Posterphilia: The Poster Designs of Satyajit Ray

On his 98th birth anniversary, we look at some of the auteur’s most iconic and memorable film poster designs
Posterphilia: The Poster Designs of Satyajit Ray

That Satyajit Ray is one of the world's greatest film auteurs is well established, but what is perhaps lesser known is his brilliant – and in many ways – pioneering work as a graphic designer. Ray, in fact, had no formal training in filmmaking, but actually studied to be a painter at the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan founded by Rabindranath Tagore.

However, he dropped his fine-art degree midway to start his career as a junior visualizer at the British advertising agency DJ Keymer- and later went on to work with Signet Press and become one of India's leading book designers. He also designed magazine covers and using his training in calligraphy to create typefaces for Bangla and English, including Ray Roman, Ray Bizarre, Daphnis and Holiday Script. Two books – Looking Beyond: Graphics of Satyajit Ray by Jayanti Sen and Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema by Andrew Robinson – cover his groundbreaking graphic design work in great detail.

With his dexterity as an artist and extraordinary design skill, it was only natural that Ray also designed many of his own film posters, billboards, publicity materials and title cards.

Ray's posters weren't just eye-catching film advertisements; they served as an extension of his artistic vision of the film, each one giving the audience a distinct take on it and boiling down its major themes and emotions into one striking image. He merged European art techniques and styles with elements from traditional Indian art forms and folklore, and his posters represented a fine blend of aesthetics and functionality.

In this column, we look at some of his most iconic and memorable film poster designs, as well as a selection of international posters for his films by foreign designers and artists.

The poster for Pather Panchali gives us a window into the life of young Apu, along with his mother and sister Durga – the two most influential figures in his life. It's a lovely portrait of a family oozing with warmth and affection. The image is set inside a circle that resembling traditional alpana art. The folk-art inspired motifs of footprints, fish and the sun give it a childlike feel and also a rural simplicity and charm.

A masterclass in minimalism, the poster for Charulata features a portrait of the protagonist created simply with a calligraphic brushstroke. It's a testament to Ray's artistic prowess that he manages to bring out Charulata's longing and pathos in such an evocative and seemingly effortless manner. It also establishes her gaze and point of view, which dominates the film. The minimalism of the drawing is beautifully offset by the ornate title typography.

The poster for Devi is probably one of Ray's most recognizable and iconic designs. He depicts the protagonist Dayamoyee, played by Sharmila Tagore using iconography related to the Goddess Kali – big almond shaped eyes staring directly at the viewer, a red bindi and thick, arched and decorated eyebrows. Her face is divided into light and dark shades, symbolizing a split between the gentler and more aggressive sides of her personality – which further gives the image a distinctly surreal and heightened quality. The title typography is made to resemble a temple.

Mahanagar's photographic poster features arguably the film's most memorable image, where we see the protagonist Arati apply lipstick for the first time, which becomes a symbol of emancipation independence and reclaiming her own identity and agency. The red nicely pops against the rest of the desaturated image. On the other hand, the illustrated booklet cover beautifully captures her hesitation as she takes her first steps outside her home and in the big city, heading to work at a new job. Again, we see a bold and minimal colour palette used masterfully.

Floating, cut-out heads feature very commonly in Ray's poster work, and we can see the same style at play in the poster for Mahapurush.  The funky layout, vibrant colours and the fish-shaped title have a very pop-art inspired treatment which sets the right tone for this satirical comedy.

Another example of the big floating head used to satirical and comic effect is the poster for Ganashatruwhere pointing fingers surround the doctor protagonist, accusing him of being – as the title suggests – an 'enemy of the people'.

Bright pop-colours and the trademark floating head are seen again in this poster for NayakRay's very meta study of celebrity, stardom and its effects on the protagonist, played by Uttam Kumar, who is seen framed in a bright multicoloured star-shaped frame.

The visual trope continues to make an appearance in the posters for the first two films of Ray's 'Calcutta Trilogy' – Pratidwandi and Seemabaddha – also use, but this time in a more dramatic and dark setting, with both posters almost giving off a slight noir-ish vibe

The illustrated poster for Aranyer Din Ratri pretty much is a visual representation of the title – the sun and the moon juxtaposed against the silhouette of a night forest. Unlike the other more conventional poster featuring the multiple characters, this one makes the forest itself the protagonist of the story.

Childlike illustrations and playful type give the Sonar Kella poster a sense of wonder, making it apt for a film that is from the point of view of a child protagonist.

The chiaroscuro inspired poster for Ghare Baire powerfully uses the play of light and shadow to create depth and contrast, depicting a woman standing at the threshold of the outside world, while the dark interiors of the house symbolize tradition and old social mores. The title treatment seems to suggest that crossing this Lakshman Rekha will be a trial by fire for the woman.

Lastly, we have some international posters for Ray's films from foreign countries and artists – The Japanese posters for The Apu Trilogy, the British quads for various Ray films by artist Peter Strausfeld (made exclusively for the Academy Cinema in London), and Polish and Czech posters for Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, respectively.

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