We hold remarkable examples of Indian cinema art, from posters to photo cards, booklets and hand-painted hoardings. Explore the historical, political and cultural changes in India, as seen through the lens of the Bollywood film industry.
This content was originally created for the exhibition, Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood, at the V&A, South Kensington 26 June – 6 October 2002.
The glory of India
During the 1940s and 50s many films depicted historical or princely India. These were big budget spectaculars with grand sets, magnificent costumes and memorable music. The stories were a combination of fact and myth. They provided visually stunning, escapist entertainment deflecting attention away from the hardships of war and the fight for independence.
Some films, particularly those set in the Mughal period (1526 – 1857), such as Anarkali (1953) and Humayun (1945), portrayed historical figures and created a nostalgic representation of imperial grandeur rather than depicting complex facts. At a time of political conflict between Hindus and Muslims over the government of India, Muslim filmmakers were reluctant to explore contemporary political issues for fear of censorship, and disguised them by setting them in the past. These films reinforced nationalistic aspirations and inspired an emerging nation by creating an image of India based on the glory of its past.
Images of nationalism
India's call for independence intensified when the country was brought into the Second World War by the British. The resulting effects, which included millions of deaths in the 1943 Bengal Famine, led to growing discontent and the rise of the Quit India movement, which called for an end to British rule. From the 1940s, a series of films was made to stir patriotic fervour and included stories of war heroes such as Dr Kotnis and Subash Chandra Bose.
Images of an independent India
In 1947 India gained independence from British rule. The country was caught between the need to modernise and the need to maintain traditional moral values and avoid cultural decline. Cities were at the centre of many social and economic changes. Seen as the source of employment and wealth they attracted thousands of migrant workers from the villages.
Films from this period looked at the question of national identity, exploring issues of modernity versus tradition, of urban life versus the rural ideal. Cities were often projected as corrupt and evil while villages were seen to preserve social and moral values. The most important film of its time, and now a national epic, Mother India (1957) portrayed rural life as the true 'essence' of India. The heroine, Radha, embodied the moral values and social customs that underpinned traditional Indian society. She stood as a symbol of Indian womanhood and a new independent nation.
Youth culture and the international arena
From the 1960s and 70s films began to look beyond national boundaries. The world outside India offered exciting possibilities for new filming locations. Paris, Rome, Switzerland and London, along with Tokyo, became exotic backdrops for romances.
A more international outlook also focused attention on youth culture. In the west, this was a period of economic growth which was accompanied by the spread of a new liberal culture. Britain saw the rise of consumerism, new music, new fashions and hairstyle trends and increased sexual freedom. While Indian lifestyles remained conservative, Indian cinema projected a sense of it through films such as Bobby (1973) and later Love Story (1981) which, for the first time, focused on teenage romance. Visually this was represented primarily through women's fashion, particularly bouffant hair styles and heavy black eye liner make-up.
Love and romance
Romance plays a major role in nearly all Bollywood films. Despite this preoccupation with romantic love, the family is still the predominant moral force and any illicit romance is discouraged.
Unlike western cinema where the kiss is frequently a symbol of love, it is rarely seen in Indian films. Although the censor's ban on kissing was lifted in the 1980s, the industry has maintained a self-imposed ban, with only a few recent exceptions. The more sensual and erotic aspects of love are depicted instead in the song and dance sequences. These occur in a fantasy world where anything is possible, taking them away from the moral world of the main narrative.
The posters in our collection bring together some of Indian cinema's great old romantic couples such as Raj Kapoor and Nargis as well as Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. Their star status and the passionate intensity of their relationships is conveyed in simple, bold, images.
Depiction of women
Women have historically been depicted as either 'traditional' or 'modern' in character. The traditional woman would be dressed in a sari or rural costume and depicted with pale skin. As a dutiful wife and mother she is likened to Sita and Savitri, goddesses from Indian mythology. The high moral standards of the Indian woman were often held up as a measure of the nation's character. By contrast women dressed in western clothes were regarded as 'modern' with all the immoral values associated with a western lifestyle.
Film posters frequently depicted overtly sensuous and voluptuous figures. These displays of sexuality were often legitimised by linking them to Indian traditions; a prime example is the poster for Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), where the revealing rural costume is regarded as a customary rural practise.
In the 1990s, the visual representation of women changed dramatically, with films showing women in sexy western designer clothes. Rather than any implied judgement on their morality, these clothes indicated the affluent lifestyles of the new middle class.
Images of violence
The 1970s witnessed great political, economic and social upheaval. War with Pakistan led to the creation of Bangladesh; the Government imposed a state of emergency curtailing personal freedom; and there were rising levels of inflation, urban poverty and crime.
Indian cinema responded by creating a new genre which reflected the anger and aggression of the period. Films were characterised by themes of revenge, violence, and a new type of hero – the anti-hero. He exhibited great physical strength but also had a tragic, introspective side. Amitabh Bachchan, the most famous Indian actor of all time, rose to fame in this role of the 'angry young man'. A new graphic style also emerged. Bold exaggerated brush stokes created dynamic and expressive images which suited the high emotional intensity of these films.
The formula film
The formula (or masala) film, refers to the key ingredients that go into the making of a Bollywood film. Music, archetypal characters and star actors were all essential components from the 1940s, and by the 1980s they had become much more exaggerated. Posters reflected this film format by constructing a montage of images depicting these various components.
The global perspective
Influenced by the new global culture of MTV, Hollywood and the internet, the Indian film industry went through major changes in the 1990s. A younger generation of film directors, actors, costume and set designers began to create films with more professional production values, depicting the modern, affluent consumerist lifestyles of the growing middle class in India.
The star portrait, more than ever before, became the single major component of any film advertising campaign and slick computer graphics reflected Indian cinema's arrival on the international scene. Despite these changes, the films retained their Indian identity through the use of music and their projection of traditional cultural, family-oriented themes and values.
Large-scale hand-painted cinema hoardings would traditionally announce the arrival of a new film, however over the last 30 years they have been replaced by digitally printed versions. Only a few artists still produce hand-painted hoardings and in 2002, the museum commissioned and acquired a set from Balkrishn Arts as examples of an important popular Indian art form.
You can explore all the posters in Search the Collections, or see highlights in the slideshow below:
The art of Bollywood
Find out more with our book, The Poster: A Visual History.