For years, Chennai’s walls captured the quirks of its favourite faces in garish hues, bestowing the city with exclusive rights to exhibitionism. Green-yellow film stars and black-red politicians beamed down from hand painted billboards. Where the cut outs ended, the sky began. Wars of the ballot and box-office alike were fought in technicolour. At the turn of the decade though, the Eastman style paints that ran in the city’s veins began drying out.
C. Sivakumar of Chella Arts, T.Nagar believes everything is digital now, even affection. The 59-year-old is only one of thousands of former cut-out painters. Reluctantly, he reminisces of a time when he got steady orders for portraits but “lately they stick digital images of deceased relatives behind a fancy frame. It is cheaper.”
Seated in the dingy confines of the vinyl printing store cum PCO, he seems disconcertingly comfortable with the state of affairs. “I have not held a brush in five years but I am lucky. Those who couldn’t afford vinyl machinery are still suffering.” Like him, many have embraced the printing industry that stole their jobs.
G. Venkatesan of Jayaram Arts is also representative of the resignation which defines the life of former painters. “The last big projects were when Rajini and Kamal were at the helm of their career. After that, painting assignments grew very rare,” he says. Six years ago, he switched to digital printing and dismissed nearly 30 painters from his 58-year-old establishment at Mount Road. Some of them are now vegetable vendors, security guards and masons.
Few artists like G. Kumar of Saidapet have found ways not to let go of the art. After the lay-off, he broke into the “cine field” and began assisting set designer Rajeevan. Though work includes designing and furnishing, he best loves painting portraits and name boards to use as props. S. Ramesh started an art class in West Mambalam that now has seven students. Returns are nominal, but he is happy to teach the skill even if most students only pursue it as a hobby.
Local arts come with a looming expiry date. The terminal illness that struck cut-out painting was triggered by technology and policy. A 2008 order banned unauthorised hoardings and displays on private walls. The recent municipal wall paintings project seemed an opportunity for painters to shine but Sivakumar discloses, “Pay has moved from the original 30 to as low as four rupees per sq. ft.”
The forthcoming elections too will employ only printed ad campaigns. A hefty boost to vinyl printing is expected. “They prefer vinyl cut-outs which are made fast but tear within days. A painting could take between 10 days and three months to make but they last for years,” rues Venkatesan.
“A photo is a dull recreation of reality. In paintings, we would add shades of pink to the cheeks and green around the sideburns to give a unique finishing,” he observes with a hint of pride. Among his clients are AVM and Ananda Pictures but “they opt for the quick-fix digital cut-outs.” Shops and offices also prefer neon or glow signs.
Long after its death, Bollywood-style painting has found takers in rich youngsters and expats for whom the art holds kitsch appeal. For 1000 rupees a sq. ft., artists from Mumbai and Delhi create customised posters with the niche buyers painted alongside Bollywood superstars. The trend is yet to unfold in Chennai but Venkatesan doubts that it will, “We have never received such requests.”
Revival sounds a tad romantic even to these men who designed destinies and etched Tamil figures into the viewer’s consciousness. “Renewing this industry will be an uphill task. Artists have lost interest,” says Sivakumar. Then, with strange conviction, he adds – “Still, it will make a comeback.”
You want to believe him till a row of digitised boards confronts you outside the shop, confirming your worst fears.
“Have you seen ‘Russian Ark’?” a salesman quizzes curious customers outside Shop No.188 in Burma Bazaar, waving a CD packed in plastic. Their ‘No’ meets a look of disappointment and he goes on to say that the ‘beautiful’ film was made entirely in a single shot. “The cameraman followed the actors with a camera strapped to his body. You simply cannot count the number of rooms they move in and out of,” the short, jolly man exclaims. Interest suitably piqued, they decide to enter.
‘Sihabu World Cinema Collections’ appears like any other in a multitude of roadside DVD stores in Burma Bazaar – small, shady and cramped. A closer look reveals that both the shop and its salesman Shabbir Mohammad aka “DVD Shabbir” are far from regular. The writing on many of the 3000 DVDs is alien. This unique store, owned by Shabbir’s uncle, stocks the rarest shorts, feature films and documentaries from over 25 countries. Most are replicas of festival copies, sourced mainly from Malaysia and China.
Along with each DVD priced between 40-150 rupees, Shabbir offers his two pence worth. He is the poor man’s IMDB. Even a speech impediment does not deter the 32-year-old from rattling off director’s names, year of release, quotes, plots or making informed recommendations. He stops only to apologise, “I talk too much – a disease that comes with the trade.”
What started as routine 10 years ago steadily turned into passion. Instead of speed checking DVDs for glitches, Shabbir began pausing and watching whole scenes. “I was glued to action flicks before a friendly old customer introduced me to Majid Majidi’s work. The love for foreign films started then,” he recollects.
On a little TV beneath the counter, Shabbir watches films throughout the day. Despite the lack of college education and only a broken understanding of English, his grasp of cinema betters that of some present day critics. In his opinion flops should be watched to understand why they failed because “money and effort go into making them too.”
The generously shared trivia comes from careful accumulation of facts from CD back covers, books that customers show him and videos of the ‘making’ of various films. His constant advice is to remember the director’s name because, “He is the boss. There can be a film without actors but not a director.”
His love for direction is evident in the way he calls shots at the shop, skilfully guiding shoppers through the works of Bresson, Almodovar or Makhmalbaf. Shabbir’s profession often requires him to act but he harbours muted dreams of film-making, “I want to work with Majidi.” Then, launching back into the cubbyhole reality of his job, “Do you know he started out as an ice-cream seller?” he adds.
By a process he calls ‘brainwashing’, Shabbir convinces buyers to try new kinds of cinema, “Most people are restricted to one genre — action or romance or comedy. I encourage them to see something different.” The only customer he has not managed to outdo is Nasrin, his wife of three years. “If I watch films at home, I have to do without meals,” he laughs before adding, “But my wife is the greatest gift God gave me.”
Students of cinema form the major chunk of his clientele which also includes dealers from other states and foreign tourists. Shabbir once sold an American professor as many as 300 DVDs. But business is unpredictable, ranging from low sales to bulk orders. While online download sites threaten profits, he remains unperturbed. “Every trade is bitter-sweet. From inside this shop I get a chance to see other countries,” he shrugs.
Though he would like to launch his own business, he refuses to make plans. “You can never plan enough because things will happen when they have to. I try not to think too much.”
This is perhaps why DVD Shabbir is a happy man.