[The Yahoo column for this week. With images! In full colour! Originally published here]
Two very nice things happened to me last week. First, Manjula Padmanabhan (friend, multi-talented author and illustrator who once put me in a comic strip with the peerless Suki) dropped in with a gift: a couple of posters that she had designed for Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya in 1982. Second, I got my hands on a bunch of Criterion Collection DVDs that another friend, Tipu, had picked up for me at a sale in the US. (It was my first brush with legitimately bought Criterions: Tipu had disapproved of my pirated discs from the underground market in Delhi, and decided to help make an honest man out of me.)
Both the posters and the DVD designs were reminders that high-quality promotional artwork can have a life of its own, even while it enhances one’s appreciation of the film. One of Manjula’s posters is a large close-up – a drawing done in black ink – of Om Puri's lined, weary face. You might recall that in Ardh Satya, Puri plays a sub-inspector named Velankar who is facing a crisis of conscience. To my eyes, the poster suggests the inner turmoil more effectively than a still photograph would have done. The thick black lines appear to cast shadows across the actor’s face, and looked at in a certain light, Velankar seems scruffy and unshaven - something you never see in the film, where he is neatly turned out from beginning to end. There’s an artistic rather than literal realism on view here, and it's perfect for the character.
I’ve been fascinated by poster art – cool and formal, loud and kitschy, and everything in between – for a long time. Many a lunch at The Big Chill café in Khan Market has been spent with my fork and knife suspended in the air, my mouth half open, while I study the wall posters of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and The Bride of Frankenstein instead of concentrating on my food. When the annual Osian-Cinefan film festival in Delhi started displaying vintage posters, lobby cards and paintings, I routinely spent more time in the foyer than in the auditorium, to the disapproval of friends who believed that watching five movies back to back was the thing to do at such an event.
This interest has led to a few good (and I must admit, cheap) purchases over the years. On a wall in my living room is a 5ft x 3ft poster of Nargis and Raj Kapoor in the famous clinch in Barsaat. It’s a painting, not a photograph, and though the faces are very accurately drawn, the poster (unlike the film) is in bright colour, with a florid red background. On the other hand, my An Evening in Paris poster features a Goldfinger-like image of a naked green woman with prominent nipples, which I’m fairly certain wasn’t in the film. But I love it anyway.
Among the posters I sadly don’t own, some of my favourites are the ones created outside the film’s home country, so that the familiar original title is turned into something exotic (and the film itself appears transformed and foreign as a result). For example, I much prefer the Belgian Psycho poster that spells the title “Psychose” (you’ll find a version of it here) to the relatively staid American and British versions. And who can deny that “Reporter des Satans” is a more evocative title than Ace in the Hole for a film about a rotten journalist exploiting a cave-in victim?
A poster I once saw of Deewaar had the alternate English title “I’ll Die For Mama!” scrawled across Amitabh Bachchan’s face in a dramatic font size. The Danish posters for From Here to Eternity (“Herfra til Evigheden”) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (“Broen Over Floden Kwai”) make these stodgy, Oscar-honoured epics seem more interesting than they are. And speaking of stodgy Oscar-winners, there’s an awesome Polish poster of Attenborough's Gandhi with the central image a fragmented drawing of Gandhi in a sitting position, hands joined in prayer. The great man appears literally to be disintegrating even as his country is being divided. There is more delicate artistry here than in most of the film.
As you can probably tell, I'm not as interested in posters made up of publicity photographs or stills, but even these can be imaginatively designed, or combined with other media – as in the Umrao Jaan poster Manjula showed me, with a photograph of Rekha in the foreground and a Taj Mahal painting (done by Anjolie Ela Menon) in the background.
The artwork on the Criterion DVDs occupies a smaller canvas (the size of a DVD cover or, at most, the size of the Main Menu on your TV screen), but has greater scope for mixing media. For instance, the DVD cover of Onibaba, the Japanese horror classic about a woman who gets hold of a demon mask, features a bright, coloured caricature (again, the film itself is in black and white), while the Main Menu shows a short animation of the “demon” popping up from behind tall grass while two woman flee in terror.
The designers at Criterion frequently use striking, original art – I have too many favourites to mention, but consider the minimalist cover of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, with a simple line drawing of a tall building marked with a bright red cross on one of the upper windows (the film’s plot is set in motion by a man leaping to his death). Or the whimsical, New Yorker-like drawing on the cover of Make Way for Tomorrow, with two old people walking away from each other in the middle of a big city.
But at other times, images from the films are used to equally good effect. Nearly all the Criterion covers of Ingmar Bergman's movies feature the faces of his actors, often seem in tight close-up, expressions of contemplation or barely suppressed anguish on their faces – and what could represent Bergman better? In such cases, the very act of selecting a specific frame from a movie (from among the thousands available), then blowing it up or giving it a slight tint, can do wonders for packaging.
Thus the cover of Winter Light, a stark film about a tormented, self-doubting pastor, has a full-length shot of the actor Gunnar Bjornstrand – who plays the lead – lost in thought. The disc menu shows the sallow face of Max von Sydow, who plays a man seeking religious solace; in the background of the image we can see the uncommunicative pastor, his back turned to us. It's a lovely summation. As is the cover of Criterion’s A Woman Under the Influence, which shows the lead character in bed, looking fatigued and hung-over – the choice of visual, but also the fact that the colour has been deliberately toned down, perfectly captures the film's subject matter as well as its mood.
None of this is to say that a movie should be judged by its cover, but there’s no question that a well-executed design can be something worth studying on its own terms. It can deepen our understanding of a film, or it might simply be great fun to look at - or it can do both, as in some of the ones mentioned here.
[Since this is nowhere near enough space to do justice to most of the posters I'd like to talk about, I might consider doing a sequel to this post sometime]