Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

The Man Who Was Seen Too Much:
Amitabh Bachchan on
Film Posters

The Poster As Preview

Fig.04

India’s first 70 mm film, Sholay (Flames) is now firmly lodged in the pantheon of Indian cinema history as one of the biggest productions that scaled new heights in the technology of cinematic splendour. The story of a retired policeman’s (Sanjeev Kumar) revenge against a dacoit (bandit) who had killed his whole family, Sholay in many ways marked a turning point in Indian cinema for its novel use of violence, locations, action and drama. The film was again written by Salim and Javed who were now ruling the box office as the hit pair of scriptwriters after the success of Zanjeer and Deewar (The Wall, Yash Chopra: 1975). Sholay was a departure at many levels - in the representation of the villain, in the quality of action, the choice of location, and in its 70 mm cinematography. Gabbar Singh (played by Amjad Khan) was a very important figure in the film projected quite differently from the way dacoits had been presented in earlier films.11 In fact the first pre-release hoarding had Amjad Khan prominently displayed even though he was virtually unknown as an actor at that time.12 The publicist C. Mohan created several designs for Sholay’s publicity. The orange colour of the flames ran across all the posters as did the title font and style which evoked the 70mm cinemascope experience (fig. 04). Sholay was shot on 35 mm and then processed as a 70 mm print, a technique that was administered in Paris and London and required considerable planning.13 Pre-release information about the technical imagination of the film had already added to the hype about the film. Notice the way the title replicates the shape of the original cinemascope logo placed on top (fig. 05) - wide at both ends and a narrow curved centre. The shape of the title and the orange colour created a sense of continuity even as each poster design tried to address different constituencies of spectators.

Fig.05

Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra get equal space in what is perhaps Sholay’s most well-known poster (fig. 05). We get a sense of the star cast, a sense that it is an action film and since the protagonists are dressed in jeans, we can assume the film is located in the city. The marketing strategy for Sholay was unique because the “village” where most of the film is located hardly makes an appearance in any of the posters.14 We see an unclear impression of the village imprinted right at the bottom of figures 06 and 07. The writers Salim and Javed were drawing on a wide repertoire of images from the Hollywood Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone to dacoit films like Mera Gaon Mera Desh (My Village My Country, Raj Khosla: 1971).15 In Sholay the dacoit looked like a Mexican bandit confronting jean-clad protagonists from the city. The publicity of the film was conceptualized to highlight the modernity and the singularity of the film. Not a single poster of Sholay looked like a traditional dacoit (bandit) film. The desire to mark the film as different from anything that had been made before was stated in the tagline of one of the posters: “The greatest star cast ever assembled – the greatest story ever told” (fig. 04). Dwarka Divecha, the cinematographer of the film is also mentioned in the posters, an unusual practice which clearly indicated that camerawork was one of the major highlights of the film.

Fig.06

The posters would occasionally draw on extra-cinematic information about the private lives of the actors. The poster in Fig. 06 shows Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri, who got married in the summer of 1973 after they had been signed up for Sholay, in a composition that draws on the posed portraiture style tradition of wedding photography. The poster is obviously mobilizing off-screen narratives about the newly married star couple. Two of their films Zanjeer and Abhimaan (Pride, Hrishikesh Mukherjee: 1973) became hits during the shooting of Sholay and Bachchan who was still not a big star when he signed up for the film, turned into a major star overnight. The photographs of the married couple widely circulating in the print media got woven into the publicity mechanism of Sholay and were reproduced here as the enigmatic couple enveloped by orange flames. Film stars, as Richard Dyer states, are personas constituted by both on screen and off screen narratives.16 This duality of the image is dependent on a balance between the space of fictional performance and what lies outside of it - a combination of public and private identities that brings together the glamour associated with film and the ordinary world of domestic life or the scandalous world of affairs and other controversies. This contrast between the two worlds is made available in sources outside of film as in newspapers, film magazines, in conversations between fans, television, and now increasingly the internet.17 It is the widespread presence of off-screen information about Jaya Bahaduri and Amitabh Bachchan that is mobilized by the poster of Sholay in fig. 06, and yet in the film, Bachchan dies before any union with Jaya is possible. Jaya who plays a widow in the film is never shown as one in any of the posters, perhaps to keep the romance theme alive.

Fig.07

Fig.08

In fig. 07, we see the three main protagonists of Sholay - all men and only their faces. This is the ultimate multi-star vision that renders the women invisible as opposed to posters of the preceding decades when female stars were prominently placed. The “multi-starrers” of the 1970s have been described as “films crammed with stars to increase the apparent market value which simply intensified the stranglehold of the top stars who sometimes worked in up to fifty productions at the same time.”18 The multi-star film was clearly an expression of the ultimate form of star excess and Bachchan himself acted in several of these films. Interestingly enough, the space of these films was increasingly coded as a predominantly masculine one. Both Hema Malini and Jaya Bhaduri were initially skeptical of their roles in Sholay. Hema Malini had five and a half scenes and Jaya even less than that – a point both actresses had wondered about and raised with director Ramesh Sippy.19 Figure 07 clearly displays the masculine positioning of the multi-star film, something we can also see in several other multi-starrers made during this time.20 Consider the posters of Trishul (The Trident, Yash Chopra: 1978), for instance. Trishul had four female actresses in substantial roles and yet in the poster in fig. 08, the female stars are absent and the tag line says “three faces of men”. In another poster of Trishul (fig. 09), the male protagonists and the villain enjoy pride of place in a composition that suggests an action film, while the female stars appear as faces on the bottom half. In Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony released in 1977, a year before Trishul, we see a similar erasure of the female cast. However Bachchan is placed in the foreground in this poster (fig. 10), clearly evoking a more powerful status for the actor vis-à-vis the other two male stars in the background. The caption above states that the film is a “smash hit” and shows that this poster was re-created after the film had been declared a success at the box office. Bachchan as Anthony had made a mark with his comic performance, making the star even more powerful than before.21 In the world of the multi-starrers, Bachchan was slowly emerging as the all powerful invincible force, the “one man industry” who was riding the crest.

Fig.09
Fig.10
Fig.11

Fig.12

Ram Balram was released in 1980 as a big budget multi-starrer directed by Vijay Anand. The four posters of Ram Balram have an interesting strategy (figs. 11, 12, 13, 14). In figs. 11 and 12 we see two male stars prominently displayed, so we know the film has a multi-star cast. Both posters convey a sense of drama through facial expressions and position the principle characters in a hierarchical arrangement. The male protagonists are shown twice, clearly indicating their importance in the marketing of the film. The display of the stars overrides any other detailing in these two posters. However, in figs. 13 and 14 we see an elaborate layout of action. In fig. 13 we see a helicopter, a ship, cannons, and men on horseback highlighted around the faces of the two protagonists. Both Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan have equal space in all the posters, but there is a density of detail in figs. 13 and 14. In fig. 14, the stars are made less important than the action. At one level the two stars appear to display a standard “men in action” pose and expression, but the mise-èn-scene is strikingly differentiated from the faces, making action the highlight of the film. The dramatic difference lies in the detailing of technology and an object world that enhances and spectacularizes the scale of action. This kind of poster draws our attention to two things. First, the 1970s magnified the scale of action in cinema to a level that involved large production crews since action sequences, like dance sequences, require skilled stunt men and women.22 Secondly, action came to be recognized by the industry as one of the most marketable and spectacular aspects of a film, displayed here through a depiction of technology as spectacle.

Fig.13
Fig.14

Ram Balram could not have been made before Sholay – the first film to professionalize action. Ramesh Sippy had the best stunt directors from Bombay and a team of professionals from the U.K. working with him during the shooting of the film. Until Sholay, action in Hindi cinema was mostly a “last reel affair.” 23 Sholay paved the way for a different kind of aesthetic which would go with a new kind of masculinity. The elaborate imagery in two posters of Ram Balram (figs. 13 and 14) indicates this professionalization of action and marks the film as a big budget production.24 The consolidation of a new techno-masculinity is also abundantly made clear in the erasure of the female protagonists in these posters. The absence of the women in some of these posters of Sholay and Ram Balram foreground the prevailing industry discourse that female stars don’t help in the sale of films and that box office receipts always rely on the male stars. Many of the multi-star posters display these anxieties of the film industry, creating the visual arc through which Bachchan’s superstar persona is refracted.


11 Anupama Chopra writes that at the meeting where Salim and Javed narrated the story and dialogues for the cast of Sholay, both Amitabh Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar wanted to play the part of Gabbar Singh. Both felt that Gabbar’s lines were powerful and unique (Anupama Chopra, Sholay: The Making of a Classic, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2000, 35.
12 Ibid. 153.
13 Ibid.57-58.
14 Ibid.40-53. It took Ram Yedekar, the art director, a few months to create the village for the film in Ramnagaram which is an hour away from Bangalore. Chopra provides a detailed account of how the location was selected and then transformed.
15 The term “spaghetti western” refers to a genre of films that surfaced in the 1960s. These films were made by Italians and were shot in Italy and Spain. The films tended to be much more violent than the classic Hollywood Western. For more on this form, see Christopher Frayling, Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, London: I.B Tauris, 2006.
16 Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, 2nd Edition, New York: Routledge, 2004.
17 For a more updated overview of the debates on Stardom, see Christine Geraghty “Re-examining stardom: questions of texts, bodies and performance” in Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, ed., Reinventing Film Studies, London: Arnold, 2000, 183-201.
18 Beheroze Gandhy and Rosie Thomas in Christine Gledhill ed., Stardom: An Industry of Desire, London: Routledge, 108. The term “multistarrer” is an industry term, popularly used to describe the ensemble star cast of films.
19 See Chopra, Sholay, 30-31.
20 One could also read the overwhelming presence of male stars in this period as a way of negotiating homoeroticism.
21 Amitabh Bachchan’s performance in Amar Akbar Anthony was a major departure from the “angry man” image. Manmohan Desai had made a conscious decision to use the actor differently in the film which narrates the story of three brothers separated at birth and subsequently brought up as a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian. The film was the biggest hit of the year. Bachchan plays the role of the Christian. The song “My name is Anthony Gonzalves” picturized on Bachchan became a rage along with several other comic moments with the actor at the centre, adding considerably to Bachchan’s star status as a “complete actor”. See the interview with Ketan Desai (Manmohan Desai’s son) in the episode “Comedy as the Weapon of the Weak” in the television series, "The Power of the Image" directed by Shikha Jhingan and Ranjani Mazumdar, New Delhi, BITV, 1998.
22 Stunt artists work as body doubles and despite the fact that action immediately conveys the idea of masculinity; the industry has a large number of stuntwomen. For Sholay, Reshma, a leading stunt woman of the period, performed two extremely dangerous stunts for Hema Malini.
23 Chopra, Sholay, 114.
24 Director Vijay Anand had by now acquired a formidable reputation as a skilled filmmaker. His Jewel Thief and Johnny Mera Naam had boasted of spectacular action sequences but they were primarily “last reel affairs”. Action in Ram Balram formed a huge canvas and comparisons were often made with the violence shown in Sholay. Interview with Komal Nahata of Film Information, Bombay, April, 2003.

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