When Mukesh Kalsi was a little boy growing up in London, three generations of his family would gather to watch Hindi films from his parents’ homeland in Punjab state, India. Kalsi, now 30, remains a dedicated fan of Indian movies and has travelled to Mumbai in search of authentic cinema posters.
He is particularly passionate about posters from the 1950’s and ‘60s. “That’s when they were still hand painted,” said Kalsi, a police officer in Hounslow, west London. “Now all the posters are digitised. On the old posters I can see the brush strokes. I love the colours and the typography. They’re fun, quirky, quite loud and brash.”
Kalsi bought 40 posters three years ago from BollywoodMoviePosters in Mumbai for £2,500 ($3,700). Displayed throughout his home, he estimates the vividly coloured images are now worth about twice that sum.
“I’m not interested in neutral interior design with clean white walls. I like to walk into a home that reflects my personality,” he said. “The posters are great conversation starters. Everybody is intrigued by them.”
India has a long and rich cinema tradition dating back to the days of silent movies. The term Bollywood — often used to describe the entirety of Indian film making — in fact only applies to one aspect of a huge industry that releases productions in many languages.
Before the advent of television, outdoor advertising was crucial in attracting film audiences and towns and villages were plastered with alluring posters. Replaced with each new film release, they were seen as throwaway items.
It’s only in the past 12 years or so that attitudes have begun to change and a market in Indian film memorabilia has budded. Posters that could once be picked up for a few cents are now changing hands from around $75. Rare examples from celebrated films may fetch thousands of dollars.
“They are works of art and represent the rich cultural heritage of our movies,” said Sharan Seth, founder of Conferro Auctions in London, specialists in Indian art and collectibles. “They are very colourful and often reflect the socio-economic conditions of an era.”
Collectors and demand
The market is picking up quickly, Seth said. At Conferro’s first auction of Bollywood memorabilia, in London in 2013, a better-than-expected 80% of the lots were sold for a total of about £110,000 ($162,680), he said. “The general benchmark in the auction industry for a successful sale, especially the first one, is about 50% to 60%,” Seth said.
Much interest came from the UK, because of historical ties with India, and also from Russia, where Hollywood films were once banned and audiences watched Indian cinema instead. Russian audiences loved the colour and optimism of Indian productions and their popularity surged from the mid-1950’s. Even today, with no restriction on western films, Indian cinema retains many fans in Russia. The films also have a following in the Middle East, China, Africa and Japan, said Seth.
In India, when Neville Tuli, founder and chairman of Indian arts organisation, Osian’s Group, held the firm’s first auction of film memorabilia in 2002, no one considered the posters to be an art form, he said. Now, Osian’s conducts auctions twice a year in Mumbai and Delhi. “We’re in the first phase of creating an international market,” he said. Much excitement was triggered when film star Shah Rukh Khan acquired two original posters from the iconic film Mughal-e-Azam (1960) for 6.84 lakh ($10,814) at an Osian’s auction in Mumbai in September 2014.
“In Hollywood the film fraternity has been supporting their own market for 70 years, if not longer. In India this is just beginning,” said Tuli.
The few original posters for Mughal-e-Azam are “the crown jewel in any poster collection”, said Hinesh Jethwani, founder of online stores hippy.in and BollywoodMoviePosters.com in Mumbai.
For collectors with an eye to lasting value, Jethwani recommends looking out for posters from other landmark films. “For example, Alam Ara (1931) was the first Indian sound film. Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) and Aan (1952) together mark the onset of Technicolor,” he said. “Raj Kapoor’s Around the World (1967) marks the arrival of 70 mm film into the Indian film industry.”
Where to buy
Although Jethwani sells mostly online through BollywoodMoviePosters.com, Mukesh Kalsi got more from the experience of visiting his store in Mumbai. “I started looking through (the selection) and loved the posters of older films I hadn’t seen,” Kalsi said. “It’s not an expensive hobby. You can get posters that are original and interesting from around £50 ($74).”
It’s important to purchase from a trusted dealer, he said. “If you visit the Thieves Market in Mumbai you’ll see stallholders selling hundreds and thousands of posters. It’s a visual treat. But if you are serious about collecting you don’t buy there. They are not going to be originals.”
While unused publicity material is still emerging from abandoned cinemas, and from random hoards kept by cinema fans, it is rare and buyers should look only for posters sold with accurate information.
“There are websites which sell internationally but mostly they are selling reprints,” said Tuli of Osian’s. “There’s not much that’s really rare that goes out.”
How to care for it:
Kalsi invested about £15,000 ($22,180) in having ten posters professionally framed in black wood behind glass. “If I ever want to display different ones, for a small fee the framer will change over the posters,” he said. The rest of his collection is kept in poster sleeves on a display rack in his living room.
Printed on flimsy paper, the posters are very fragile. “The golden rule to handling Bollywood memorabilia is don’t handle them,” said Jethwani. “If an item must be handled, it is best to leave it under the professional care of archival or restoration experts. For certain extremely rare and valuable posters it is ideally recommended to opt for linen backing in order to ensure long term preservation and resale value.”
The bottom line
Looking ahead, “this is definitely a lucrative business in the long term”, Jethwani said.
Seth of Conferro auctions said, “Valuations of posters started with 10 rupees some time back and are now valued at thousands of times more.” He recommends buying not just movie posters, but also the accompanying LP record, synopsis, lobby cards and still photographs, if available. “It’s a curated collection and adds value,” he said.
For Kalsi, his collection has much more than monetary value. “The posters remind me of my youth and family times and people who are not here anymore like my grandfather. We’d all sing the songs together. I watch more Bollywood than Hollywood and the posters add to the whole fairytale.”