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October 5, 2001

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Ronjita Das

Technology is a blessing. But when it replaces man, could it become a curse?

Put the question to billboard painters and they will nod their heads in approval. For today, hand-painted billboards or film hoardings are increasingly being replaced by vinyl signs.

A kind of plastic, vinyl comes in three types -- self-adhesive, transalite film and flax. Of these, flax is the most popular for film hoardings. These signs have tubelights behind or facing them, making them glow and seem almost three-dimensional.

Vinyl ranges from Rs 45 to Rs 150 per square foot, depending on the material used and the quality of printing. Despite its cost, theatre owners and film distributors go for vinyl over hand-painted billboards. Says Manoj Desai, owner of seven Bombay theatres including Gaiety, Galaxy, Gemini in the northwestern suburb of Bandra, "Though vinyl is expensive, it's very effective. Besides, it is widely available. I use it for all my hoardings."

Moksha Gautam Aich, manager of Cine Planet theatre, Sion, says, "We don't really have a choice. We use the hoardings given to us by film distributors." He does add that given the choice, he'd go vinyl. Vijay Kaserkar of Plaza Cinema, Dadar, and Nandkumar Maglurkar of Regal Cinema, Colaba, would use only vinyl too if they had their way. But here again, the decision is left to the film distributors.

Essentially, vinyl hoardings give the film a polished look and actors generally prefer it as they look better. Though the material is expensive, the per unit cost decreases as the numbers increase. Unlike painted hoardings, where the cost remains constant irrespective of the quantity since labour costs stay the same.

On the flip side, painted hoardings are one-fifth the cost of the vinyl ones. Besides they can be readied in three hours, while vinyl ones takes a good 48 hours to make. Sanjay Narayanan, marketing manager of Warner Bros, states, "85 per cent of the billboards are made of vinyl."

So where does that leave the painters? To add to their woes, a lot of theatres have even shut down.

Balakrishna Raode, 56, of Balakrishna Arts, has been in the business of paintings since 1962. "The demand for painted hoardings has dropped drastically. Earlier, I used to paint three or four banners per theatre. Now, very few theatres have painted hoardings."

There are several grades of painters, graded on their quality. Balakrishna Arts belongs to Grade A. The owner gets Rs 5,000 approximately per banner (the standard size is 20 ft x 10 ft). And the artist, Rs 500.

Many have been retrenched. Ochhavlal Mistry, 75, owner of Ellora Arts, says, "Earlier, we had ten artists working here. Now, there are only two. Even so, there is very little work for them."

Mistry, who has been in the business since 1944, outlines the three stages of market demand for painted hoardings. "Till 1965, the demand was medium, for two basic reasons. Firstly, a film ran in a theatre for long periods of time. In fact, Ramayana ran for a year. Secondly, a lot of theatres downed their shutters.

"After that, business soared. Till 1995, painted hoardings were in demand. Each theatre wanted at least three of four banners, and the number of theatres during this period also increased.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon "But now, the demand for painted hoardings has reached new depths. There is very little work for artists nowadays."

The painters are outnumbered by the big-budgeted films, which go for vinyl hoardings. Their hope now remains the small-budget films.

Vikramjit Roy, Manager PR and Merchandising of Columbia Tristar says, "Small budget English films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Evolution have painted hoardings. Only big-budget ones like Pearl Harbor prefer vinyl."

But painters like Sachin Sutar, 24, have not lost hope. "When the vinyl prices are hiked, they'll come back to us."

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