It’s a childhood memory Anil Gupta will cherish forever: his father, the publicity designer C Mohan, poring over the logo designs for the 1975 classic Sholay with its director, Ramesh Sippy.

His father had worked out around 14 different approaches, Gupta remembers, but there was one in particular that stood out. This logo was narrow in the middle and flared out on all four corners, like a 70mm widescreen. It had that epic feel, but they decided it needed to look even more monumental, and cracks were added later to make the letters appear as if they were hewn out of stone.

Today, C Mohan’s logo for Sippy’s curry western is considered emblematic of the Bollywood style, instantly evoking the cinema of the 1970s in people’s minds. However, Sholay was just one of the many films for which he created memorable images. As one of Hindi cinema’s leading designers of the ’60s and ’70s, Mohan worked with many of the prominent production houses and directors of his time – Rajshri Productions, KA Abbas, Sunil Dutt and Manoj Kumar, to name a few – on films such as Geet Gaata Chal, Chitchor, Agent Vinod, Amar Prem, Andaz and Shaheed.

Image courtesy SMM Ausaja.

Chandramohan Gupta (to give him his full name) started out painting cinema banners at the age of 14 for the Jai Hind cinema in Kanpur. According to a couple of magazine profiles from the ’80s, he left Kanpur shortly after his matriculation, travelling ticketless for 22 days to arrive in Mumbai. He knew no one there, and was forced to live on the streets, sharing a footpath with a blind beggar. The city had dozens of talented banner painters, and he soon discovered there wasn’t much work for him. Not that he was looking for it particularly: like every story writer, spot boy and snake supplier in Bollywood, what he really wanted to be was an actor.

Photographer and writer Pradeep Chandra disputes these romanticised accounts: he remembers C Mohan as the absent-minded lad in his teens who came to his father, an assistant editor at the Navneet Hindi Digest, with a letter of introduction from a colleague in Allahabad. The boy was dispatched to work under the poster artist Ramkumar Sharma (then employed at Filmistan’s art department), but had differences with him and quit after a couple of years to set up his own outfit, Naina Studio, in partnership with Chandra’s brother, Shiv Chandra.

Working out of a converted outhouse in the family’s Malad home, the two did publicity designs for such obscure films as Mr X (1957), Teesri Galli and Karigar (both 1958). Sixty years later, Chandra remembers cutting out their ads from the papers and pasting them into a scrapbook; he still has a scar on his finger from the Bharat blade he used for the task.

Chandra also remembers Mohan pitching for Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958), producing many versions of a sketch of Vyjanthimala in Dilip Kumar’s lap, but not being able to capture a likeness to Roy’s satisfaction.

Image courtesy SMM Ausaja.

Eventually, the partnership broke up when Chandra’s brother decided to take up work as an assistant director. Mohan may have had similar ambitions, according to his 1984 interview in Rasrang, but he set them aside to set up a solo outfit, working in spaces under stairs or on top of terraces till he eventually found a small room at Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi. Here, employing another artist, Nagraj Chari, he took on whatever work he could find – showcards, song booklets, litho posters, cut-colour separations for screen-printing.

Gradually, clients began to recognise his talent, especially his skills at line illustration. It was a matter of prestige at the time for producers to promote future releases with splashy full-page ads in the broadsheet trade paper Screen. These often featured pen-and-ink drawings, traced from production stills with much stippling and hatching. A typical image showed a heroine with windswept hair, each strand drawn separately to create a dense, intricate texture.

Mohan excelled in this kind of work and made it his specialisation in the ’60s. His key influence here was an earlier illustrator, Faiz, whose line work and ornate Chughtai-style designs Mohan held in high regard: Anil Gupta remembers his father showing him a Faiz sketch of Prithviraj Kapoor in Mughal-e-Azam, declaring it to be the work of a true artist.

Image courtesy SMM Ausaja.

During this period, Mohan also gained a reputation for his lettering and logo designs. Here, his approach was often conceptual, using the shape and the arrangement of the letters to communicate the theme of the film. One example is the logo for Aradhana (Worship, 1969), where the ascenders of the central letters fuse in a form that suggests the meaning of the title. The logo for Purab aur Paschim (East and West, 1970) places the word paschim lower than the rest of the text. Echoing the jingoistic lines declaimed by actor-director Manoj Kumar in the film, Mohan explained this was because “our culture is ascending, and theirs is declining. East should always be above West”.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this somewhat literal-minded approach, Mohan became one of Bollywood’s most sought-after designers in the ’70s. By now, he had set up a busy studio in Worli which employed several other publicity artists as well. Anil Gupta remembers the likes of GP Sippy, Shakti Samanta and Tarachand Barjatya dropping in to look at work in progress. A well-known tattoo artist in New York today, he learned how to draw at the Worli studio.

Image courtesy SMM Ausaja.

Gupta describes how he used to clamber up on a stool to paint the ground for large canvasses, and also served as an errand boy on occasion. Sent to fetch photographic prints from Ramesh Sippy’s office in Khar, he would show off his treasures on the bus journey back to Worli, getting a kick out of the punters gaping in awe at blow-ups of Hema Malini and Dharmendra.

These very prints would end up featuring in some of Mohan’s best-known images. He designed some 16 posters for Sholay and was paid Rs 42,000 for the job, according to the journalist Mohan Deep, who profiled him in Imprint in 1982. Anil Gupta remembers the bulk of the work being done on a tight deadline, his father slaving away to finish two to three artworks a day. Jai and Veeru, Basanti, Thakur Baldev Singh: the images he saw as an impressionable 14-year-old are still etched deeply in his mind.

Mixing photography and painted images, the Sholay designs reflect the pulp violence of the Angry Young Man years. By the ’70s, Mumbai’s publicity artists had evolved a visual style that can only be described as Bollywood Expressionism, applying lurid colours with palette knives or rough brushstrokes to photographs in order to crank up the emotional intensity of their images. Mohan’s work exemplifies this style, seen at its best in a set of showcards he did for Sholay. Here, portraits of the lead actors merge into an overhang of orange flames, while the image of the widow played by Jaya Bhaduri is overlaid with a parched-earth pattern to suggest her barren life.

Image courtesy SMM Ausaja.

Having tasted success as a designer, Mohan ventured into film production in the ’70s. It wasn’t his first attempt: he had earlier thought of making a film called Aradhana, but the project had fallen apart and he ended up surrendering the title to Shakti Samanta. At the height of the Emergency, he launched a production company to make a film about Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme titled Naya Kadam. The film was never finished, and according to Gupta, its failure affected his father deeply. Though his studio survived into the ’90s, Mohan was increasingly out of step with the times, as new technologies began to transform the publicity business radically. He passed away in 1996, at the cusp of the digital age.

Rajesh Devraj is the co-author of The Art of Bollywood (Taschen, 2010), a comprehensive guide to the poster art of Hindi cinema.