A Day With One Of The Last Bollywood Movie Poster Artists

As hand painted movie posters come to end, the old artists struggle to survive.

On a sultry Monday afternoon, I saw a different side of Bombay.
I got off at Grant Road Station and hailed a cab. For a minute I felt like I was back in my own city, Calcutta. the black and yellow playing tricks on my mind. “J.J.Hospital” I said and off we went, past the bustle of lower middle class working people, the scent of dry garam masala being tempered in cheap hydrogenated oil, a flurry of old British architecture interjected with dilapidating buildings.
I was out looking for a man named Akhtar Sheikh, an artist as old as his art, living in an obscure corner of the city.

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The places his search for Akhtar took Falko

A few days ago South African street artist Falko One was in India - a pit stop in his five year long travel spree. He has been a graffiti artist for 25 years and is largely responsible for the development of South Africa’s graffiti scene. Identified chiefly with his colorful elephants, Falko’s project ‘Herd on the Street’ is a collection of elephants painted across the world. Determined to take the ‘Herd’ all over, Falko stopped in India to bring it here. They say birds of a feather flock together so, Falko met up with Tyrell Valadares, founder of the ‘Bandra Art Project’. It was through Tyrell that Falko met Akhtar, an erstwhile hand painter of movie posters and left him a priceless gift. A graffiti tribute of elephants inspired by the movie poster of ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’.

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While there was much about Falko on the internet, about Akhtar there was almost none.

From amidst the swarm of people scurrying out of a nearby mosque after the afternoon prayer, emerged a small and frail body, his eyes trying to locate me, his face patterned with wrinkles and droopy lids that looked glum in a happy way. I waved at him vigorously till his beady eyes spotted me and his furrowed eyebrows smoothened into even arcs as he smiled.

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Akhtar in his tiny shop

The pavement curved into a narrow alley with adjoined buildings, paint peeling off, some that have never been painted with half-broken latticed windows and underneath every building tilted asbestos or plastic jutting out, mounted on ply planks that make for the roofs of many hole in the wall shops. Just where the road turns a corner stood Star Art, Akhtar’s shop. It has been his shrine and exhibit together for fifty long years. The foldable doors of his shop hold glass cabinets, his hand painted sketches and other artwork encased in them.

Several years ago Akhtar’s parents had migrated from Allahabad to Mumbai but when he was only one year old they passed away. Brought up by his uncle and aunt and studying at a school for orphans, Akhtar had spent all his life on 2nd Cooper Street, towing his uncle as he went about his chores. After his tenth, he had to drop out because of insufficient funds. His uncle noticed him sitting idly most of the time and told him one day, “Why don’t you learn something?” That proved to be the turning point in Akhtar’s life as he began training under a Faiz artist who was his uncle’s friend.

The process seemed never ending, he spent days learning how to sketch only the eyes and then gradually advanced from pencil to pen to paints. By the time he was a teenager he knew how to sketch, make portraits and had learnt calligraphy. He was becoming eager to put his talents to fruition. At that time everyone was crazy about the movies, as was Akhtar. The thought of chancing upon Lata Mangeshkar at a studio intrigued him greatly and he started making rounds at studios with his portfolio under his arm.

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Memories of Akhtar’s past. Image source: munshimaniac.wordpress.com

Those years the only source of creative designing for everything from movie posters to casting credits were artists like him, and Akhtar was keen to join. Initially he even worked for free in films like ‘Kinare Kinare’ and ‘Jugnu’ and spent hours with other artists working on bare starch-free Markin cloth and transforming them into humongous hoardings for the streets of Mumbai and the roofs of movie halls. Later on he went on to paint famous movie posters including the promotional posters of `Mughal E Azam’.

“There used to be an entire department for this,” he says effervescently. “Just like in offices today it would take a group of 10-15 people to make one single banner, each one for a different task and we would be at it for hours.” He explained the complexity of the work and how things were different today. “Not just us, even Lata ji would have to rehearse a song for days. There were no retakes for us, just one shot.”

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Akhtar bringing erstwhile actors to life

An otherwise happy man, Akhtar seemed to mellow down while talking about how things have changed. It’s not so much the waning of his art that bothers him as the quality of what’s replacing it. Take language. Words they use in songs today are neither Hindi nor Urdu. It’s a new language. Let me tell you ‘halaatein’ is no word. Its ‘halaat’ (condition). It’s already plural just like furniture”.

That Akhtar is a learned man despite no formal education is very apparent. His analogies and anecdotes are unique and entertaining. With technological advancement, the art of hand painted posters has died, and to make ends meet he has left showbiz and picked up commercial art - lettering, design, logo, letterheads. Plus making portraits for people.

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Falko in old Bombay

In the past, Akhtar’s shop bustled during the end of school semesters, as long lines of girls would wait to get their art projects done by him. Handsome as he was, many times he even found scribbled notes or hidden movie tickets within those projects, but he denied them all for the love of his life. He fought  against all odds to marry her. And they were together for over fifty years till she passed away last year.

When I asked him if he has a portrait of her he said the idea that artists make art inspired by their lovers is both incorrect and pedantic, and corrected the notion saying, “Artists make art for love, not lovers”.

At 75, he is one of the last living artists of his kind and barely makes ends meet. It was painful to see someone of his caliber sitting forgotten in a back lane of this big city. Before parting I asked him if he had any regrets about the life he chose. His reply was an Urdu poem -
Naya hai daur Nayi zindagi ki baat karo
Khilo gulo ki tarah taazgi ki baat karo

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Akhtar and Falko watch ‘The Herd’ come to India

Very simply put - accept change with an open heart as times change.
And in those two lines of acceptance, he emerged as a humanist.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.

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By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Suman Quazi
Cover photo credit: pinterest