Thursday, April 03, 2003

coming to a wall near you

As a child, Neville Tuli connected with India through Hindi films. Now he believes film posters could be a cultural link for all Indians

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2003).

IT WAS A SCENE straight out of a Hindi film. In early 2001, Neville Tuli walked out of his Bombay office and was approached by two men. They told him that their widowed mother was suffering from breast cancer and couldn't afford treatment. They had heard that Tuli was interested in buying old Indian film memorabilia. Would he take a look at their late father's collection?

Tuli was used to being pestered by cranks. After all, wasn't he the foreign-returned paagal--"mad one"--who was actually paying money for old movie posters and booklets (collections of song lyrics and movie images that once accompanied Indian films releases)? But Tuli decided to go along; he had vaguely heard of the men's father, Husainibai, whose passion had earned him the nickname "Bookletwallah."

  • Buy posters made for the original movie release, not reprints
  • Collect an entire set from a single film, or a particular period
  • Preserve your posters as soon as you buy them
  • A bad film can have a great poster: Don't think about the quality of the film, think about the poster

Once Tuli walked into the tiny 300-square foot Bombay hovel, his heart jumped. "There were 80 lockers in that tiny space where a family of four lived," he recalls. "All the lockers were filled with old movie booklets and posters." It was a gold mine and Tuli paid $20,000 for the lot. The mother recovered and the sons set up a small store. All's well that ends well, as the old Hindi films would say.

The incident was just the beginning for the 38-year-old, who now has more than 250,000 items in his collection of Indian film posters and memorabilia. Tuli, an ethnic Indian, was born and brought up near London, where his only connection with India was film. "They were key emotional vehicles that kept me in touch with India," says Tuli. "I love them."

A development expert by training, Tuli believes that by encouraging individual creativity, the arts are key to economic growth. That's why in 1994 he relocated to India to try to develop a new infrastructure for Indian art. His main vehicle now is Osian's, a combined arts archive and auction house.

But are movie posters art? Yes, says Tuli, who points out that several famous Indian artists of today, like M.F. Hussain, painted film posters early in their careers. "All these posters have timeless iconic images. The graphic quality of these posters stands out."

Tuli assembled his horde by buying entire collections from individuals ("we are a nation of hoarders") and from railway warehouses, where posters were often stored in the past and sometimes sold for scrap. "All these posters had been junked!" says Tuli. "Can you imagine that?" Tuli reckons on spending at least 15,000 rupees ($313) on fixing up each poster. "Because of India' s humidity and the poor quality of the paper, they are so frail; one touch and they would fall apart."

Last March, Tuli decided to test the market by holding possibly the world's first auction of Indian film posters. Despite Tuli's low expectations, he says just over 60% of the items were sold. That success, he believes, is an encouraging sign that Indians are beginning to value this overlooked part of their heritage. "Unless you attach financial value to something," he says, "nobody will respect it."