Filmi Pop Art

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Pakistani Filmi Pop Art gets its first major airing in the international arena
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For 36 years Shaikh Azhar Hassan has worked in Lahore on the fantastic and super-heroic images that pout, scowl and bewitch us from film billboards in glorious Technicolour. Specific artists work on particular areas of the hording and thus several different works are simultaneously prepared. Shaikh Azhar and a string of Ustad Artists prepare the designs from movie stills, deciding on the varying sizes, not only of the characters, but the calligraphy as well, if the pose should be frontal or profile, whether the actions should be set against a calm blue or dramatic flame-red.

A grid is superimposed onto the photo snaps and each square increased to the size as required. In many cases, the panels are worked on separately and put together when the poster is being mounted. Tin sheets are secured over wooden beams, which are then whitewashed; the pencil drawing is then done by yet another ustad, whilst a fourth paints in the main blocks of colour. The finishing and detailing of the features are then separately handled and the calligraphy done by a sixth expert.

Cinema is not the only medium to have profited from this grass roots advertising. Shaikh Azhar has made 100-foot and 150-foot posters for Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto respectively. The colour schemes usually employ the loudest of colours used in the most garish manner – yet the end result can often be breath taking, emulating the best “instant” or comic book inspired art. The villains, painted in malevolent shades of green and purple, glare down lecherously, while the hero stands bloodstained, but victorious, amidst the rubble. The CinemaScope extravaganza of heroism, villainy and passion require larger than life projection, which this bastion of fantasy provides.

One of the most dynamic and unique artistic styles of the subcontinent is also one of the most neglected – the art of painting film billboards, those gaudily bewitching signs designed to beckon the innocent bystander off the stifling street into a dark pit of temporary solace known as the Cinema (or Senma) Hall. How can one possibly pass a Pakistani cinema and not be entranced by what is on display? Bewitching, Kaleidoscope colours, dangerous curves, loose, cannons, villains literally turning green and purple with envy and buxom village belles exuding hazy golden halos of virtue.

It is with this in mind that I am exhibiting 40 odd (some very odd) posters of Pakistani film art at London’s Commonwealth Institute from September 15th to 5th November. Some of the most dazzling and spectacular art in our midst thrives far from the world of art galleries and formal art schools. They are the fabric of Pakistan’s contemporary culture that is considered trivial by the artistic cognoscenti, who insist on continuously pummelling us with overexposed images of Mughal miniatures.

Most of these paintings are prepared on streets or alleyways, using any available stretch of space in the otherwise congested area around Royal Park in Laxmi Chowk, Lahore – in essence, the “heart” of Lollywood. Workshops are usually located behind cinemas whose fantasies they fuel. Work goes on furiously week after week, with a well-earned lull during Ramadan and Moharram. But billboard artists are not only threatened by the sword dangling over the film industry’s future, but by public taste, which currently veers towards insipid and characterless graphics provided by computers and lithographs.

Still, it’s not out of sympathy for their cause that I have been drawn to filmi billboard art. Frankly speaking, I’ve been obsessed with the art of movie advertising as long as I can remember, with a particular soft spot for kitsch. My hobby of collecting posters has veered towards the garish B-Movie variety, including such phantasmagoric images as Teenage Monster, Alligator People, Devil Within Her, Terror Train and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to name a few.

Coming into contact with Lahore for the first time since the expansion of my shop, The Hot Spot Cafe, I have been able to pursue my passion for billboards in a big way. It’s fair to say that no trip is complete without me trooping around the narrow streets of Royal Park, bewildering and amusing locals by snapping left, right and centre. Not only have I acquired a fabulous collection of artworks, but I have also managed to preserve snapshots in time, as it were. These paintings are inherently disposable pop art, and are quickly painted over upon release of the next film. When offered display space by Zamin Art as part of their own exhibition at The Commonwealth Institute in London, I jumped at the chance, largely because it was an opportunity to prove that my semi-obsession would someday come in handy. I am also genuinely pleased to be able to provide some extra work for the street artists, who, despite being extremely talented, are clearly struggling to make ends meet.

Though I started off by planning the exhibition as representative of all aspects of the film industry, the themes took on a life of their own, and I now proudly present to you “Maulas and Mayhem”. “Maulas”, because of the immeasurable influence of Maula Jat and the genre it spawned and Mayhem because that is what Pakistani cinema characterises best. Among the selected paintings are such gems as the legendary Maula Jat and various Jat offspring including Maula Jat in London (every gora’s ultimate nightmare), Permit (with Sultan Rahi wielding a special edition four-bladed gandaasa), Ibra (Rahi sailing through the air Superman style), Wehshi Jat (would you like to run into him in a dark alley some night?), Basheera (the film that made Sultan Rahi), the list is endless and almost all feature a blood drenched Sultan Rahi or a blood splattered Shaan.

The horror section (couldn’t avoid favouritism) is represented by two different designs of Zinda Laash, the Lollywood version of Dracula made way back in 1967. There is the Pushto monstrosity Adam Khor, and the intriguing poster for Zang, a Pushto film that was never released (no great loss to the world of cinema). The Women “take no shit” Section, a must for South Asian feminists, is headed by what is my personal favourite poster of Anjuman for Jatti da Veer, blood splattered, wielding a mean-looking AK-47, and would you believe it, a handbag. There is Nargis, Kalashnikov in hand from Ishtehari Gujjar, and a blood smeared Saima as the dreaded Baali Jatti amongst others. Astonishingly enough these are the “good girls,” Rani in Tehzeeb, complete with blonde wig and obligatory bottle of VAT 69 represents the “wayward” western element of the Pakistani social drama, along with Sangeeta’s ode to the evils of clubbing, Society Girl. The tortured Neelo of Zerqa is possibly my only concession to convention.

There are also a few Hollywood B-movie posters painted in a distinctly Lahori style. One is of a film called The Boogey Man will Get You – this film has been translated to Khaufnaak Jinn with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre’s names in Urdu, as well as Drakola aka Dracula, opulently painted and complete with Urdu credits. There is one of the classic 50’s sci-fi feature, Forbidden Planet, titled Doosri Duniya and a glorious rendition of Teen Age Hell Cats, drolly renamed Badmaash Larkian.

Call it tasteless, pointless or just plain insane, this is Pakistan today. Here is a tribute to the art of cinema, desi pop art, a nod and a round of applause to those unsung artists for providing us with a bizarre and distinct genre of art that is an intrinsic part of our culture, of which one ought to be proud.

Billboard Painting from Lahore 2001
From the Streets of Lahore in 2001