He's such an elemental part of the Indian film industry, but hardly finds mention anywhere. His work is not documented, no one writes books on him. Yet, if you've looked up at a huge cut-out of Raj Kumar in the past, in admiration, or have recently seen a cut out of his son Shivarajkumar for the film “Jogi” you've probably seen the hand of K. Chinnappa. He's perhaps one of the few film banner and cut-out makers in the city who has captured two generations of film stars with his paintbrush.
“I've never climbed mountains in this profession. I've only taken small steps,” is how the 74-year-old Chinnappa modestly describes his career spanning 60 years. Yes, 60 years, because he started working on movie banners when he was barely nine! He has known nothing else since.
In pre-independent India, Chinnappa was forced to drop out of school when his older brother died, leaving him to fend for his family. S.K. Seenu, a banner artist of great repute himself, used to live near Chinnappa's house. Seeing the young boy loitering around one day, he asked him to join him at work. “It was only then that I developed interest in painting and making posters and banners,” says Chinnappa. He started out by mixing colours, doing touch ups and filling gaps, like any young apprentice would. In 1954, he got to do a poster as an assistant, for Raj Kumar's superhit “Bedara Kannappa”. By 1958, he'd come into his own — he'd learnt to make graph sketches — he would divide a picture from a film into squares and blow it up to scale to make a 25-by-12 ft banner, and paint it. “In those days you had to see your guru at work and learn. Gurus wouldn't teach their shishyas that easily for fear that they would quit their work and become independent,” recalls Chinnappa. At least 20 artists he trained later went on to work independently.
He worked with his guru Seenu for 15 years before he moved out and started Rajkamal Arts. Till date, he's done over 3,900 film banners for films in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, and English. Chinnappa still works full time and is currently working on “Endhiran”. “Now I take rest every one hour and work, because my backbone has worn out from continuous standing over the years,” he says.
Having slogged to give film stars their larger-than-life image, did he ever get seduced into the glittering world of films himself? “When I was young, I used to go watch a film every Friday. I used to see the rang-rangeela colours on screen. That was enough for me.” “Mother India” was one Hindi film he appreciated immensely for its portrayal of reality. He also made the banner for it when it was released in Bangalore. When “Bobby” was released in Triveni, Raj Kapoor is said to have been so impressed by his banner for the film, that he took photographs, says Chinnappa. Director Puttanna Kanagal was so happy with his banners for his “Paduvarahalli Pandavaru” that he visited him to show his appreciation. But his pride glows as he talk of how Kannada matinee idol Raj Kumar has blessed him, gifted him a shield, and a wall clock, in appreciation for his banners for “Naa Ninna Mareyalaare” and “Sanaadi Appanna”.
“Film distributors and producers assigned us the work. Very often we would be given a free hand to decide what the banner would look like. We would give them a rough sketch for approval. The main character was the hero, who dominated the banner. Next came the heroine, then the villain and then an action scene,” Chinnappa explains how a banner was conceived. If the movie was a family drama, he would highlight the emotions and relationships. “Now everyone only demands violence…every hero holds a machchu (sickle) in his hand.”
For nearly 25 years he survived doing piece work — he would get paid one-and-a-half annas per square foot. “In those days four annas would take us a long way — for two days at least.” But the sparse income never made him look out for any other profession. In the 1960s he started getting paid one rupee per square foot for a banner. “I never felt that I needed to leave this work. We used to manage life with whatever we had. I used to paint as if it was my kartavya,” he says.
Technology has done bad things to his profession. It's almost left banner artists with no work. “Earlier for one Raj Kumar film, we would make 20 to 25 banners and about 30 cut outs. Today no one asks us to paint banners. They are all digitally printed. Earlier we would make a hand-canvas — treat cloth with powders and chemicals, coat it with oil paint, stitch it onto a frame — then paint. We would take up to five days to make one banner. Now, in five minutes they print one!” Very few appreciate handwork today, though Chinnappa says with around 12 paints he can create over 100 shades that look more attractive than flux printed posters.
The artist was involved right from scratch, making his own canvas to paint on. And it didn't stop there. They had to send their boys to haul up and fix the banners in place at theatres. Even for cut outs, plywood first had to be treated, sketched on, cut and then painted. Work would go on through night and day, with sleepless nights being a regular feature. Unfortunately, he's not preserved any of his work — a logistic impossibility. Photographic documentation of his work also started only 10 years ago.
Today, two of Chinnappa's sons have stepped into his field of work; their father is their teacher. Chinnappa has been invited to America, and more recently Australia to participate in film festivals to demonstrate his skills. But he refuses to go anywhere. “What if something happens to me there, in an alien country?” he asks, flummoxing his sons with his attitude. He also refuses to go on a 10-hour flight, one son adds!
He was recently in the news when he held an exhibition of his paintings. This time, the subject, though, were famous Indian monuments and wild animals! “In 1977, I went to Belur and liked the sculptures so much… it was as satisfying as eating honey. When I saw those stone carvings I decided ‘Why not paint it?'” explains the staunch believer of realism on his latest venture. The massive paintings give an amazing three-dimensional perspective; Chinnappa painted them from photographs he took, as well as from books. He added human beings in them, to give his own creative touch. There's an evident play of light and shade in all the paintings. Asked why, Chinnapa's answer is simple: “Man's life is light and shade.”