Do you recollect the early years seeing your father at work as a banner artist?
My father N Velayutham Pillai was a pioneer in cinema banners. His first work was the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Thookku Thookki (1954), for Royal theatre. I wasn’t even born then. I had a good education and I graduated in law. But during my childhood itself, after returning from school, I intently watched my father and his assistants at work. When I was 16 or 17 I began painting banners and by 22, I was a full-fledged artist.
How was the scenario when you began?
When my father started in the mid-1950s, there was a lot of struggle involved. We don’t get ready cash and we had to wait for months. It was a normal thing in the cine field in those days. Even when I started, the situation was the same. We actually lost a lot of money from our pocket. We should have been millionaires but we were still struggling. Back in my father’s period, black-and-white stills were given for the artist to work upon. Colour stills came very late into the picture. Even for colour films, black-and-white stills were given. The banner artist used his imagination to bring out the colours. We had enormous freedom and did a lot of experimentation. For comedians and villains, we gave mono colours – blue, red or black and white For heroes and heroines, we used fluorescent colours and made them vibrant.
How did artists go through the transition of digital print outs in the late 1990s?
In Coimbatore, till 2005-06, we were painting with hands. Then digital banners came. The rates of digital banners were low and we had a tough competition. They had many advantages. But the beauty of the banner and classic colours were lost. Any photograph could now be recreated and there was a very cheap usage of colours. Printing also had grades and mostly, people opted for the cheap ones. Before, when people passed by a theatre, they looked at the banners as though they looked at a work of art but after the digital prints came, nobody looked at the faded posters. Even during my college days, I was associated with the Chitrakala Academy of Coimbatore and excelled in contemporary paintings. But not all artists could make a transition that way. Those who couldn’t, went into work like whitewashing and such work.
How different was working on banners for political parties?
Many years back, huge banners weren’t banned during elections. Whenever an election came, every artist had ready money and work. Unlike people in cinema, politicians paid on time. Before the flex boards came, wall paintings for politicians were everywhere. Elections meant good work for us. Once some people came from Switzerland and they wanted banners to be made in Indian style. I was contacted and I got the opportunity to work for them on the theme of labour welfare. I painted plenty of them and shipped them to Switzerland.
Do you remember the first work of yours?
My first banner painting was when I was doing my PG in Presidency College. I came to Coimbatore for my vacation. My father was doing the banner for K Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu. I was impressed by the actor in the picture. Not many knew who he was. He had a cigarette dangling from his lips and something attracted me. I asked him if I could paint it. Thus, it was my first painting of Rajinikanth. The cinema scenario changed during the late 1970s. Instead of blockbuster films, serious directors like Bharatiraja and Mahendran came. The importance moved to visuals instead of faces. In Uthiri Pookkal (1979), we knew none of the people acting in it. I was a film buff myself. We experimented with colours and forms. Nobody questioned us. It was our golden period.
How did your designs change with these new filmmakers?
For instance, for Mahendran’s movie Nandu (1981), the hero is affected by cancer. On a 20×10 banner, on one side I drew the eyes and nose of the hero. Diagonally opposite to the hero’s image on top, I drew the shadow of a crab crawling downwards to indicate the hero is going to be affected by the ailment. For Balachander’s films I drew a big mountain in the landscape, where the mountain symbolised Balachander himself. Many of these actors were new and there was no need to promote the face.
How was it working on Hindi film billboards?
While working for Hindi films, we got professionally shot sharp photographs. The result was good. My father worked on the bill boards of Sholay (1975). That was the era of Amitabh Bachchan and he had a strong face. Think of his face soaked in the colours of coal in the poster of Kaala Patthar (1979). It was interesting to paint. At the same time, in Tamil, after the success of Rajinikanth, many dark-faced heroes started gaining entry. In the dark colours, we had a lot of freedom to bring out a good effect. It was a delight painting Vijaykanth.
Why haven’t the bill boards survived over time?
Collecting a poster is different from collecting a banner. A banner has many raw materials going into it, such as gum, which is taken from animal fat. It is a very smelly affair and the rotten smell gets worse as it gets older. Today, even if we want to make hand-painted billboards, it is more expensive. The prices of raw materials have gone up and talented hands are missing. Most of them have retired or are dead.
How deep is your connect with Coimbatore?
I know every nook and corner of the city. From tea vendors to VIPs, I interact with everyone on a daily basis. The city and I are untied. I am a regular at several city-based events. I was also a part of an event to paint the walls of Coimbatore. I won a National award for my book on cinema Thirai seelai. My next book will be on my experiences as a banner artist, replete with anecdotes right from my father’s time. It will be my way to document the work we have put in.
This was published in The Times of India, Coimbatore