, as is being made out to be because even the promos too had Silk Smitha, sorry Vidya Balan, giving the come hither looks, to put it mildly.
The problem is such films and posters are no more flashes in the pan like in the not distant a past when a Shashilal Nair had some junior artiste double up for Manisha Koirala, bare legs up in the air in Ek Chhoti Si Love Story. It has become a USP for promoting an essentially non-big star cast film. Under Mahesh Bhatt’s inspiring leadership these adrenalin inducing gimmicks are into line with Emraan Hashmi and Jacqueline Fernendes bare uppers in an embrace in Murder 2; Bare-chested Kunal Khemu buried under the spread of US currency surrounded by a bevy of women, including Amrita Puri in the bare essentials in Blood Money, Sunny Leone bare essentials tantalizingly visible under a transparent white sheet in Jism 2. One also awaits the release of Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, based on the life of painter Raja Ravi Verma which has a huge amount of sexual content.
There was a time when posters boasted of artistic merit, and continued to command a high value in the market. Some of these golden oldies, like Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Guide have been reportedly sold in the international market for upward of Rs 2 lakhs. Reproduced posters have become a cottage industry in various parts of India, not a hobby any more. Until a decade ago even film makers, and distributors attached no importance once the film ran out of steam, and tucked them away in a warehouse, or sold by the kilo to the kabadiwallah to ultimately land in the backlanes of Mumbai’s infamous Mahammed Ali Road along side stolen antiques and other Bollywood trivia, sold for anything between Rs 10 and 50. One such outlet is owned by Shahid Mansoori who had until some years ago 60 rare hand-painted film posters of Aan, Awaara, Taj Mahal but refused to sell them even for a five-figure amount.
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, minus 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.
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 on collecting, preserving and restoring it. Doordarshan sometime ago made a documentary on a gentleman called Pritam Meghani who has a vast collection of old music records. Movie buff Sharad Dutt, who has authored books on KL Saigal and Anil Biswas in Hindi, has rare recordings, booklets, photographs of KL Saigal, Master Madan, Anil Biswas and others. Pran Neville runs a body called KL Saigal Memorial Circle which regularly organizes evenings of old songs by engaging reputed classical singers. Satish Chopra is obsessed with digging lost recordings of his favourite old time playback singers.
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 as a pioneering archivist who has 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.
In recent times SM M Ausaja, author of Bollywood in Posters has emerged the biggest individual collector of film memorabilia, including more than 6000 hand painted framed ones from the 1930s to the present.
In Living Pictures: Perspectives on the Film Poster in India, the editors David Blamey and Robert D’Souza observed: “The Indian film poster has always invited public scandal. This is partly because it is subject to a different regime of state censorship, control and certification to the film itself; and partly because its localized production by small-scale off-set printing companies and ateliers of bill-board painters has at least until the recent introduction of computer digitalization encouraged the imaginative and colourful embellishment of film publicity still and press-handouts.” It was sometimes in the 1980s when producers started to transfer on screen shots or images, and subsequently on computer to be mechanically produced. That’s perhaps why collectors and distributors like Abid Husain Vora prefer to trade only in nostalgia. It was cheaper, did not require the stars to pose, and provided enough scope to make them front-bencher friendly. 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. Especially, the Chennai-based twosome of Laxman and Vincent that continues to provide hand-painted , though not necessarily aesthetic fare which is not something that sells in that part of the country.
It has literally been the case of class to crass. Vulgarity is not part of B R Ishara’s Chetna with Rehana Sultan. Aao Pyar Karen, Tohfa, Chalte Chalte, Pathar ki Lakeer, Insaaf ka Tarazu, Main Khilona Nahin, Hawas, Tauba Tauba, Fun Can Be Dangerous Sometimes, Girlfriend and Chakra posters can by no means be considered dirty. They carried a certain class, the only exception of that phase had been Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram that had Zeenat Aman displaying her assets provocatively, and the film did get social censure for that. Mandakini in the wet white saree did raise the eyebrows but it did not betray aesthetics in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Also in most cases this was part of the narrative, and mere posters on the wall to attract front benchers. Even earlier Rekha in Utsav or Simi Garewal in Siddhartha never provoked reaction. They, indeed, were classy. None of them called for raised eyebrows.
Until now Malayalam cinema had earned the notoriety of making films and displaying sexually provocative posters to lure in audiences, and their dubbed Hindi versions. Some of the recent titles posted for their overt adult content on Malayalam Masti portal include Devadasini, Ilavarasi, Miyaav, Inbanila, Yamam, Malarban, No Entry, A1, Anagarigam, Mal Chitrangal, Kavinchake Chintamani, Guest House, Raat Rani, Julie My Darling. There had also been others like Stay With Me, Punnami Ratri starring Dolly. But that does not mean that other centres have not been producing films of this nature, though some excellent ones like Kamal Hassan’s Mumbai Xpress too have run into huge trouble. The same holds true of films in Telegu (Ilamai Thudippugal), Tamil (Tucker Baby) and Kannada (Agni Pookkal) with the poster ‘Sex-Queen Abhilasha in A Horror Sex Movie’ in various gestures; Janma Rahasya, ‘a truly sex education film as tag-lines’.
The Government of Madras (that’s how it was known then) constituted an Advisory Committee in 1968 to draft a code that will spell out the extent of exposure in a film. The committee outlined 6 defining boundaries: “(1) The low-cut neck-line of the blouse making the cavity visible in a prominent way to the eyes. (2) The tight fitting dress of the skin-colour, making it appear as if there was no dress at all. (3) Swimming costume or bathing dress. (4) Bharatnatayam dress should not be shown without a veil cloth on the human body. (5) Mere brassier alone, without a covering cloth. (6) Proximity of two artistes (male and female) in such a way, whether suggestive or open, such as one lying over the other, rolling, attempt to kiss or kissing, holding close woman artiste by men with their hand at improper place, men holding the women close with hands at suggestive and similar postures.” Although the police commissioner had been empowered to take suitable action, film makers continued to defy it. Especially, with regard to posters because the Cinematograph Act 1952 did not put any conditions even if they were explicit, obscene or vulgar. Strictly speaking they come under the purview of the Indian Penal Code.
There have been glaring instances when features cleared by the Central Board have been banned by different states in the republic, but not vice versa. Those banned include Neel Akasher Neechey (1959); Kissa Kursi Ka (76); Kutrapathirikkai (91); Kama Sutra: A Tale Love and Fire (96); Paanch (03); Water (05) for over sex and socio-political content. And if one examines the scene state-wise, it surely will elicit smirks: Andhra Pradesh, Khankimagi (11); Gujarat, Fanna (06), Parizania (07); Tamilnadu, Ore Oru Gramathile (87) and Dam 999 (11), Uttar Pradesh and initially Punjab also, Aarakshan (11). But seldom has a mere poster attracted such contempt as Hate Story has and that too in West Bengal which seems to be fast emerging as intolerant of and a grave threat to freedom of expression.
The 21st century heralded a new trend. The six-pack abs, puffed up, muscle flexing bare torso of the hero, with or without a vest. During golden days of Bollywood it was Dev Anand who appeared bare-chested in some films, but nobody even took any notice of it. Not really until macho Dharmendra appeared shirtless in Phool aur Pathar. The audience lapped it up, though it never became a trend. Today, Salman Khan has emerged as the trendsetter, and his removing his shirt a must, a clap-triggering act in theatres. Now almost every leading actor, whether it is Aamir Khan (Lagaan, Gajini), Shah Rukh Khan (Om Shanti Om, Ra.One), John Abraham (Dostana), Shahid Kapoor (Kaminey), Akshay Kumar (Blue), Hrithik Roshan (Jodha Akbar, Kites), Sanjay Dutt (Yalgaar, Agneepath), Saif Ali Khan (Kurbaan, Agent Vinod) Emraan Hashmi (in almost all his starrers), and Ranbir Kapoor who showed even his butt in his debut film, Saawariya to name just a few. And the trend is here to stay. No one raises the eyebrows; no social site has come forward with protest.
By Suresh Kohli