Aurora Magazine

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Investing Icons With Star Power

Durriya Kazi evokes the artists who created Pakistan’s iconic cinema posters.
Published 07 Jun, 2023 05:13pm

This article is part of our cover story <strong>Future Imperfect?</strong>
This article is part of our cover story Future Imperfect?

In today’s multiplex cinema world, it is difficult to imagine how vibrant cinema was in the first three decades of Pakistan’s history. From there having been between 1,500 and 2,000 cinema theatres across Pakistan, the number has, in the last 10 years, dwindled to less than 300, of which 70 are expensive multiplexes. This, when the worldwide audiences for cinema are rapidly increasing.

There has been much soul-searching about the reasons for the decline. An overlooked casualty of this trend is the end of hand-painted cinema banners and posters. In 2007 alone, 75 artists from Lahore’s cinema distribution centre, Royal Park, lost their jobs to digital posters and banners. Earlier, film distributors considered elaborate hand-painted banners and posters as essential to the promotion of films. In fact, they were the trailers of films. It was impossible to miss a 150-foot long and 90-foot high banner, with its bright colours and larger-than-life stars. Tongas, with film posters strapped on either side, advertised the film street by street and the exterior façades of Royal Park were barely visible due to multiple posters and mini banners announcing the latest films.

Cinema art has two distinct types of artists. The banner painters who paint canvases large enough to cover the theatre frontage and usually work in makeshift studios at the back of the cinema theatre, and the more refined poster painters, who work in small, office-like studios.

The canvases are repainted over and over again and many are repaired with patches of canvas not visible at street level. Watching a banner artist work deftly with wide, wall-painting brushes on an enlarged scale fills one with awe.

The banner painters insist that they make stars of actors. They make them larger-than-life, enhance their muscles and curves, fill their eyes with rage and turn tears into rivulets of sorrow. Fellow artists visit cinema theatres to admire or critique the latest work. Among the posters most admired by fellow artists was one for Ehsas, which had a realistically depicted plaster across Shabnam’s forehead. The style of the posters reflected the melodramatic nature of Pakistani films. Emotion is laid bare – rage, passion, desire, sorrow. In a country that increasingly encourages the covering of bodies, male and female, cinema art exists in a parallel reality of revealing clothes, seductive poses and overt sexuality.

The film distributors shared stills of the completed film with the artist, who selected the scenes that best represent the story. A compositional jargon was used for which actors or scenes should be ‘in’ (in the foreground and in full colour) and which should be ‘out’ (in the background and in mono-colour). Banners were painted in four stages – drawing, single, ground and finish; each stage had a different assistant.

Cinema art came to Pakistan from Bombay. The three main poster ustads (teachers) trained in Bombay were Moinuddin Azad, Sardar Khan (better known as S. Khan) and Mustafa Chughtai.

Chughtai worked with an airbrush and was known for his fine, idealised images. He was equally criticised by fellow artists for this refinement and for not stylistically distinguishing male and female characters. Azad was considered the more realistic artist with his emotive brush strokes that better depicted the action and mood of the film and for showing male actors with more weather-beaten skin. S. Khan modernised Azad’s style, and with his son, Sarfaraz Iqbal (S. Iqbal), added contemporary compositions and lettering. Their work came to define film posters of the sixties and seventies – Bano, Jehangira, Aashi, Sita Maryam Margaret and even the wacky Hunterwali. S. Iqbal adapted to photo collages and then compositions for panaflex, working right until his death in 2017 – the last of the great poster artists. This father-and-son team defined the public image of Waheed Murad, Rani, Neelo, Nadeem, Mohammad Ali, Shamim Ara, Babra Sharif, Badar Munir and in more recent times, Sultan Rahi, Shaan and Saima. Filmmaker Farjad Nabi documented S. Iqbal painting a poster of the film Rashomon for the exhibition of film posters in Japan called ‘Lollywood! Pakistani Film Posters’ (2006).

The best-known Karachi poster artist was Wazir, who bought a lithographic machine from Azad and is best known for Begum Jaan. Kasim and A.H. Mahver (known for their monochromatic palette), the banner painters who travelled between Karachi, Faisalabad and Multan; namely M.M. (a favourite of Satish Anand), Pervez Aslam and Jeewan (they made banners for English films), Majid, Ghulam Rasool (Chota) Sarwar (better known as Arif Githa) and Akhtar who was both an actor and an artist. There are only a few banner painters left in Karachi and Lahore, of whom Ajmal is the best known. While some cinema artists such as Rafique, son of Mustafa Chughtai, went to an art school, most apprenticed at a young age. Ustad Allah Buksh was greatly respected by all and trained many cinema painters.

The early cinema posters were printed as lithographs in single or two-colour. When technology grew in the sixties, they became of better quality with four-colour printing. From the mid-eighties, pasted photographs were embedded into hand-painted artwork before they completely succumbed to digital prints. Now it is difficult to distinguish an ordinary advertisement poster from a film poster. No more stars are ‘made’ by poster artists; they simply remain actors.

Today, while vintage posters fetch high prices, out-of-work cinema artists are driving rickshaws, painting political posters or churning out small paintings for galleries in Pakistan or Dubai. Ironically, handmade posters are still produced in the digital West. Only recently retired, Drew Struzan painted the most posters for American films in the last three decades, including the Back to the Future, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Star Wars films. James Jean, who also exhibits in art galleries, painted the poster for the 2017 film Shape of Water, which had 13 Oscar nominations and won four, including one for Best Picture.

Would Maula Jatt have become such a success without the blood-stained posters of Sultan Rahi? Would Neelo or Mira have looked quite so sexy? Mohammad Ali and Waheed Murad so romantic? Rani quite so tragic? Badar Munir so fierce? Hotspot and Guddu and a handful of poster enthusiasts have given poster art its due recognition, but the film industry, with the exception of Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur’s Zinda Bhaag, no longer commissions hand-painted posters.

First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017) on March 31, 2018.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.