There was a time not too long ago when hand-painted film banners, large hoardings and life-sized cut-outs saturated Chennai’s cityscape.
Two-dimensional movie stars, plastered across swathes of canvas, beckoning an imagined audience were a constant at every important traffic junction. Not many know that it was in an unassuming studio called Mohan Arts on General Patters Road that many of these attention grabbers were painstakingly put together.
61-year-old Harinath Kumar, who now runs the enterprise from Kilpauk Garden, says: “Earlier, we had 20 artists. There were some who drew the figure, a letter painter to paint the letters, carpenters to construct cut-outs, and separate background artists.”
A single hoarding of 100 by 20 feet took as many as ten days to erect. A regular-sized wooden cut-out would require two or three days while a cloth banner took a day or two to produce.
Established in 1950 by K. Mohanakrishnan (Mr. Harinath’s father), the studio produced banner art for scores of Tamil films. But it was with posters for Sivaji Ganesan’s films that the studio became famous. “My father was a Sivaji loyalist. We took special effort to give posters for his films an extra edge.” Not surprisingly, when Sivaji’s Vanangamudi was released in 1957, Mohan Arts handcrafted an impressive 80-foot cut-out at Chitra theatre. According to Mr. Harinath, this was the tallest standee ever made in Asia at the time.
With Baba Arts, Swami Arts and Fai Arts being the other big players in the city, competition was stiff. Yet, boundaries were drawn and territories claimed. Mohan Arts, for instance, laid claim to all of Sivaji Ganesan’s films. Others would corner the market for art work of stars such as MGR, Rajini and Kamal.
The firm now is a pale shadow of its former self. Having transitioned completely to digital printing, Mr. Harinath confesses that the trade has been sucked of all its creativity. “We simply enlarge photos now. Hand painting is too expensive.” Wooden cut-outs which once cost Rs. 20 per sq. ft. are now twice as expensive to produce. Digital printing, in comparison, is much cheaper at Rs. six per sq.ft.
The last hand-painted Mohan Arts production was a cut-out for the film Chandramukhi (2005). It was raised on Anna Salai opposite the Buhari Hotel.
The 2008 Supreme Court ban on all hoardings sounded the death-knell for an industry that once brought a degree of flamboyance to the city.