Bollywood Babylon

Fellows Spring 2002

By Douglas McGray

May 29, 2009

In a small gallery just off Mumbai's palm-lined boardwalk, tough guys with moustaches embrace swooning women, villains glower, and babes flash a little navel. "These are our gods," Neville Tuli says with no trace of irony as he shows off 60 years worth of appealingly pulpy movie posters from the world's most prolific film industry.


Few countries are as mad for their movies as India, whose new films far outnumber Hollywood's in a typical year. But here movie posters have never inspired the serious collections that exist in the United States, Europe, or Japan, where the medium has produced some famously iconic design. "For ninety years, the paper-based art of cinema has been treated like trash," Tuli says. "You could have gone to the streets one month ago and bought things that today are worth more than a thousand dollars."


Tuli, who has long shampoo-commercial hair and a silver bell to summon underlings to his desk, is founder and chairman of the auction house Osian's. Last year he set out to resurrect India's movie-poster heritage by collecting lithographs from the 1920s through the 1980s-many of them saved from the trash by "hoarders" with no idea of their potential value-preserving them, and then selling them at fine-art prices. This past March, with 80,000 posters in storage and a slick catalog, Osian's hosted India's first vintage movie-poster auction. Tuli sold 34 posters at the Mumbai event; one of them, designed by D. R. Bhosle for the popular 1965 Hindi film Guide, fetched nearly $2,000.


The demographics of India's moviegoers have helped give its poster art a distinct aesthetic, says Divia Patel, curator of the recent exhibition Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood, at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. She notes the country's "vast regional and linguistic boundaries," pointing out that "Bollywood" movie posters are usually printed in English, Hindi, and Urdu. "You have to communicate with as little text as possible, [relying on] dynamic images, dynamic color," Patel says. "Typography is very significant." She also cites the influence of the Bombay (Mumbay) School of Art, where many of India's poster designers were classically trained as painters. In the early days of Indian cinema the school was known for its realism, which is evident in the posters of the 1920s and '30s. Years later one of its graduates, Diwakar Karkare, became perhaps India's greatest contemporary poster designer on the strength of a signature technique. "What he did was fake oil paintings, using a knife, painting over photographic stills," Patel says. "Those were made into posters. You get this really rough design. It's what most people associate with posters of the 1970s."


Preserving these unusual art pieces has made for a lot of what Tuli calls "dirty work." Because of India's humidity and the quality of the paper used, Tuli explains, posters begin to deteriorate after only 10 or 15 years. "Sixty or seventy years old, you touch it and it will fall apart in your hands," he says. So Tuli sends every poster to a paper laboratory in Lucknow before it goes into storage or up for auction. There they are cleaned, deacidified, treated with an alkaline buffer, and backed with strong homemade paper from Nepal. Meanwhile, back at Osian's, Tuli and his colleagues catalog their acquisitions and try to distinguish great poster designers fro those whose work holds up better as memorabilia. He cites posters by Karkare, Bhosle, and Pamart Studios as "definitely world class." But Tuli believes it will take a few more years of research just to associate more than a handful of posters with any one designer. "This is all in its infancy," Patel agrees. "The designers never really regarded themselves as important, so they're lost in obscurity."


So far more than half of Tuli's buyers have hailed from outside India. Tuli plans to bring his collection to New York and London soon, with a series of international exhibitions. With the revenue he generates selling off pieces of his collection, Tuli also wants to open an archivial research center in Mumbai where the rest of his lithographs can be preserved for scholars of cinema and poster art. In the meantime, "People who threw them away are claiming, 'Oh, we never really wanted to,'" Tuli says wryly. "Once financial value is attached, mind-sets change overnight."