Wednesday 21 December 2022

"We have three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got" - Baazi and the last Bollywood poster painter


"We have about three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got"

I stood in Poster Stuff, a tiny shop in Mumbai's Chor Bazar, trying to decide which of two vintage Bollywood posters to  buy, Baazi or Albela  While I struggled to make my choice, Kaleem, whose grandfather started the business 22 years ago explained that only a tiny proportion of the collection is held in the store. The remainder of it is kept outside the city in Badlapur. I asked him if the shop has a website or a catalogue. "No, he said "We have about three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got". Putting off my decision a little longer, I asked him how his grandfather had managed to acquire so large a collection. He said "He would get to know when a cinema was closing and then ask if they would give him their old posters. Most of them did not appreciate their value and were happy to hand them over. Sometimes he was too late and found that they had already been destroyed".

Kaleem is extremely knowledgeable about old films, although he said he prefers modern cinema. I ran through my list of 1940's, 1950's and early 1960's movies, and he was able to either locate a poster for me or to tell me that it had been sold or sent for auction. "A lot of our business is with overseas dealers" he explained. "We've even sold some at the big art auction houses in London. We also get approached by dealers and collectors to verify that posters are originals and not copies. The National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai recently asked for our advice". 

Chor Bazar is undergoing major change. Many of the old shops have been demolished and replaced by  new structures with residential units above. Some businesses will not reopen when the re-development is complete. I asked Kaleem about the future of the store. He said "If this part of Mutton Street is demolished, we have been promised a new store on the same spot". I hope that promise is kept.

"It's the work of Sheikh Rehman, the last of the hand-painted poster artists"

I made my mind up and chose the poster for Baazi, a Hindi film released in 1951. It was the first crime noir film to be made in India and is acknowledged as a classic of the genre and influenced many films in later years. It was directed by Guru Dutt, who also starred in, wrote, produced and choreographed many classic Hindi films from this period. Baazi, which means "gamble" starred Dev Anand, Geeta Bali of Albela fame, and Kalpna Kartik. It was the second highest grossing Indian film of 1951. At least two other Hindi films, made in 1968 and 1995 bear the same name but tell different stories.

While I arranged to have the poster delivered to my hotel, Kaleem said "actually this is not a poster, but a painting. It's the work of Sheikh Rehman, the last of the hand-painted poster artists", and pointed to the artist's signature. I had heard of Rehman before, but enamoured with the deep reds, blues and downward brush strokes of his work, I hadn't picked up on his name. 

Sheikh Abdul Rehman - better known as S. Rehman - began helping his poster painting father at the age of ten and has continued with this work for more than 50 years. His painting led him to establish friendships with Mother India director Mehboob Khan and Bollywood superstar actor Shashi Kapoor. He also worked with artist MF Husain, one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group who was later forced to leave India following controversy over his depictions of female Hindu deities. A 2015 documentary film,  Original Copy, showed Rehman at work in his studio right behind the screen at the Alfred Talkies cinema. The German made film showed various aspects of his personality - a bit prickly, fond of robust language but with a good sense of humour.

Alfred Talkies was open for business but there was no warm welcome

Kaleem confirmed that Alfred Talkies still existed and was not too far from Chor Bazar,  so with my friend and guide, Ranjana, I made my way to the cinema in Grant Road. This area was once an entertainment hub with many single screen cinemas attracting large audiences for the latest Hindi films. Today few remain and those that do, tend to show re-runs of old movies rather than the latest hits. This part of the city also has a long history of prostitution. As we walked along the road in the early afternoon, many women were on the street looking for customers.  SM Edwards, noted in his 1924 book Crime In India,  that the Ripon Theatre, the precursor of the Alfred, charged a special rate to prostitute patrons - one rupee. This was four times the amount charged to other women. The writer Saadat Hasan Manto lived in this neighbourhood before Partition, writing screenplays and working as a columnist for various film magazines. No doubt several of his characters were inspired by the people he met in these streets.

The cinema stands at the end of Grant Road East, and before we reached it, we passed New Roshan Talkies, another single screen cinema. It is now closed, and at least externally, in poor shape. Despite this, it was easy to imagine its former splendour as the brightly coloured detailing and Art Deco influenced metalwork of the ticket windows has survived. 

Alfred Talkies was open for business, but there was no warm welcome. Just inside the lobby, three grim faced men, arms folded, sat on wooden chairs and told us we couldn't come in, take any pictures or make any films. This was backed up by a series of "don't..." notices displayed on the walls of the once very grand lobby. Stained glass, wooden panelling and several less off-putting vintage notices have survived, but unfortunately I have no photographic record of them. Ranjana explained we were interested in the story of the cinema and would like to have a peep inside the main hall. Despite her best efforts she received a firm "no". She tried again with the ticket sellers, one of whom eventually gave in and allowed us to look into the hall from the doorway, but once again warned us against photography and filming. Inside, the all male audience were watching the 1989 film Ram Lakhan. Tickets are priced at just 20 rupees, about 20p. Unfortunately this was reflected in the poor print and the appalling sound quality. All of the house lights were on, and the restless audience called repeatedly for them to be turned off, which they eventually were. We asked about seeing the balcony but were told it was closed because there were not enough customers.

We were soon bustled outside again and crossed the road to get a better view of the exterior. The cinema was built in 1880, originally as the Ripon Theatre, and the old name can still be seen, engraved on the windows at the upper level. It was one of the first theatres in the city to put on plays in local languages. In the 1930's, in line with changing tastes, it was modified to become a cinema and the name was changed to Alfred Talkies. It is now one of very few single screen cinemas in the city. Many of the older buildings on the opposite side of the road have been flattened and replaced with large, often ugly, "developments" that seem to threaten, rather than to attract. How long will it be before the art works from the Alfred become part of Poster Stuff's collection? 

Alfred Talkies - 174-180, Pathe Bapurao Marg, Grant Road East, Khetwadi, Girgaon, Mumbai.

Poster Stuff - 113 Mutton Street, below Qutbi Masjid, Ajmer, Kumbharwada, Mumbai

Friday 9 December 2022

"The landowner refused to pay us...we had barely enough to live on" - Delhi's Sri Ram refugee colony

The narrow alleys of Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi are full of businesses catering to the long established Tibetan refugee community. Both local and foreign tourists come to visit the Buddhist monastery and to eat in the many Tibetan, Korean and north-east Indian restaurants. A short distance from here, there is a group of less-well known refugees. The Sri Ram colony is home to Hindus who fled Pakistan, not during Partition, but in 2010.

I came upon the colony by chance when visiting a neighbouring Akhada, where traditional Indian wrestling is practised. As I left I noticed an alley leading into a cluster of buildings resembling a village. I went in and although the residents were at first surprised to see a foreigner, they were welcoming and community leader Rajesh Solanki was sent for.  He looked to be in early middle-age and wore the brown kurtha-pyjama typical of rural Sindh in Pakistan. He explained that the people living here had come on a religious pilgrimage in 2010, and then refused to leave. They cited discrimination and religious intolerance in Pakistan, as their reasons for wanting to remain in India, and staged demonstrations at Delhi's Jantar Mantar to draw attention to their plight. 

The Colony is a hotchpotch of solid, brick buildings owned by better-off families and less permanent  structures consisting of metal sheets, tarpaulins and twigs. All of the homes have been built by the residents themselves. Several are unfinished, as many residents lack the resources to complete them. Despite this, there is evidence of ongoing construction and a group of women were laying down a courtyard outside their house. Most homes lack electricity or running water and toilet provision consists of communal male and female blocks. As the colony stands on the floodplain of the Yamuna River, there is a risk of flooding during the monsoon. There are also potential health hazards from mosquitos and from  sewage regularly pumped into the river.   

Some of the more entrepreneurial residents have established small shops selling snacks and sweets. Some of the houses have small shrines attached to them. These are referred to by the residents as "temples". There are displays of religious piety throughout the colony. The Hindu greeting "Ram Ram" is given in preference to the more secular "namaste" and symbols and pictures of various deities are displayed on the exterior of the buildings. Even the name of the colony is that of Ram Ji, the central character of the   Hindu epic,  The Ramayana. 

Chander's Hanuman temple

"The landowner refused to pay us the agreed amount. We had barely enough to live on"

Badal is 39 and from the Kotri district of Sindh. Solanki asked him to show me around and answer my questions. I asked what had caused him to leave the place where he was born and to remain in India.  He said" I owned eight acres of land in Pakistan. It was not enough to support my family and I entered into agreements with a larger landowner. The contract said that we would share the expenses of seeds, fertiliser and other items 50/50 with the landlord, and that we would also share any profits in the same way. We paid our share of expenses but when there was a good profit, he refused to pay us. We had barely enough to live on". Badal also lost his eight acres of land when they were seized by local gangsters. "There were too many of them for us to resist" he said "they were armed and had friends amongst the politicians. No-one would help us".

He used to sell telephone covers and other accessories, but now has insufficient funds to buy stock. He works occasionally as a day labourer but this pays little and is unreliable. His home is in very poor condition - only partially built - and all eight residents sleep in one small room. The situation was made worse by the death of one of his five children at the age of 20, leaving behind a widow and a small child, now being cared for by Badal and his wife. Despite this, he says he feels safer in India and is happier there.


"There was no violence, no threats, but the pressure to convert was always there, every day, in every conversation"

One of Badal's neighbours, Chander, also from Kotri district, tells a similar story. He owned no land in Pakistan and worked as an agricultural labourer to support his family. Again, the landlord refused to pay the contract share and Chander felt he had nowhere to turn for help. The colony's overt religiosity made me curious about faith-based discrimination, or pressure to convert in Pakistan.  Chander said, "There was no violence, no threats, but the pressure to convert was always there, every day, in every conversation. Even in the market. People we thought of as friends would say to us 'why don't you convert? Things would be better for you' ". Chander also has problems in India. He showed me the small Hanuman temple he built at the side of his house. It is collapsing as the land subsides, possibly caused by the sewage being pumped into the Jamuna River just a few metres from his home. "I can't afford to repair this and I'm worried the house will collapse too" he said. 

Two of the women residents told similar stories about pressure to convert. Janaki sat playing with two of her grand-children whilst she prepared a chick-pea dish for their lunch. "They would always talk about converting" she said. Janaki lives in one of the better quality houses. She still has family in Pakistan. Megha, perhaps in her sixties, stood outside her house, cuddling one of her granddaughters. She has ten children of her own - five in India and five in her home town,  Mirfazal Pakistan. She was worried about her daughter-in-law. "She had an accident six months ago and is still in ICU in the government hospital. They won't let me see her. I want to give her soup and nurse her back to health" she said. 

Janaki and her grand-children

Megha and one of her ten grand-children

" assistant often has to go from door to door and bring the children here herself"

Most of the children go to school outside, but there is some teaching goes on inside the colony. A single, windowless room is used for pre-school learning. When I visited, the children were enjoying snacks. I'd seen food provided in a village school in West Bengal, as a way of encouraging attendance. I asked the teacher if this was the case here. "Yes" she said "It's to encourage them to come. Not all of the parents are committed to pre-school learning, and my assistant often has to go from door to door and bring the children here herself". Resources appeared limited but she spoke enthusiastically and was clearly committed to delivering the best for the children. The teacher's and assistant's salaries are paid from Central Government funds allocated to supporting the welfare of women and children.

The older children have access to additional learning in a community hall built with funds from overseas donations. Teaching is provided by NGOs and volunteer university students. The room was clean and tidy. Charts with tricky algebraic formulations and maps of India and the world were displayed on the walls. There was also a row of sewing machines, provided by a charitable organisation and used for teaching tailoring skills.  Although not a formal school, many of the children come here for tuition. I asked some of them what their favourite lessons were. Jalram, aged 11 said, in English, "I like mathematics and Hindi".  Others gave maths as their favourite subject while one said "English". Some of them gathered around the maps, locating different cities and countries. 

More than a decade after their arrival, the situation of the Sri Ram residents remains uncertain. Solanki said "We are hopeful that the new law to assist victims of religious persecution will help us". He refers to the 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act that provided routes to Indian Citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who arrived in India before December 2014 are eligible for consideration under the Act. Muslims are not included in its provisions. The application of a religious test resulted in sometimes violent demonstrations in various parts of India.

Despite their troubles, many of the people I met spoke about feeling happier in India than they had in Pakistan, and no-one expressed regret at having left. There may yet be a brighter future for Jalram, his friends and their families.

Jalram (hiding) and friends

Where did my dog go?

Some of the residents have opened small shops