The beaten up hero looks at his lover from a train that has just started to pull out of a station in rural Punjab. The woman pleads with her authoritarian father to set her free. The patriarch suddenly lets go of her arm. The woman flips her hair back and runs towards the hero, who now has his hand outstretched. Their palms finally touch. The hero pulls her into the train compartment. A nation sighs and box office history is made.
To the 26-year-old Bangalore-based computer engineer Abhinav Bhatt from Minimal Movie Posters India, the climax of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was so definitive that he decided his minimalist movie poster for the movie could simply show two hands reaching out against the background of a train.
While definitions of a minimalist poster vary, most designers agree that the posters focus on a specific concept or image and that — as Bhatt insists — they do not have pictures of the movie's stars. Yet, 'minimalist' is a word that is bandied rather freely in Bollywood. For instance, movie websites have gushed about Agent Vinod's "slick minimalist poster" (the one that has the letters 'A' and 'V' with a gun-bearing Saif Ali Khan). Bhatt opines that the poster does not qualify as one that is minimalist. "You still have the hero in the poster," he points out.
Weeks ago, Bhatt uploaded his poster for the Irrfan Khan-starrer Paan Singh Tomar on Minimal Movie Posters India, a tumblog dedicated to minimalist posters for Hindi movies. A couple of days later, he saw this comment on the website — 'Irrfan wants this poster. He loves it'. The name beside the comment read Anurag Kashyap. Unsure of the comment's authenticity, Bhatt replied and the man did indeed turn out to be the director himself. Bhatt also got in touch with Khan and emailed him a copy of the poster. So does this mean that Bollywood is finally willing to experiment with poster designs, even if it is at the expense of not having a star's face in the poster? Bhatt laughs. "I got a comment from Anurag Kashyap. Not Aditya Chopra."
Director Anurag Kashyap, who loves minimalist movie posters so much that a friend once gifted him a minimalist poster of his own film Dev.D, admits that he would have such a poster probably only at a film festival. "Movies are studio owned so they would need a poster that would attract attention," says Kashyap. "But I will have more such posters if I had more of a say in the matter."
By now, we all know how the filmmakers of the Akshay Kumar-starrer Rowdy Rathore hired street painters to paint the movie's poster. But does mainstream Bollywood prefer to play it safe? We are, after all, revisiting a trend from the '80s which is now so hackneyed that even a book has been written about it. Are filmmakers of big budget movies uncomfortable with banning stars' faces from posters? Or is the average Hindi movie viewer yet to move on from the loud, bold and colourful?
It's a little bit of all three. New age filmmakers are open to the idea of experimenting with minimalist posters but filmmakers who have been around for a while and have been delivering hits would prefer other posters, explains Rajeev Chudasama, Founder and Creative Director of Marching Ants, the design studio behind posters of movies like Kahaani, Lakshya, Dev.D and Paan Singh Tomar. "In India, we work almost six days a week and have long hours. In Europe, people work five days, go fishing …. that is the kind of the space you need to be in to enjoy minimalism," he says. But our audiences, he adds, might well be on the road to such nuanced appreciation. "It will happen when our ideas get bigger than the actors."
Things in the West, however, aren't also quite as simple as fishing. Cameron Crowe's 2011 movie We Bought a Zoo, which stars Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson, has a legitimate minimalist movie poster to its credit: The poster has a tree with green paw prints for leaves, sticking to the movie's storyline of a family moving into a rundown zoo. "If a studio hires a bankable star, they want to use that star as a sales tool," explains Ethan Archer, Creative Director of ARSONAL, the California-based design company behind the We Bought a Zoo posters. "Most (filmmakers) do not have the final say. That's usually up to the studio distributing the film."
No matter which side of the East-West divide you find yourself on, minimalist posters are still seen as risky, but while art has emerged as the occasional winner in Hollywood, it just might be time for Hindi filmmakers to dare to experiment.