They are the first to introduce a movie to the common man. Akila Kannadasan meets a team of youngsters who paste cinema posters on walls when the city sleeps

A constant crackle of paper. A chatter of voices, followed by laughter. An old Ilaiyaraaja song in the background. It’s business as usual for the poster boys in the whitewashed room in a bylane in Triplicane. It is 10 p.m. and their day has just begun. They are sorting cinema posters that just arrived from a printing press in Sivakasi.

Some two hours later, they will travel in groups in autos to various areas in the city to paste them on the walls along the roadside. Aravind, Vinodh, Baskar and Hari among others chat as their hands work swiftly — they fold six poster bits each measuring 30” x 40” together. They will be pasted as a grid to make a full poster. The adhesive, made of a powdered tuber sourced from Zam Bazaar, bubbles on a stove nearby.

“We have been working here since 1952,” says A. Nanda Kumar, a publicity consultant, who runs the business. His father V. Arumugam, who sold tickets in a theatre in Triplicane, started it. “Posters arouse people’s interest in a movie,” says Nanda Kumar’s uncle, K. Rajashekar. In the beginning, cinema posters were stuck on wooden boards fixed on trolleys. “A man was paid Re.1 to take a trolley around the city,” recalls the 81-year-old. Cyclerickshaws came next. “We stuck one on either side and a big one on the rear.” Apart from pay, these men were given four free passes for the movie.

“Around 1953, we started putting up posters on boards placed at important spots in the city. The place where Valluvar Kottam stands now was a lake around which several movie posters were put up, remembers Rajashekar. “Cinema people often passed by the area.” Rajashekar says that producers and distributors gave importance to the publicity the posters brought. When people see a poster for two or three days continuously, they would want to watch the movie, he feels.

Today, Nanda Kumar pays his employees Rs.600 a day. He has 18 men working for him, among whom Kuppusamy and Subban are aged over 75. “Kodambakkam, T. Nagar, West Mambalam, Adyar, Royapettah….I cover most areas in the city,” he explains. He also undertakes publicity for programmes on television channels and has a presence across Tamil Nadu. “Our work starts at 8 p.m. Once the boys set out to paste posters, they are out till 6 a.m. or sometimes 8 a.m., depending on the amount of work.” Posters are printed as 30” x 40” pieces. Nanda Kumar explains that the size of a poster depends on the number of these pieces — which may be 6, 12, 15, or 18.

As the city sleeps, a poster boy scoops a handful of adhesive from a plastic bucket, smears it on a poster, and pastes it on a wall with practised perfection. He travels from one area to another battling sleep to publicise a movie or an event. Mostly in their early twenties, these boys are either school or college drop-outs. “Jolly-ya irukkum,” says Aravind, describing his job. “We are all friends. I enjoy pasting posters. It can get physically draining sometimes, but I sleep it off during the day,” he says.

Most of them are movie-buffs. Why wouldn’t they be, when they see life-size images from movies up close every day of their lives? Baskar takes his job seriously. “We introduce a movie to people and make actors famous. And we get to see cinema stills even before a movie’s release,” he says. There are some movies whose posters these boys will never forget. Among them are Rajinikanth’s Enthiran. “The design was grand,” recalls Aravind. Then there is the ritual they follow before pasting posters of movies of their favourite star. “We paste the first one on the wall of the street opposite our room,” he grins, pointing to a poster of Arrambam bang in front of their workplace. There will be excitement the night before the release of a movie they look forward to. “The morning after I pasted posters of an Ajith movie, I bragged to my friends ‘Ajitha paathaenae!’”