ISLAMABAD: The National Heritage and Culture Division at Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) inaugurated an exhibition of old-school painted cinema posters celebrating 100 years of cinematic artists.
The exhibition featured the works of Nasir Shehzad, Yousaf Sajjad, Sajid Murad, Syed Phool Badshah, Javed Ahmed, Emunel Malik, Ghulam Shabbir, Jacob Joseph, Lobin Gill, M. Ejaz-Allah Malik, M. Khalid, M. Ajmal, M. Rustam Khan, Gulfaraz, Tariq Mahmoud, J. Arif and Mehboob.
PNCA Director General Mohammad Ayoub Jamali welcomed the guests, saying, “When we were youngsters, students in primary school, cinema folk used to haul these posters around ontangasto promote the upcoming films. These artists survived on that work but then panaflex and plastic took the place of these painted posters. Their work, however, is unique and nothing can replace this art.”
He expressed his hope that many people would come to see this exhibition as it shone light on a rarely seen genre of pop art in Pakistan.
Caretaker Minister for National Heritage and Culture Syed Jamal Shah inaugurated the exhibition.
“Cinema billboards or posters were a pivotal part of our pop culture. This was the time when the Pakistani film industry was booming – every year there would be 80, 90 new films released. In fact, there were years where 150 to 200 films were made. In that era, cinema billboards used to attract the attention of people; the faces of your favourite actors would be masterfully painted taller than you stood. Brightly coloured, larger than life, these posters were a significant aspect of the culture of our cities,” he added.
Alluding to the same memories Mr Jamali shared, he said: “The promotions for the new films would be carried out through the billboards and loudspeakers. Friday was the window-breaking day as people would be lined up to watch the first show of Friday, queues would be broken and people would be jumping towards the ticket booth to get in.”
The cinema posters of yesteryear hold much the same space in Pakistani pop culture that truck art does. In fact, as Minister Shah pointed out that while going to the cinema was certainly entertainment and an excursion, it was also something that generated social dialogue.
“Imagine, there used to be three or four hundred seats in a cinema house, full of people who had stood in lines to buy their tickets or got scalped tickets. After complete darkness, the screening would start with a side reel, the Pakistani pictorial news flash, some trailers and then the film. Three or four hundred would watch the film together, as a collective experience. Cinema has its own magic that cannot be replicated at home,” he added.
Murad Khan, curator of the show, said: “Cinematic art had flourished in this region for decades but has seen a decline in recent years. This is based on our stories, the traditional stories which were the foundations of our films. As new mediums took the place of cinematic art, that is the large oil paintings, many of the artists bid farewell to their craft and a few struggle to survive. A few of us decided to form a platform calledChai Khana, where we have gathered cinematic and truck artists from across the country to promote them and preserve their craft.”
“Artists obviously need some money to feed themselves but much more importantly they cannot survive without appreciation of their work,” he added.
Nasir Shehzad, a cinematic artist from Abbottabad, said: “At its heart, cinematic art used to be a splendid institute, where you had a great deal of room to make mistakes; there was forgiveness for a large margin of error. When we learnt from ourustaads, we worked on a large scale. A single figure could be forty, fifty feet. In colleges, the training is not at that scale.”
“When you have room to make mistakes, you also gain ‘stroke power’ and there is that much more strength and vivacity in your colours, and flow in your strokes. I have been doing this since 1985 and this is a passion not a profession for me,” he added.
Jacob Joseph, an artist from Kohat, said: “Sometimes I feel that I was doing this since before I was born; it is part of my essence. The day I don’t paint, I find I am exhausted. People get tired when they work, I get tired when I don’t paint. Cinematic art was the art that surrounded us when we were children and I was drawn to these artists to quench my thirst for art. Today I think that if someone had guided me then, I could have gone to NCA.”
Till around 1975, there were some 1,500 cinema houses in Pakistan when the population was barely 160 million, if that. Today, the population is more than 240 million and there are not even 150 cinemas in country. The cinemas today do not serve the average Pakistani, as they priced beyond their purchasing power.
With the contraction of the local film industry and closure of the cinema houses, many associated professions of the creative economy, including script writing, music, and cinematic poster making, also shrank. These professions play a key role in preserving culture and heritage and the paintings on display and promotion of these artists deserves appreciation and promotion.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2023