Rashmi Rajgopal in a conversation with two collectors on sourcing and preserving an impressive collection of original Indian film memorabilia
In a culture where posters of Amitabh Bachchan juxtaposed with goddesses and politicians abound on shop-shutters and chipped walls, the garish colours and larger-than-life poses barely make a difference. The noise is overwhelming and too deeply permeated to make you pause and look. Online, googling any of the old ’50s-’80s (and more recent, but those are easier to come by) films churns up eye-catching jpegs. It’s the same story; they’re downloaded and regurgitated back on walls. Occasionally accompanying these images is a tale of abandoned originals, lying forgotten in design studios. When they are finally discovered, everyone takes notice. Stumbling upon originals is pure luck, but putting together a collection of carefully sourced posters, LP records, stills, film synopses and lobby cards requires immense patience and determination. Two collectors, now auctioning their repository of original film posters, among other film memorabilia, share their story.
Could you tell us how you sourced and put your collection together?
In 1998, we once visited a Nawab family in Saharanpur. They had a library which we were keen to buy. In one of their cupboards, there was a pile of B&W stills of films from the ’50s and ’60s. We started going through them out of curiosity and found them visually striking. The family had owned a theatre in town for a while and the collection was from that era. That was our first purchase. Then we chanced upon a collection of posters from the same period in Lucknow. These were of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand films. We were quite taken in by their artwork and very contemporary layouts. The Satyajit Ray collection was bought from a film distributor from Calcutta. In the beginning, we bought a bit hesitantly, being unsure how to go about it, but we soon gained confidence. We learned to recognise originals from reprints. We selected material on the basis of their visual appeal. At times, lesser known movies had some excellent publicity material. For the period from 40s to the 70s we bought everything, rejecting only what was damaged. Preserving them and keeping them safe is a big challenge since paper is fragile and tends to break easily.
How difficult was it to obtain so many originals?
We have sourced from various cities like Lucknow, Calcutta, Rampur, Banaras, Mumbai etc. Our sources were mainly old shops, dealers, antique stores, distributors and old families with their private collections. We initially bought what was available. After a few years, we asked people to source specific stars or films. We also managed to train dealers to pick originals with good artwork.
Are there any interesting stories behind some of the lots?
One of our favourite dealers remains an old operator of film machines in theatres. He is a true fan of Bollywood—there wouldn’t be a single film he couldn’t hum a song from, and he would enthral us with stories about old films which we hadn’t seen.
Once when we were in Calcutta, we visited a Thakur family. They had a few paintings we wanted to see. We caught sight of hundreds of LPs and film synopses while at their store. But their grandfather was reluctant to part with his collection, which was now gathering dust. It took us three visits to finally be able to complete the purchase.
Similarly the Raj Kapoor collection (Mera Naam Joker, Sangam, Awara etc.) was with a family who were film financiers and had unfortunately not been able to sustain in the film business, which they said was very risky.
Any particular era in Indian cinema that strikes you in its visual appeal?
The period from the 1940s to the 1980s is the golden period of Indian cinema—movies were made with a lot of attention to minute details. This attention to detail is reflected in the designing of the publicity material. The B&W stills stand out for their light and shadow effect (chiaroscuro). Each photograph was developed with care and precision, making them beautiful and breathtaking. Before the onset of colour printing, these photographs were hand-coloured in lovely hues, displaying the finesse and dexterity of the artist. Soon, mixed media became the norm. There were big collages with hand-coloured photographs, bold headlines and hand-coloured designs making them very contemporary. With the advent of offset printing, lobby cards came to be designed sometimes in sepia or bold and rich colours.
The printing of posters has always been in coloured medium with lithographic technique. However, the quality is special with emphasis on composition and layout, the quality of printing being excellent. These were at times designed by well-known artists like Husain.
Why the decision to put this collection on auction?
Bollywood film memorabilia has immense potential. Some of them are as valuable as paintings and are very contemporary. We would like to create an appreciation for this art form which is one of its kind.