If you follow me on Instagram you have quite likely also come across Posterphilia, a movie poster-centric feed curated by poster connoisseur Jahan Singh Bakshi. Jahan is kind of my counterpart on the other side of the globe: an art director and film marketing strategist from Mumbai who writes a column about movie posters—also called Posterphilia—for the Indian cinephile website Film Companion. Jahan has exquisite taste, so his feed is always full of great design (quite often we find ourselves posting the same new posters), but what I find especially interesting about Posterphilia is Jahan’s knowledge of Indian cinema and access to Indian posters.
To crystallize his expertise I asked Jahan if he would come up with his Top 10 favorite Indian posters of all time, a challenge he readily accepted though he decided to restrict himself to Bollywood posters. As he explains:
The primary reason I decided to limit this list to Hindi film posters is the fact that Indian cinema as a whole is hugely vast in scope—with films in multiple languages from various parts of the country. While I follow and enjoy contemporary films from all over the country, I lack enough knowledge or context on Indian film industries and cultures apart from Bollywood—which I grew up on. So while this meant less diversity (and no Satyajit Ray!), I decided to avoid random token representation and to stick to the cinema and poster culture I am most familiar with.
In his Film Companion article “What Makes a Great Movie Poster?” Jahan writes that “in Hollywood, they actually have awards for outstanding poster art and film campaigns. Admittedly, the bar is set much lower in our country, especially in mainstream Bollywood. Back in the days of the hand-painted posters, we produced some beautiful poster art, but now in the digital era—while we have had some good posters cropping up sporadically, it’s actually tough to recall a single flat-out stunner.” But despite that, Jahan has still managed to curate for us a stunning collection of Bollywood posters ranging from the late 1950s through the late 1980s. Here they are presented below, in reverse (but very rough) order of preference, with his own comments below each one.
10. Ankhen (Ramanand Sagar, 1968). Artwork by Diwakar Karkare.
These twin character posters for Ramanand Sagar’s spy thriller featuring Dharmendra and Mala Sinha are among the coolest Indian film posters I’ve seen. Striking typography dominates the layout, cleverly alluding to the film’s title (Ankhen means The Eyes). The letters "k" and "h" extend to the top of the frame, crossing through the eyes of the leads, whereas the loops of the "a" and "e" have eyes drawn in them—perhaps a nod to the double-life of a spy. The slick, distinctive design has an unmistakably chic 60’s aesthetic—but over half a century later, it feels as stylish and contemporary.
9. Zehreela Insaan (S.R. Puttanna Kanagal, 1974). Artwork by PamArt.
This forgettable film sank without a trace (perhaps deservedly so) when it was released, but two things from it have endured—this haunting romantic ballad and this amazingly pulpy poster. The late actor Rishi Kapoor, who passed away earlier this month, called it a “horrific poster” on Twitter in 2015, outraging in mock-horror at being compared to a snake (Zehreela Insaan translates quite literally to Poisonous Human). It’s definitely a wild poster (no pun intended), but also such a flat-out terrific piece of design. I love the retro-trash-pop aesthetic—and the use of pointillism to create a snakeskin-like texture is an especially inspired touch.
8. Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) and Sujata (Bimal Roy, 1959). Artwork by L.L Meganee / Seth Studios (Mother India) and D.R Bhonsle (Sujata).
It was really hard to crunch this list down to a strict top-ten, so I’ve cheated a little in the middle—devising (what I thought were) ingenious ways to pair some of my favorites. First up is a pair of iconic portraits of two classic Hindi film heroines—I’m calling them Portraits of Ladies on Fire, if you please. The poster for Mehboob Khan’s Mother India shows Nargis dragging a plow across a barren field like a crucifix, set against the sunset and a sea of migrating villagers and cattle. It’s an image of mythic proportions; an embodiment of stoic suffering and the strong, ever-sacrificing mother figure. On the other hand is the poster for Bimal Roy’s Sujata featuring Nutan, which depicts a more passive, internalized anguish - her lowered face reflects the stigma she faces as a young Dalit woman brought up in an upper-caste household, whereas her body language exudes dignity in the face of discrimination. I love this poster's simplicity, its lovely color palette - and above all, its quiet elegance and grace.
7. Deewar (Yash Chopra, 1975) and Don (Chandra Barot, 1978). Artwork by Diwakar Karkare.
One of the lesser talked about architects behind Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s "Angry Young Man" image in the 1970’s was the legendary poster artist Diwakar Karkare. This list would be incomplete without any of his majestic portraits of the actor which cemented his towering screen persona—and in the end, I chose two.
Deewar was the film that established Bachchan as Hindi cinema’s anti-establishment hero. Most posters featuring Bachchan tend to feature lurid colors and multiple characters, but this one carries a more restrained gravitas. The actor’s portrait (painted with palette knives in Karkare’s signature style) is foregrounded by one of the film’s crucial scenes whose emotional intensity is palpable even sans reference to context. The bold strokes on Bachchan’s colossal visage contrast beautifully with the delicately rendered miniature illustration set against it.
The poster for Don—much like the film—stands out for its stylishness, funky aesthetic and sheer kinetic energy. Bachchan looms large again—now as an action-hero on the run—carrying enough charged momentum to jump off the poster. Behind him is an enemy (Pran) in hot pursuit, and in the foreground is the badass heroine (Zeenat Aman) with her eyes and a gun pointed squarely at the audience. The standout design element is the viewfinder image stamped four times across the frame which creates an interesting visual "echo"—it not only gives the poster a great sense of movement and rhythm, but also magnifies the star’s aura and atmosphere of thrill.
(You can read more about Amitabh Bachchan in posters in this wonderful essay by Ranjani Mazumdar.)
6. Kaagaz Ke Phool (Guru Dutt, 1959) and Chandni (Yash Chopra, 1989). Artwork by Ellora Arts (Kaagaz Ke Phool) and Yashwant (Chandni).
The only reason I’ve paired these two is glaringly obvious—hey, both feature a big flower in the center—though to very different thematic and tonal effect. The Kagaz Ke Phool poster alludes directly to the film’s title, which translates as Paper Flowers. Guru Dutt’s classic is a tragic romance that unfolds against the backdrop of the film industry and its people who he views as "flowers of paper"—beautiful to look at, but dry, lifeless and fake from within. The poster has this wonderful melancholic charm—radiating old-world romance, passion and a deep sadness.
On the other hand is the poster for Yash Chopra’s Chandni, which portrays the blossoming of first romance—the virginal heroine in white, emerging from a dew-specked rose—an enduring symbol of love. Chandni means the Moon, and the "C" of the title design is thus shaped like a crescent. It’s such a ripe, memorable image, showcasing Sridevi (who plays the titular role) in all her sensuous glory.
5. Utsav (Girish Karnad, 1984). Artwork by Jayoo and Nachiket Patwardhan.
Old Hindi film posters are generally known for a more baroque, painterly aesthetic that ranges from old-world romanticism to flaming pulpiness. However, around the 80’s, a new kind of poster aesthetic seemed to emerge from the Parallel Cinema movement—leaning more towards graphic art and a more modern style, favoring line-art and screen-printing techniques (which you’ll see in the next two posters in this list).
These posters for Girish Karnad’s erotic drama Utsav are easily among my all-time favorites—I love their bold, iconographic key images and gorgeous title design. The stark monochrome is offset with brilliant pops of color that highlight Rekha’s jewelry and Shashi Kapoor’s magnificent mustache.
4. Paar (Goutam Ghose, 1984). Artwork by Arup Roy and Subrata Choudhury.
Next up is this poster for Goutam Ghose’s Paar, which won Naseeruddin Shah the Volpi Cup for Best actor at the Venice Film Festival. The film is based on the Bengali story Paari by Samaresh Basu, and this poster references its climax, wherein abject poverty drives Naurangia, a low-caste laborer and his pregnant wife Rama to take on the harrowing task of taking a herd of pigs across a fast-moving river, all for a paltry sum of money. I discovered this poster only last year, and was immediately struck by its beauty and powerful depiction of despair.
3. Ardh Satya (Govind Nihalani, 1983). Artwork by Manjula Padmanabhan.
The legendary actor Om Puri had the kind of face you call full of character, and his rugged visage lent itself beautifully to portraiture—poster artists would often draw him in vivid close-ups. There’s no finer example of this than this stunningly intense poster for Govind Nihalani’s cop drama Ardh Satya that uses shadows to brilliant effect, emphasizing the furrows and scars on his face to bring forth his inner turmoil. You could even call it the literal antithesis of most commercial movie posters, which smooth over and airbrush every single pore on an actor’s face.
2. Bobby (Raj Kapoor, 1973). Artwork by Tilak Tirath Oberai.
Inspired by American psychedelic posters of the 1960s, Raj Kapoor’s Bobby has perhaps the single most rad poster for an Indian film I have ever seen—with its trippy swirls of color, kaleidoscopic patterns and quirky bubble lettering. The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe a Hindi film actually had a poster like this. The film was a radical departure for the filmmaker—his first foray into youthful, frothy romance after the failure of his passion project Mera Naam Joker, as well as the launchpad of his son Rishi Kapoor as an actor, and it feels like he really pulled out all stops to make it the pinnacle of cool back in the day.
1. Guide (Vijay Anand, 1965). Artwork by D.R. Bhonsle.
And finally, there’s the classic poster for Vijay Anand’s Guide which hangs right outside my door—and also happens to be the display picture on my Instagram account. There’s something profoundly powerful about this portrait of Dev Anand as Raju, the tragic hero caught in a conflict with between his materialistic and spiritual selves, and how it manages to capture him right in the midst of this transition between two worlds—letting go of worldly desires and moving towards a state of enlightenment. I also love the film’s title logo, with its strangely gentle and calm quality. It all adds up to an image that is singularly haunting and sublime—one that feels both stormy and serene at once.
More Runners-Up (in no particular order):
Many thanks to Jahan. And make sure to follow Posterphilia on Instagram.