Telling the Stories Beyond the Silver Posters of Satyajit Ray

By Piu Mahapatra. Read full article on Silhouette

Posters are an extension of movies. In a pre-digital world, they were the precursors to come first in public view, not the trailers that cloud the youtube sky like today. Satyajit Ray, a visual artist of immense caliber was particular that the posters of his films remained refreshing and different from the disappointingly dull and monotonous bandwagon. In this article, Piu Mahapatra delves in deep to see how some of these posters, when considered in pairs, whisper a story to each other.

If the posters are the extension of their movies, then they are the ones who first come in public view, either stuck on the city’s billboards like square rainbows condensed against the changing grey sky, or, maddeningly-repeated-frozen-stills zooming by on the identical pillars when viewed from the windows of moving vehicles.

They are the ones who first ignite the spark.

They are the one who initiate the silent, visual conversation with the common.

Indeed, a crucial role to play in the world of movies which constantly demand to be viewed by you and by us. Satyajit Ray knew it and commanded this tool very well.

From mid-20th century, Kolkata was used to seeing the tediously hand-painted and yet aesthetically loud posters of Bollywood movies like Shree 420 or larger-than-life Dilip Kumar comically perching on a windowsill and about to make his entrance in Azaad. The posters were disappointingly dull and monotonous stills of Bollywood hits, including Kavi (1949) and much later, Agni Pariksha(1954). Ray’s posters all of a sudden, were a set of lyrical and yet bold posters taking up the small and big billboards or the walls of the busy lanes of the city. These new-iconic visuals, used for propaganda, stood out from rest of their brothers, in their graphical narration, in their mindful selection of colours and their playful use of forms thereby making them intricately detailed yet deceptively simple.

After all, the maestro of Indian cinema and a foremost global filmmaker of the 20th century was a revolutionary graphic designer himself. He was profoundly influenced by painters like Nandalal and Binod Bihari who were his teachers at Santiniketan and who inspired him to delve into the roots and heritage of Oriental art. Ray also had the opportunity to work for years under the British advertising agency D.J. Keymer, an experience that made him a radical , then-unique graphic designer of his time and even much later.

A poster, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, is an extension, a fragment of the story that a movie will narrate to its audience later, on the silver screen. Many of these visuals were created by Ray himself and let us explore and enjoy some of his still visuals, his movie posters under a different light. If when paired and placed next to each other, can these posters start a new conversation between them and then with us?


Devi was set with a background of the rural Bengal of the 1860’s, even though the time considered in the original story, written by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, was of a Bengal seventy years earlier. In contrast, Mahanagar captures the changing big city around the 1950’s.

Two young wives, naïve and beautiful, set over a hundred years apart, one looks back to the other when paired, as if contemplating at her own reflection, who in turn gazes back to the audience with her wide, beautiful eyes and with the red ‘bindi’ burning between the eyebrows.

Even though, both the posters have the monochromatic color palettes, yet how can we not notice Mahanagar and its young resident Arati captured in more black-and-grey, than her counterpart, set a decade behind her time. The chin squarely held and the lips boldly painted with red is definitely not by Arati’s hands. And intriguingly, that is the only hint of color, a dash of crimson that the poster on the right holds! Maybe, Arati, a housewife of a middleclass socio-economic background, struggling to cope up with the changing values, is closer to reality. She is the one who can be identified as a daily co-passenger of the very audience who is sitting in front of the silver screen now. Crimson, here symbolizes independence, a cool draft of freedom from how a middleclass housewife is painted and portrayed in the time when men, even Arati’s progressive husband, Subrata believes and quotes, while fondly embracing his beloved wife, ‘The best place of woman is home!’ Arati also believes that and struggles with that very quote. This dilemma coaxes her to look back at the vibrant, newlywed young girl who could hardly figure out her own identity, forget about exercising her rights to choose to live with her lawful partner. Yet Doyamoyee, the daughter-in-law, which was the only role she ever played, of a feudal and almost-fanatic Kalikinkar, is in shades of vivid red. Split in half, both in identity and lost in the world of reality and hallucination, Doyamoyee’s portrait suggests a subtle hint of smile where her lips just turn up only to decide to freeze. Whether she smiles back at herself or at us, is completely a viewer’s choice. The yellow dots decorating her both arches, another traditional custom of Bengal where the young brides get painted with sandal wood paste on the day of her marriage, look the least bit holy against the red ‘bindi’ which bleed and wash the entire face making her white eyes all the more prominent and almost challenging to return her gaze.

Both the women of different times, with their small earrings, tiny foreheads adorned with a single red dot, faced similar dilemma and confronted similar challenges being a woman. In multiple times of their life they chose others over themselves.

Ray explored texts and experimenting with typography was one of his favorite pastimes. The text, ‘Devi’ in Bengali, boldly placed at the foreground, in the identical vibrant hue suggested a temple or a mosque. The dark religious superstitions around faith may be the reason for the jagged, spiky contours. On the contrary, the word ‘Mahanagar’ is more like a planned block, something a city has with its high rises and lanes. Both the colours are wickedly chosen against their soft subtle backgrounds simply to highlight the words and never look noisy.