At half past five in the evening, Devendrappa captured the eyes of Gabbar Singh on canvas to perfection. The light was fading fast, and Devendrappa put away his brushes, stowing them in a shelf behind the urinal in one corner of the compound of Vishnu Talkies. Then he returned to survey his work.
Yes, the lunacy in the eyes of the arch villain he had painted was unmistakeable. And the twist of Hema’s body was like a visual scream of anguish. This was exactly what he had hoped to achieve! Tomorrow, he would put the finishing touches to Amitabh’s rifle, and the poster would be complete.
Not a bad day’s work, thought Devendrappa, as he began to leave the theatre premises. His mind wandered to the poster he would begin as soon as he was done with this one: Hamsageethe, starring Anant Nag. Devendrappa’s heart leapt at the thought of capturing his idol on canvas, and in such a noble role! When he thought about the poster – his poster – with his precious Anant Nag on it, fluttering from the balcony of Lalita Kuteer Mansion for all to see, Devendrappa closed his eyes for joy.
The brilliant blue gate of Vishnu Talkies, ornate with delicate floral grillwork and a large shankha in the middle, was hanging half-open on its hinges when Devendrappa made to leave through it. This gate was close to fifty years old, and was the pride of the cinema hall and all who worked in it. The shankha – conch of Lord Vishnu – embodied the name of the theatre perfectly, which was probably what prompted Vishnu Pai, the late proprietor, to choose the motif.
Although it was dusk now, Devendrappa retraced his steps to the shelf behind the urinal. Pulling out a torch and his make-shift palette, he deftly mixed colours until he had achieved the right shade of blue. This he applied to a patch of rust on the shankha until it was completely covered. Having restored its glory, Devendrappa folded his hands to the conch in a moment of reverence. Then he set out for home.
On the way, he stopped by Narayanamma’s tuck shop for a cup of coffee. This was the one luxury his wife permitted him, in consideration of the long hours of labour that went into bringing home his tiny salary each month.
Devendrappa and Nagalakshmi lived in a vatara on the outskirts of Rudrapura, made up of a small cluster of huts. The 303 bus from Chithalli passed the boundary wall of the vatara on its way to Five Lights, and would have dropped Devendrappa right outside Vishnu Talkies, had he been able to afford the fare.
The late Vishnu Pai, owner of the talkies, used to give Devendrappa bus money along with his salary each month. But now, with his son Balamurali Pai taking over the management of the cinema hall, things had changed for the poster painter and the rest of the people who worked there.
Bala Pai, or Diesel Pai as he was universally referred to, owned petrol and diesel stations in Shivamogga. While the father had been a generous and well-loved man, Diesel Pai was widely known to be as greasy as the engine oil dispensed in his diesel stations, and as full of gas as his bunks!
It was such a master that Devendrappa served, ever since he had been passed down from father to son along with the talkies, its walls, the urinal inside its premises, two large projectors, fifty folding metal chairs, the ticket seller, the cleaning staff and the parking assistant. Devendrappa had made the transition with as little distress as it was possible for a happy-hearted, penniless fellow to feel.
Nagalakshmi had prepared ganji for dinner that night. Steaming hot red rice gruel tasted good with tender mango pickle, and Devendrappa thoroughly enjoyed his meal.
Look at him, eating like it’s a king’s feast, thought Nagalakshmi, with affectionate derision. He works all day in the hot sun, painting as if those heroes and heroines will jump out of the canvas and reward him for his efforts. Do they even care what they look like on a poster in some unknown village? They are stars already, and stars they will remain regardless. And yet this man paints like his life depends upon it. Then again, maybe it does. Maybe he wouldn’t survive if he couldn’t paint...
Nagalakshmi was given to arguing with herself this way from time to time. Often, when she had reached the end of it, she was never sure what decision she had arrived at, because she had argued on behalf of both sides so effectively. Now she watched absently as her husband licked his fingers. As the red oil of the pickle slowly cleared away, pinkish nails with muddy blue crescents emerged.
“Ay!” she cried, arresting his hand mid-lick. “Paint under your finger nails and there you are eating it! Do you want to get poisoned or what?”
He grinned sheepishly at her.
“You didn’t wash your hands after you came home, did you?” she demanded, as of a naughty child.
“I did, Nagi, I did,” responded her husband mildly. “But some of it remained, what to do? A painter’s best friends are his paints, and he must always keep them close at hand.”
Nagi opened her mouth to scold and Devendrappa cut her off quickly, exclaiming, “Ayyayo, I almost forgot! Narayani Akka sent something for you.”
He ran outside to retrieve the parcel he had left unceremoniously by the hand pump, where he had washed upon his arrival home. Delivering it into Nagi’s eager arms, he left her to the delights of a dozen glass bangles, and went to bed.
Late the next morning, the poster for Ramesh Sippy’s latest film Sholay was mounted onto two bamboo poles and slowly raised up to the first-floor balcony of Lalita Kuteer Mansion.
Located in Five Lights – the very heart of Rudrapura – the mansion belonged to Diesel Pai’s cousin, who had rented out his balcony to the talkies to display posters of all upcoming films. The cousin and his family went about their daily business, treating that portion of their house as if it didn’t exist. Of course, no outsider was allowed to enter the house and use the inner staircase to access the balcony; the mounting of posters had to be done from the outside, by erecting a scaffolding.
The second the Sholay poster went up, a crowd appeared to stare and speculate.
“The fellow looks like a rakshasa!” cried one man, pointing to the image of Gabbar Singh.
“I have an idea! This year at Dasara, we will set fire to him instead of Ravana!” suggested another.
“Good idea! Good idea!” cried a dozen voices in hearty approval.
“Eeyno?” responded Devendrappa.
“Can we have that poster once the film has left the talkies?”
“This is Bala Sir’s property. You’ll have to ask him,” returned Devendrappa.
“Aaay thoo!” said Ranganath, and several others spat into the mud at the sound of the name. But they knew, as Devendrappa did, that the kind-hearted poster painter would secure the poster from his master for them.
By two that afternoon, Devendrappa put the finishing touches to the “moving publicity” canvas. This involved bright, colourful images of the actors accompanied by text announcing the new film, painted across a canvas sheet and draped over the back of a bullock cart to form a tent.
When the bullock cart had been readied, the man in charge of the bullocks climbed into the front of the cart and steered the animals through the streets of Rudrapura, while two musicians sat in the back with Devendrappa. The poster painter was armed with a loudspeaker. One musician played the nadaswaram, the other beat vigorously on a drum. Hidden under the poster tent, they created sounds that ranged between music and cacophony, sometimes both at once.
To this charming background score, Devendrappa called out the announcement through the loudspeaker. “Solay philum! Solay philum! Hindi philum Solay, Vishnu Talkies nalli! Morning-show-matinee-show-first-show- second-show! Banni! Banni! Ellaru Banni! Solay philum! Solay philum!”
Excerpted with permission from the story “The Poster Painter (Who No Longer Painted Posters)”, Left From The Nameless Shop: Stories, Adithi Rao, HarperCollins India.