Ever since the release of India’s first talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931, songs have had the power of making or breaking a movie. Some releases scored big at the box-office only because of their repeat-value soundtracks. For music fans, the song booklet outlived the movie and became a record of who wrote the lyrics and who appeared in the production.
Many of these publications are in the possession of collectors or institutions such as the National Film Archive of India in Pune and the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai.
Song booklets were issued by producers, and existed alongside other early marketing gimmicks such as lyric sheets and radio shows. Their artwork, much like the movie’s posters, revealed the immense skill of poster designers and painters of the time. Until the mid-1950s, the images usually highlighted the heroines, who were often billed before their leading men (unless the hero was far, far senior) right until the fifties.
The booklets were produced in portrait and landscape formats, and they cost a few annas. They were sold in cinema halls during the intermission. Their creation involved planning, since they highlighted the movie’s poster on the front cover as well as information about the cast and crew, the plot synopsis, and the lyrics of all the tunes.
Some of the more elaborately designed booklets had elaborate photo features or movie stills. Booklets issued by the Bombay Talkies studio always had a photograph of the studio on the back cover along with a list of all its productions till date.
Film companies often used these booklets to generate interest in the current production and advertise forthcoming projects on the back covers. Many of these movies were pipe dreams that were never made if the one on whose back they were riding was a commercial failure.
Song booklets were not just for Hindi movies. Since music is a highlight of cinema in all languages, these brochures were designed and printed for regional films from all over India, including the region now Pakistan.
Today the closest equivalent to the booklet is the literature that accompanies music CDs. These simply do not have the charm, or the keepsake value, of the booklet.