Follow us on

|

Bollywood in London

Print edition : Jul 06, 2002 T+T-

London's Victoria and Albert Museum plays host to a unique exhibition that showcases the history of advertising in Hindi movies.

AN exhibition which opened on June 26 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, "Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood," provides an intellectual format to much of the imagery that is currently circulating in the city that can be associated with the glamour and glitz of the commercial Hindi film world. Within a span of one year, Bollywood has become a major theme in London's cultural discourse. The city, which saw the Filmfare awards in 2001, celebrated the 'filmi' culture at the Selfridges department store in May and hosted Andrew Lloyd Webbers' musical "Bombay Dreams" in June.

Meera Nair's Monsoon Wedding and Ashutosh Gowariker's commercial blockbuster Lagaan have played to packed cinema houses all over Britain. And 'classics' such as Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam have been re-released for the British audience.

Kaagaz Ke Phool

"Cinema India" explores the history of Hindi film advertisements from the 1940s until the present. The exhibition displays objects of film advertisements, such as film posters, hoardings, lobby cards and song books, all from the museum's extensive South Asian collections. The aim is to inform the viewer of the development of poster art and relate its development to the political changes and socio-cultural shifts within India. The display focusses on the art involved in the making of publicity objects for commercial films produced by the Mumbai film industry. The narrative of the exhibition is based on the premise that the art of film advertising should be studied within the matrix of the society that produces and consumes it. Divia Patel, the curator of the exhibition, is of the opinion that "in addition to promoting film, advertising employed the aesthetic vocabulary of the period to reflect the ideas, beliefs, attitudes and values of the contemporary cultural environment."

This is the second exhibition to be held in the newly re-furbished contemporary gallery of the museum. The aim of the gallery is to attract people interested in contemporary issues and to impress upon them the richness and variety of the museum's contemporary collections. Therefore the exhibition not only situates the historicity of the film objects on display, but also emphasises their contemporary relevance by juxtaposing the works of modern artists who have looked beyond the kitsch and offered critical commentaries on various aspects of the imagery generated by Bollywood.

The exhibition is a pioneering one in many ways. For the first time in the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and perhaps of all national museums in Britain and India, film posters, printed hoardings and associated advertising material are the main objects of display. The earliest work on display will be a song booklet of Dr. Kothnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946), and the latest one is a film poster of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2002). The chronological span covers almost the entire history of Hindi film advertising. The exhibition provides an opportunity to see many objects that were in circulation in India until the 1970s but are rarely seen today. Their display should provoke the viewer into thinking about the life histories of objects that are in regular use and are then randomly discarded and rarely 'collected'. Lobby photo cards, displayed in foyers and lobbies in cinema houses, carrying photographic stills that inform the prospective audience about the film are on display. So are song books containing the lyrics of the film in Urdu and/or Hindi that are no longer in use but are remembered by many, even amongst the 1960s generation in India. The designs on these objects differ significantly from film posters. The highly innovative and decorative art that embellish their body provides a visual treat.

Of the modern artists, the works of Catharine Yass, Gulam Sheikh, Annu Palakunatthu Matthew, Adam Barthos and Oliver Richon have been chosen for display. A nominee for this year's Turner Prize, Yass has produced a series of light box images of distinguished Hindi film stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan, entitled 'Star', and this is on display. Yass has explored the concept of stardom, and tried to reveal the interface between an icon and its worship by contrasting photographically the iconic stature of these film stars with the informality of their poses. Her colour-saturated images, produced by overlaying the positive with a negative taken soon after, have been displayed only in India. This exhibition is the first opportunity to see the series in the West.

Oil paintings of the Vadodara (Baroda)-based painter Ghulam Sheikh critiques the superficial world of Hindi cinema. Sheikh's painting, 'City for Sale', which features in the exhibition, represents his response to the film Silsila, which was first shown in Vadodara even as communal riots ravaged the city. Matthew's laser posters from a series called 'Bollywood Satirised' explores the position of women in modern Indian society. It borrows elements of typography and imagery from different Hindi film posters. The photographs of older film studios, taken by Adam Barthos, evoke a sense of nostalgia. Oliver Richon's images of modern film sets offer insights into the desires and fantasies that create and sustain Bollywood. The curator is aware of the small number of Indian artists who feature in this show, and admits that "what I am showing is just a handful. There are many others, like Doug Aitkins, Pushpamala and Atul Dodia, who have been inspired by Bollywood".

The different types of objects that have been brought together in this exhibition, labelled with their individual histories, offer a wide perspective on the development of a popular art form, identified as the 'Art of Bollywood'. The significance of the exhibition lies in its scale, in providing this wider view to reflect on a form of art and aesthetics that is different from the league of 'Fine Arts'. Unlike many exhibitions of two-dimensional artifacts such as photographs, paintings and posters, where only the imagery is emphasised, Cinema India places equal emphasis on the materiality of the displayed objects. Setting aside conventional modes of exhibiting museum pieces, the innovative design of the exhibition aims to draw attention to both, the artifact and the image that it bears. For example, scaffolding structures and plywood have been used to hang posters and hoardings high up. They are not displayed in frames and hung on walls. Old film trailers (a highlight being a trailer from 1957 in clipped English advertising Mother India for the British audience), and song-and-dance sequences from films are projected continuously across the walls to counteract static spaces.

The stylistic and historical narrative has been woven through different sections. Chronicling the transition from text-based publicity to image-based publicity between 1913 and 1947, the sections span images of the nationalism and glory of independent India, prevalent during the 1950s. They narrate the influence of international youth culture within the film industry during the 1960s, explain the rise of the male hero in the 1970s, show aspects of Bollywood's representation of Indian women, and focus on the complex interaction between modern technology and the cinematic image of India today. By contextualising the history of film advertising in the contemporary socio-political milieu, Cinema India brings out patterns of changes and shifts in the value systems of the Indian middle classes during the better part of the 20th century. The exhibition also places emphasis on a different kind of source material to obtain information on modern India - the popular visual document. It may, perhaps, also provide a reference to understand how the visual media have manipulated popular perceptions and ideologies in contemporary India.

Deewar

The exhibition is being hosted at a time when little is known about the history of Hindi film advertising and poster art, although scholarship on aspects of Indian popular culture, films and media is thriving. It follows the first ever auction of film posters held in Mumbai, in March 2002. The curator hopes that Cinema India will initiate future research on film advertising in India, where most of the source material must be located. However, "it remains to be seen how many private archives of film posters, booklets and other advertising material are unearthed" in the coming years.

In the U.K., recent figures suggest that Bollywood films bring in a very large revenue (helped considerably by the presence of a large Indian diaspora) and that English meadows, castles and ruins have become the most sought after locations outside India for shooting films. The contemporary relevance of Cinema India thus goes beyond the purely academic. The exhibition aims to attract a broad audience, including professionals who are new to the field of arts, such as fashion designers, artists and graphic designers. The curator also hopes to lure in the "trendy British Asian young people" who rarely step inside the portals of the museum.

The exhibition presents a unique opportunity for the British public to watch a live demonstration of film hoardings being painted. Three artists from Balkrishna Arts Studio in Mumbai demonstrate the art of hand-painting large hoardings (10ft x 20ft) on site. Their work has been commissioned by the museum. The studio is among the very few surviving ones of its kind in India. Faced with stiff competition from new technologies, painting cinema hoardings is slowly becoming a dying art form. In recent years, several international institutions have commissioned works by hoarding artists and have sustained their art. An example is the "Century City" exhibition, held in 2001 at the Tate Modern in London. Ironically, exhibitions such as Cinema India, held outside India, have become important venues for the continuity of a tradition.

Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood will be on view until October 6, 2002.

Dr. Sudeshna Guha is a Research Associate at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.