Film critic, screenwriter and editor Khalid Mohamed speaks candidly with Rashmi Rajgopal about the sorry state of Indian film memorabilia.
Unlike paintings, film memorabilia seldom receive their due. Everyone knows this, and everyone wants to do something about it, but it’s always the authorities who get pointed at for not doing enough. Three weeks ago, I’d written to two collectors who’d very generously agreed to share their story on sourcing Indian film collectibles with me. When asked why they’d decided to auction their collection, their reply left me unconvinced: “…film memorabilia have immense potential…we would like to create an appreciation for this art form which is one of its kind.” I was hoping to know how they felt about auctioning their collection, and whether they were hopeful it would be received well. They’d clearly spent a lot of time and energy sourcing items from cities across India. There had to be more to this explanation.
So I ruminated on what they’d said. It sounded obvious, yes, but what kinds of stories lurked beneath the surface of the potential of Indian film memorabilia? I called Khalid Mohamed with a few hastily compiled questions on abandoned originals: posters and other publicity material brought out by the production companies at the time the film was first released. Many producers still retained these, but others were indeed left lying around, decaying with time. “The Grant Road and Chor Bazaar markets used to have a good collection of film posters”—whether originals or copies wasn’t clear—“but those are now gone.”
When it comes to government efforts to preserve something significant, we know how it turns out. Any indifference on their part is no news. “Originals by far are very few, and very badly archived,” Khalid explained, quite matter-of-factly. “Obviously at the time not many knew they would mean so much, so there was no conscious effort to preserve them.” Exceptions would be the National Film Archive of India and the Films Division. The latter’s website features an appeal from the government to donate films, manuscripts, equipment and artefacts to the National Museum for Indian Cinema, which opened in Mumbai this February.
“What about the artists who worked on posters and lobby cards? Didn’t they do anything to retrieve their artwork?”
“Why would they? It’s a question of earning a living,” he replied.
Though Khalid tackled my questions convincingly, I sensed a cynicism in his voice as he spoke—the kind that comes through dealing with and resisting an indifference to conserving these originals, and knowing that any efforts would have been the bare minimal, and finally resigning to it. “There just hasn’t been a consciousness in preserving film posters,” he said with a tinge of bitterness. A market demand would surely compel a more conscientious approach to preserving what’s remaining of these originals—the thought came easily to me, but he countered it. “How would you define the market?”
The market, he argues, is unstructured and vague. People want film posters, but it cannot be pinned to any specific demographic. “After Hollywood started selling film memorabilia, we followed in their tracks.” While acknowledging a base of collectors, he believes it’s still a highly niche demand. Certain collectibles hold more allure than others. “Posters of Guide and Mughal-e-Azam are still extremely popular.” The interest is mainly driven by fondness and nostalgia. Khalid is right to an extent; fondness and nostalgia do lie at the base, but perhaps it’s also fuelled by a serious interest in film memorabilia as an art form. Of course, from a sales perspective, this kind of cultural validation holds more appeal over a primal human desire to possess something that evokes a bygone age. It’s almost impossible to uncover true motives, but it is a possibility.
So the best bet to find well-preserved originals would be with directors, film producers, actors, and others in the business who’ve sought out these posters. One would even get lucky at certain theatres. “If you go to Liberty Cinema, you would find a beautiful hand-painted poster of Awara,” he said, while adding other names. “Rishi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor…they had conserved many posters.”