12 dazzling vintage film posters from the golden age of Indian cinema

These colourful and beautifully designed film posters grabbed the attention of film fans in bustling cities and rural villages alike.

Song of Life (1935) posterBFI National Archive

The art of Indian film advertising has a long, illustrious and colourful history. Moving pictures arrived in India in 1896, when the Lumière brothers projected a programme of films at Watson’s Hotel in Mumbai (then Bombay). Filmmaking in India soon took off, with a plethora of non-fiction shorts being produced between the 1890s and the country’s first fiction feature, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913. By the 1930s, cinemagoing was already on the way to becoming the huge national obsession that it is today.

Films were initially promoted with text-based advertisements, published in newspapers or printed as flyers. Illustrated posters and booklets began to appear in the 1920s and their highly visual qualities soon made them the predominant mode of film advertising. Bold, vibrant and full of colour, the posters were designed to grab the attention of prospective audiences in bustling cities and rural villages alike.

Promotional booklets demonstrated equally arresting design. Featuring a synopsis and images from the film, they were originally intended for the press and for cinema owners. Later, with the inclusion of song lyrics, the booklets were sold as souvenirs for audiences and became a central and much-loved part of the cinemagoing experience.

Across the 20th century, Indian cinema art was influenced by an array of cultural, technical and political movements and changes, from Art Deco to Indian nationalism to Partition and the societal changes wrought in its wake. The India on Film: The Art of Indian Cinema exhibition, on display in the Mezzanine gallery at BFI Southbank until 14 January 2018, focuses predominantly on painted (rather than photographic and/or digitally created) posters and booklets to explore some of these developments and their impact on art and design in relation to film.

Most importantly though, the works on show celebrate the vibrancy, versatility and emotion of Indian cinema art – and Indian cinema itself – across an era of truly momentous change.

The Unexpected (1937) posterBFI National Archive
Baghban (1938) posterBFI National Archive
Sant Sakhu (1941) posterBFI National Archive

This Hindi-Marathi devotional film is based on the life of Sant Sakhubai, a follower of the Bhakti movement. A number of early Indian films featured religious or mythological narratives, but these were gradually supplanted by contemporary social dramas, such as Divorce (1938), after the introduction of sound in the 1930s. This booklet artwork displays the influence of painter Ravi Varma, whose depictions of gods and mortals had a great impact on early cinema art.

Lagan (1941) posterBFI National Archive
Sheesh Mahal (1950) posterBFI National Archive
Naukri (1954) posterBFI National Archive

A recurrent concern of post-Partition cinema was the tension between urban and rural India. With the growth of India’s urban population, the city became a focal point for cinematic stories, often being depicted as hostile and cruel. The striking artwork for Naukri (which translates as ‘Job’) depicts a lone figure against a stark and stylised urban backdrop. The use of the newspaper job advertisement picks up the film’s theme of young people searching for work.

Aasha (1957) posterBFI National Archive
Madhumati (1958)BFI National Archive

Director Bimal Roy’s biggest hit is a gothic-style ghost story in which a young man shelters in an old mansion and experiences flashbacks to a past life and a lost love, Madhumati. The film features one of the best, and best-loved, scores of Hindi cinema.

Guest House (1959) posterBFI National Archive
Daaka (1959) posterBFI National Archive
Pakeezah (1972)

‘Pakeezah’ means ‘pure heart’ or ‘the pure one’. The film is set in Muslim Lucknow at the turn of the 20th century and tells the story of a courtesan who is unable to leave her past behind. This poster takes the film’s most powerful and famous scene, in which Meena Kumari (in a stunning final performance), dressed in pure white, dances over broken glass at the wedding of her former lover.

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