It is no exaggeration to say that cinema maestro Satyajit Ray raised his movie posters to the level of art. In fact, he was the only auteur in the world who created his movie posters hands-on. Writing in Sight and Sound magazine on a recent show of Ray posters, staged by the British Film Institute, the journal’s production editor, Isabel Stevens, commented: “Directors such as Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock may have collaborated closely with their film poster designers; other filmmakers may have had a background in graphic design (Abbas Kiarostami) or started their careers illustrating posters (Polish surrealist Walerian Borowczyk); some have even occasionally designed their own (Akira Kurosawa). But none have authored such an imaginative collection of posters for their own films as Indian director Satyajit Ray.”
Ray would craft around three to four variations of posters for every film. At the moment, the Ray family archive harbours a stock of about 70-80 posters.
“Father revolutionised the concept of movie posters, hoardings and film publicity. He had experimented with typography and calligraphy for years. It was an inert passion. That surfaced in his posters. I was too young when Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) was made and released. But I have heard that people used to queue up to see Pather Panchali’s poster,” recalls Ray’s filmmaker son, Sandip.
A Ray movie was released with hoardings, posters, kiosk stickers, newspaper ads and movie house hoardings, among other publicity material. There were no computers in those days. One couldn’t blow up or reduce the paper size. So Ray painstakingly executed the artwork on actual 30×40-inch cartridge sheets which were acquired from G.C. Laha (the famous century-old art materials store in Kolkata’s Esplanade area). Everything was handcrafted by him. For rural areas, the posters were 20×30 inches.
“And we also had flying posters which were put up on street walls, and movie theatre hoardings/kiosk stickers, and lobby cards. Flying and cinema house posters were printed on very flimsy paper. None survive,” adds Sandip.
The surviving Ray posters were initially restored by a topnotch restorer from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, who later trained restorers from local Kolkata institutions. This was during the time when the Society for Preservation of Satyajit Ray’s Films took up a huge project to restore the maestro’s massive paperwork heritage.
Wrapped in acid-free sheets, the original lithograph print posters are now preserved in Godrej storage covers. The original lithographic prints, which comprise the majority of posters in the archive, are in far better condition than the silkscreen ones which traditionally become brittle over time.
Though the artwork of a poster crystallised in time, Ray would conceive the logo of a film at the stage he selected a story for a movie. This is evident from his famous red, clothbound notebooks in which he wrote his screenplays. Flipping through the pages of these scripts, one discovers different designs of the logos as they evolved. The posters for Devi (The Goddess), Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), Charulata (The Lonely Wife), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone) all displayed an extraordinary touch and each logo had individual characteristics. “But there was a thread of unity running through them,” points out Sandip.
For Ganashatru, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, Ray decided to use the woodblock print for the poster logo. Woodblock prints are a very early form of art which was prevalent in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries but has now vanished. So Sandip and some of Ray’s crew members went hunting for wood blocks in Chitpore (in north central Kolkata) where woodblock print craftsmen had lived and worked for generations.
All the first-edition prints of Ray’s films are preserved but all the original artworks are lost since they were sent to the printing presses of the day. “I remember many of the initial artworks for posters. Amongst them was an absolutely beautiful drawing in charcoal of Soumitra Chatterjee and Waheeda Rehman for the poster of Abhijan (The Journey),” says Sandip.
The early posters were lithographic artworks. Then the silk-screen technique arrived which helped produce colours which Ray found much brighter. So, he made a lithograph artwork on one face of the sheet and a silk-screen image on the other. When it came to hoardings, for one measuring 30×10 feet, Ray would come up with a 30×10-cm artwork, mentioning the measurements it would acquire on the hoarding. These artworks were handed over to hoarding painters, a vanished breed now, who worked under Ray’s supervision.
Eighty-year-old Parimal Ray, a passionate collector for decades, has lapped up the gamut of Ray’s film publicity material, including posters. “Manikda’s (Ray’s famed nickname) movie posters always stood out from the rest,” he recalls. “The posters were invested with a special touch which was distinctive. Think of the Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant Goddess) poster. There’s nothing mentioned on it except the title of the film in an outstanding artwork. Not even the name of the director.” For Nayak (The Hero), two different artworks were made for the poster. “Often, Manikda created six or seven versions of a movie poster. They could be seen in the publicity material he churned out for newspaper advertisements. I recall a full-page newspaper ad for Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players),” says Parimal, who has staged exhaustive exhibitions of his collection in Shantiniketan and Kolkata. A comprehensive book on the show, The Vision of Ray, was also published.
According to Parimal, Ray lifted film publicity from the level of commercial to fine art. “I feel he was the turning point in this genre of art,” he says. “Unfortunately, contrary to the experience in overseas countries, there’s still hardly any awareness about the need to preserve things in India.” What survives of Ray’s posters reflects the artistic level to which he lifted this facet of his filmmaking exercise. His consummate creativity can be fathomed from his book illustrations for Signet Press and, later, for other publishers. “The same creative strand ran through his film publicity material. For instance, in the run-up to the release of Nayak, Father crafted the artwork for a huge hoarding which just showed a pair of dark glasses. Passers-by spontaneously looked at it. Besides, people could and did interpret his posters in different ways. Many cinemagoers, who watched his films, would call us to talk about the posters,” says Sandip.
When Sandip discovered that a clutch of the original prints was lost, he went to Ray’s producers to explore the possibility of tracing some. “Fortunately, a fair number of producers had kept them in their offices and helped us by presenting the posters to us. However, we only have the original litho posters in full size. The original, full-scale silk screens didn’t last with the producers, too,” he says.
Ray employed various media to give shape to his artworks—charcoal, mixed media and poster paint. He was an accomplished artist who had studied art in Rabindranath Tagore’s Kala Bhavan (in Santiniketan’s Visva Bharati University) under the stewardship of the legendary Nandalal Bose. This, combined with his early working life at the British advertising firm, DJ Keymer, where he rose to become art director, made him a complete artist, highly adept in the skills of fine and commercial art. Add to this his overwhelming genius and imagination, and what you have are film posters of an artistic level rarely seen before or since his time.