Dave Prager Poses Bollywood-style in New Delhi
Excerpted from To North India With Love, available from ThingsAsian Press.
There was once a time in Delhi when shining malls and Café Coffee Days didn't exist as refuges from heat and stench. In this land before liberalization, sanctuary was found in the local cinema halls that dotted the Indian urban landscape. But multiplexes are driving these places out, and as collateral damage, taking with them the Bollywood poster painters who relied on their business.
Every year, my wife, Jenny, and I send out a Photoshopped holiday card to our friends and family. When we found out that some Bollywood poster painters are still eking out a living near Old Delhi, we knew that this year's card would be handmade. We dissected a bunch of old Bollywood posters for composition and style, took pictures of ourselves in our desired poses, and set out to a neighborhood near the Red Fort armed with vague contact instructions: "Find the Darya Ganj fire station. Make a right. Walk a hundred yards, and ask the paan wallah for Vijay."
The paan wallah sent us to a bicycle rickshaw stand, where sleeping rickshaw pullers competed for space with myriad parts strewn about. We sat at the stand and chatted with Manesh, who seemed to manage the rickshaw syndicate, until Vijay pulled up on a rickshaw of his own. Vijay and Manesh then took us up the dirt road across the street to Vijay's open-air studio. Fading starlets tossed us sultry glances from dusty wooden walls as we sat on a wooden charpoy to talk.
With Manesh translating, we told Vijay exactly what we wanted-the composition, the elements, the style, the poses, the title, the tagline. Happy for the business, Vijay was nonetheless confused about how we'd found him. Not sure how to explain our relationship with the woman on the expat Listserv who recommended him, we just said that he was "very famous." His smile told us that was what he was hoping to hear.
I came back the next weekend with my father and the money for the deposit. Manesh wasn't there. This time, we sat at the rickshaw stand with a drunk mechanic who kept telling us, "I speak English tutti-frutti," and "Vijay is my brother," and "You want some whiskey?" Finally Vijay and Ranjeet, his English-speaking partner, pulled up. We discussed again the poster while the drunken mechanic danced around, sent a peon for soda, and interrupted us with "Vijay famous artist!" and "My cousin-brother!" and yet more "You want whiskey?"
Jenny and I had anticipated a small poster, perhaps two feet in length-after all, our main goal was to reprint it on a postcard. Vijay, however, insisted that his work could be no less than five feet tall. We agreed, the peon returned, and we celebrated with Pepsi and whiskey. As we were walking out, the mechanic turned to me to whisper conspiratorially, "I speak English tutti-frutti."
A week later, we returned to examine the work in progress. Five feet had become six. Then, two weeks after we had commissioned it, Jenny and I came to Darya Ganj to behold our first starring role, captured in perfect 1970s Bollywood style. This poster accurately re-created the most exciting experiences we've had in Delhi so far: our spontaneous dances in various grand ballrooms, the time we fought criminals as special investigators in the Delhi police force, and that awful incident when our love of diamonds and danger forced us to turn our commandeered autorickshaws against each other.
And you thought we were working office jobs!
Life imitates art
As Vijay and his team presented their work with pride, Ranjeet reminded Dave that poster painting is a dying art, and that he should tell his friends. So we encourage you to seek out Vijay to capture your likeness in archaic Bollywood style. It's best to take photos of your face, check the artist's samples, and discuss the kinds of poses you want. You can find Vijay near the paan wallah, across from the rickshaw stand, down from the Darya Ganj fire station. Better yet, just email Ranjeet, and he'll make sure you find the way.
Until a decade or so ago, Bollywood movies used to announce their release with a unique style of hand-painted publicity posters. Colorful, exaggerated, and completely over-the-top, they displayed crude representations of the hero valiantly fighting villains, the heroine dancing dramatically, and other such exciting sequences from a film. These unique pieces of art invited people to throng the cinemas, where they would stand around the posters and goggle at their favorite stars. If a movie became a hit at the box office, viewers and movie halls owners would place garlands of marigolds on the posters, just so everyone knew this film was a success and doing great business. Now that everything is high-tech, the art of painting Bollywood posters is pretty much dead. You might find some in small towns, but in cities it's all modern publicity. The painters are without jobs, and the art is dying out. By having your own Bollywood poster made, not only are you acquiring a unique souvenir, you are helping to keep a dying tradition alive.