At a bustling intersection in the heart of Mumbai’s Grant Road neighbourhood, a lovely old European-style building stands tall. It has survived, retaining its essence in the face of constant change. It is Alfred Talkies, a single-screen theatre from the 1880s. It is still warmly remembered as one of those theatres which, during its golden era, showed exceptional films in local languages. Today, the theatre shows either lesser known films or old reruns (such as Gabbar is Back, Sultan, and Gunday), and a balcony ticket is priced at Rs 25.
Within the premises sits its resident painter. He is the lone survivor of the long-forgotten art of creating hand-painted movie posters. His name is Sheikh Abdul Rehman (better known as S. Rehman). He is 70 and has worked for 50-odd years in the field. He possesses an impeccable memory, recalling his days with artist MF Husain whom he’s worked with at Alfred Talkies; his long-standing relationship with Mehboob Khan (and his sons) for whom he painted the banner of Mother India; making charcoal sketches of actor Shashi Kapoor who later came to meet him with wife Jennifer Kendall in a red car, and more.
Rehman abandoned his studies in the 9th standard and began assisting his father, who was a painter himself. He felt that in a poster artist’s hands lay the power of enticing the audience so that they set foot in the cinema hall.
Rehman soon found great success. He became a well-known name in the world of hand-made poster artists. The success of Mughal-e-Azam, a film that ran for nearly 10 years, was instrumental in catapulting him to fame. It furthered his life, career, and clients. But time and tide wait for no man, as they say. He’s not in the pink of health, and work-wise, there isn’t enough on his plate.
In his documentary, In Search of Fading Canvas, Manohar Singh Bisht, Technical Head at the newly minted National Museum of Indian Cinema, traced poster artists like Rehman across the nation. “The beauty of handmade posters was that the colour scheme depended on the mood — anger, sadness, elation etc — of the film artist. Digital, on the other hand, does not have a personal touch, nor does it have any variations,” Bisht says.
You get a glimpse of Rehman’s way of painting in Bisht’s documentary. Talking about working on a large size banner of Mughal-e-Azam, Rehman says, “After my father passed away, I started taking more liberties with my paintings. So I showed a fierce fire around Papaji’s (Prithviraj Kapoor, who played Akbar) face. K. Asif (the film’s legendary producer-director) would tell me, `Make Madhubala so beautiful that not only Salim but all of India would be ready to sacrifice their lives for her.’ ”
Rehman’s children, who learnt the art through his efforts, have chosen other forms of employment. So what makes him stay rooted in his profession, even with its abysmal working conditions and low wages? It has become a way of life. For him, there is no moving on. But he has no regrets. “Even in my next life, I would like to be a poster painter, an artist,” are his parting words.