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Publicity and advertising in early Indian cinema.

ADVERTISING PLAYED A PIVOTAL ROLE IN INDIAN CINEMA FROM ITS VERY beginnings. As the film industry became increasingly sophisticated, the advertising and publicity surrounding films also grew more organized and specialized.

The entry of the cinematograph in the roster of urban entertainment was met with great enthusiasm by the Bombay press. The first cinema advertisement appeared in city newspapers on July 7, 1896 announcing "The Marvel of the Century, The Wonder of the World, Living Photographic Pictures in Life Sized Reproductions" exhibited by the Lumiere Brothers' Cinematograph. This introductory show of the cinematograph, soon to become one of the most enduring inventions of the 19th century, was a great success among audiences in Bombay with screenings continuing until August 15, 1896.

The Lumiere screening set the stage for other visitors with cinematographs such as F.B. and P.A. Stewart, Professor Anderson, the magician Carl Hertz and Professor Stevenson who screened short travelogues and films with "oriental themes" such as The Flower of Persia. These films were also advertised extensively in newspapers.

By the early 1900s, Indian filmmakers had started making and publicizing their own films. In these early years, film advertisements were composed mainly of text (figure 1). The film Pundalik (1912) was advertised as "Pundlik--Pundlik--that popular Hindu Drama". The text was often used to describe striking visuals in the film. For example, one of the advertisements for Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harischandra (1913) conjured up excitement with the words "see--The Burning Ghats of Benaras! The Apparition of Mahadev!" (1)

Drawing on the appeal of vaudeville shows, some of these advertisements promised more than just film screenings. The first advertisement of Raja Harischandra (2) gave prominent print space to the one and a half hour show that included a dance, comedy sketch and a juggler act. Reflecting the swadeshi energy of the times, the newspaper ad also stated that the film was the "First of Indian manufacturer". The name of the filmmaker was not mentioned however. Another advertisement described it as "An entirely Indian Production by Indians". The wide publicity campaign generated by Phalke was crucial in establishing his pioneer status over other early filmmakers. Phalke continued to produce film after film, garnering the attention and adoration of the public press who unanimously proclaimed him to be the "Father of Indian Cinema".

Besides placing advertisements of upcoming releases in newspapers and magazines, exhibitors and theatre owners found new ways of drawing city audiences: handbills were distributed on the street; bullock-carts with musicians would move around promoting new releases. As cinema was firmly established as a form of urban entertainment, the publicity machine too became more structured, employing several layers of personnel. Film companies and theatre owners now produced specialized ancillary material (figure 2). Painted posters, still photographs, lobby cards, life-size card cutouts, publicity props and big banners appeared at theatres and street corners as release dates of films approached. Lithographs and, later, photographic cards of actors were introduced in the market (figure 3). Besides this, glass slides and trailers shown in cinema houses provided glimpses of upcoming attractions.

Posters became a ubiquitous part of the landscape of the city, seen at railway stations, pasted on walls and suspended from street lamps. They were created in various forms: ranging from a single sheet to six or eight sheets combined to give the appearance of banners. Publicity booklets containing the synopsis and song lyrics of films were published. In the 1930s, small-sized books with dialogues and studio bulletins also became available for cinemagoers (figure 4). Booklets and souvenirs were also separately generated to pique the interest of film exhibitors and hall owners (figures 5a and 5b). Press shows and previews too were introduced as a part of the publicity cycle.

As film production in India gained pace in the second decade of the 20th century, competition too increased among film companies. Between 1915 and 1917, two pioneers of Indian cinema, D.G. Phalke and S.N. Patankar, engaged in a battle of words over who was the more swadeshi director. In 1912, before the release of Phalke's Raja Harischandra, Patankar Union comprising the technocrats S.N. Patankar, A.P. Karandikar and V.P. Divekar had made the film Savitri but it remained unreleased due to a technical failure. However, in 1913 they made the film Jaimini and Vyas with Narmada Mande playing the female lead. Patankar challenged Phalke's claims of being the first and only swadeshi filmmaker in the country by citing Phalke's brief involvement in film production processes during his visit to London.

Other instances of the rallying influence of swadeshi were the campaigns surrounding the adaptations of the legend of Shakuntala by Patankar Friends & Co. (3) and the America-returned Suchet Singh's Oriental Film Manufacturing Company, both in 1920. Suchet Singh's Shakuntala or the Lost Ring was released in January 1920.

Patankar Friends lost no time in advertising their Shakuntala or the Fateful Ring as an "Aryan Drama in Aryan Drapery--Real Swadeshi Film from start to finish", (4) and their film was released on March 27, 1920. Again on April 24 they advertised the film as being "Admired and patronized by the citizens of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras in spite of earlier production of the same name acted by Western celebrities". (5)

The concept of swadeshi was a continuing presence in the filmic imagination of both producers and audiences of the era, as evidenced by advertisements of the time. Kohinoor Film Company's Bhakta Vidur (1921) was released as a "swadeshi film". (6) When two different film companies were making films on the same subject (a practice that was common during the silent and early talkies period), the power of print to dazzle and draw audiences was used to great effect.

Film advertisements also reflected the changing nature of film production itself. For instance, the movement of cinema from interior studio sets to the outside was indicated by Hindustan Film Company's Tukaram (1921). It advertised that "scenes of Pandharpur depicted in the film have been actually taken at the place". (7) The establishment of the film epic as a genre was revealed in Star Film Company's advertisement of its first film Veer Abhimanyu (1922)--"the most stirring episode from the great Indian epic the Mahabharata" made "at an expense of more than 1,00,000 Rupees" with the participation of more than 5,000 people. Interestingly, the advertisement provided another landmark; it had the names of not just the writer and director but also those of the cameraman and actors. (8)

During these early years of cinema, the names of actors were omitted from publicity material. The most privileged persons in the hierarchy of film labour were screenplay writers such as Mohanlal Dave whose name continued to appear in advertisements, posters and booklets, even during the talkies era when actors became the stars of the film (figure 6).

In their first film Satyawadi Harischandra (1917), J.F. Madan's Elphinstone Bioscope published the name of Miss Savaria, a well-known name of the Parsi stage, in its advertisement for the film. This appears to be the first instance of the mention of an actor in film publicity. The star-like appeal of little Mandakini, Phalke's daughter, who acted in Hindustan Cinema Film Company's first two films Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919), played an integral part in the films' publicity drive, ensuring her place in the history of Indian cinema. Parsi theatre's most celebrated star Miss Gauhar's (Gohar's) film debut, Bilwa Mangal (1919) was advertised enthusiastically by Madan as a "rare opportunity to see your Bombay stage favourite for the first time on the cinema screen" (figure 7). (9)

However, star names only really gained importance in film publicity in 1926, when Sulochana joined the Kohinoor Film Company. The company had created several important actors but never boosted them as stars. After Sulochana joined Ardeshir Irani's Imperial Film Company, her transformation into one of India's first filmstars was complete. With the advent of the talkies, the peak of her popularity was achieved with publicity for Indira, M.A. (1934), centred on Sulochana alone (figure 8). While Khalil joined Kohinoor in 1921 and remained a popular actor for a long time, he never enjoyed the publicity that several other actors of the time did. On the other hand, within two years of his association with the Sharda Film Company, Master Vithal was promoted as the "Indian Douglas Fairbanks". (10) Vithal's stunt films led to popular acclaim for his director and cameraman too. Following the split of this winning combination, neither ever again enjoyed the same kind of success.

In the 1920s, several young directors joined the film industry with their own ideas and ambitions for film publicity. Their work was underpinned by a sophisticated merging of training in the other arts with a strong sense of the visuality of cinema. Often, the in-house artists who designed advertisements also worked as assistant directors and set designers. A few of them went on to become cameramen and directors themselves.

Jyotindra Jain observes that this period saw the rise of a "new and enchanting inter-visuality, predominantly governed by the emergent cinematic aesthetic that reconceptualized mythological calendar imagery, god posters, and magazine covers" and "brought into the market scores of artists whose styles were often indistinguishably intermingled." (11) The circulation of images from the filmic imagination to daily lives of people and things in the market was one of the most resilient effects of film advertising and publicity.

The advent of colour cinema processed in India was widely advertised through campaigns for the film Kisan-Kanya (1937) (figure 9). This is a classic example where innovations in the medium were highlighted in the campaign to draw audiences to cinema halls.

From the 1950s, there was also special publicity material generated to promote films in the West. We see such instances in the case of Aan (1952) and Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955).

By now, studios had started employing specialized designers for the creation of ancillary film publicity material. The aesthetics of this publicity material was an extended aspect of the film and, sometimes, the company itself. For instance, S.K. Murthy worked for Krishna Movietone; J. Mistri with Imperial Film Company; J.B. Dikshit for Prabhat Film Company; B. Vishwanath for Minerva Movietone. There was also the well-known lineage of V.H. Palnitlcar, Raghuvir Mulgaonkar, S.M. Pandit, Ram Kumar and J.P. Singhal. M.R. Acharekar who designed the publicity for Raj Nartaki (1941) (figure 10) became a highly successful art director of films like Shahjahan (1946), Aaivara (1951) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959). He later worked as a production designer for several R.K. Films projects. Another distinctive style was that of the film publicity firm Pamart which designed the publicity for films of B.R. Chopra and Guru Dutt. By the end of the 1940s, there were specialized agencies that employed people like Bhadrakumar Yajnik who handled the gargantuan publicity drive of the hit Chandralekha (1948). Other legendary figures in the film publicity world included V.P. Sathe and B.P. Samant.

Over the decades, advertisements have remained crucial to the popularity of Bollywood films and advertising publicists earn good incomes. However, by the 1970s, the aura of specialization and exclusivity earlier enjoyed by people in the field was disappearing, and advertising artists had become anonymous figures, little known outside the inner circles of the film industry.


All images courtesy the author.


(1) The Times of India, June 28, 1913.

(2) The existing print of the film Raja Harischandra at National Film Archives of India is of 1917 and not of 1913.

(3) This was the second film company of S.N. Patankar, formed with the support of the pioneering producer Dwarkadas Sampat who would go on to set up the Kohinoor Film Company.

(4) The Bombay Chronicle, January 31, 1920.

(5) The Bombay Chronicle, April 24, 1920.

(6) The Bombay Chronicle, August 13, 1921.

(7) The Bombay Chronicle, July 16, 1921.

(8) The Bombay Chronicle, May 13, 1922.

(9) Bilwa Mangal (1919) has recently been acquired by the National Film Archives of India. The available length is 1,948.8 feet (c. 594 metres).

(10) The Bombay Chronicle, May 21, 1927.

(11) Jyotindra Jain, "Visual Histories of a City Bombay/Mumbai" in Project Cinema City: Bombay/Mumbai, edited by Madhushree Dutta, Kaushik Bhaumik and Rohan Shivkumar (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2013), p. 529.

Caption: 1. A handbill issued by Majestic Cinema for Mahavir Photoplays' An Ideal Woman (1930). We also see details of an upcoming release.

Caption: 2. Film publicity material for B.P. Mishra's Allauddin and the Wonderful Lamp (1927).

Caption: 3. During the late 1920s, picture postcards of filmstars were issued and being collected by fans. Later, these cards were also issued on photographic paper. Here we see Begum Akhtari in Nasib ka Chakkar (1936).

Caption: 4. The credits page of the song-synopsis booklet of Imperial Film Company's talkie Draupadi (1931).

Caption: 5a and 5b. Premveer (1937) was directed by Master Vinayak, a filmmaker with a great sense of humour. For the film's publicity, he came out with a little souvenir with eight blank pages, sent to cinema hall owners and distributors. Playing with illusion and mystery, the minimally designed booklet had a rectangular slit on the cover through which a pair of eyes peered out.

Caption: 6. Publicity booklet in Gujarati for Kala Naag (1926) which includes the name of screenwriter Mohanlal Dave.

Caption: 7. Poster of Bilwa Mangal alias Soordas (1919) starring the famous Parsi theatre actress, Miss Gauhar.

Caption: 8. Publicity booklet for Indira, M.A. (1934) starring Sulochana.

Caption: 9. Film publicity material for Imperial Film Company's Kisan-Kanya (1937), the first colour film processed in the country.

Caption: 10. Publicity booklet cover of Raj Nartaki (1941), designed by M. R. Acharekar.


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Author:Dharamsey, Virchand
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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