6 September 2015

Painting the Stars

Today's Mirror column:

FilmIndia's memorable covers reveal the intertwined history of advertising and journalism, art and cinema.

Among the page-turning pleasures of Sidharth Bhatia's luxuriously-produced new volume, 
The Patels of FilmIndia, are the pictures. The Patels in question are editor Baburao Patel and his much younger wife Sushila Rani, who together ran FilmIndia, the country's most popular film magazine for much of the first half of the 20th century. At its best, the magazine seems to have been an irrepressible mix of witty one-liners, scathing reviews, bizarre rants -- and of course, industry gossip. But it could never have achieved its popularity were it not for the remarkable images - often in full colour - that appeared in its pages. 

The founding of the magazine in 1935 was the result of a collaboration between Baburao - who had worked as a film journalist for something called Cinema Samachar, and also made five films in the period 1929-1935 -- and a man called DN Parkar, who owned a printing press called New Jack. An offshoot of Prabhat Studios, New Jack had become a lucrative business based on Parkar's monopoly on printing anything the Pune-based film production house brought out: posters, handbills, books. "He knew Baburao and they decided to launch a film magazine; their rationale was that since they had a press, and paper was easily and cheaply available, venturing into publishing made sense," writes Bhatia. "BB Samant and Company, another child born out of Prabhat, had the rights to the publicity of the film company and could be relied upon to give ads." 

From the start, it was clear that production values were going to be high. The launch issue, dated April 1935, was priced at 4 annas. Printed on high quality art paper, it had a rather spectacular hand-painted cover image with a woman's face in a rectangular frame, and the rest of the space devoted to a painted backdrop showing a kind of grand Indian crowd scene: bullocks, camels, turbaned men with spears, caparisoned elephants and a palm tree. The woman was Nalini Tarkhud, the heroine of V. Shantaram's film Chandrasena - which was advertised on the inside pages. 

Soon, FilmIndia's beautifully hand-painted covers began to themselves double up as advertisements for particular films - sometimes much before they arrived in theatres. In one fascinating instance, the January 1946 cover announced Mughal-e-Azam with a rather lovely painting of Prince Saleem picking roses in a garden. May 1946 and July 1946, too, were devoted to illustrations of K. Asif's Mughal-e-Azam. Yes, you read that right - 1946! It seems that Asif first planned to make the film in that year, with an actor called Chandramohan and the then-upcoming Nargis. Except Chandramohan died before shooting could begin, and the film was finally completed (with its now-legendary cast of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithiviraj Kapoor) only fourteen years later, in 1960. Those FilmIndia covers from 1946 are probably among the last surviving reminders of the film that might have been. 

In October 1944, the FilmIndia cover was a eye-ball-grabbing colour illustration of a giant hand, reaching out to disrobe a distressed young woman in a golden crown and the gleaming bratop that would later become the staple costume of mythological Hindu females in Amar Chitra Katha. The image was publicity for the film Draupadi, produced by New Huns Pictures (Huns as in swan, not Attila) as a launch vehicle for Sushila Rani, whom the already-married Baburao had assiduously wooed and finally married. 

Sometimes the cover could even be given over to an actual product. The February 1946 issue, with a properly 'Oriental' couple (seated next to a brass surahi of wine and a rather incongruously modern Western-style loaf of sandwich bread) announced Panama Cigarettes as that which "Would have completed Omar Khayyam's Paradise". But although the magazine was unabashed about the tie-up between film publicity, product advertising and film journalism, Baburao was publicly adamant from the start that his reviews of films would never be coloured or prejudiced by advertisers. Writes Bhatia: "Advertisers who did not like this policy were welcome to take their ads elsewhere, he declared." 

The other noteworthy thing about these covers, of course, was that they were painted. Sabina Gadihoke, among others, has pointed out that the artists often took photographs as their reference points to produce realistic likenesses of the stars. But the standards of printing at the time did not allow for photographs to come out well enough. Gadihoke quotes Alyque Padamsee, who joined the advertising agency Lintas in the 1950s, as saying that copywriters had to be careful not to put lines like '"This is what Lux does for my complexion," says Mala Sinha', "because poor Mala's face would look like a poached egg." Often photographs had to be enhanced - dull studio backdrops enlivened, cheeks made rosier, lips reddened - for the requisite glamour to appear in printed colour. 

The artists credited most often on FilmIndia covers are DD Neroy and SM Pandit. The talented Sambanand Monappa Pandit (b. 1915) was among a new generation of artists who had graduated from the JJ School of Art in Bombay, and was much sought after. Like many of his ilk, SM Pandit simultaneously produced film-related work, product advertising and calendar art. Pandit's work is a stellar example of the cross-fertilization of style between Bombay cinema and the popular print representation of characters from Hindu mythology: the stars became more like gods, and the gods became more romantic, more sexualised. But that is another story.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 6th Sep 2015.

No comments: