About Celluloid Deities

Towering, billboard scale advertisements featuring photorealistic portraits of popular cinema stars and political leaders dominated the cityscape of Chennai, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The advertisements, known locally as banners and cutouts, were entirely hand-painted in saturated hues on canvas and plywood by teams of artists and apprentices.

Using field data, archival material and images gathered during a multi-year project in India, the author analyzes the production and reception of these gigantic (between 6 to 24 m. or 20 to 80 ft in height) advertisements within the context of the entwined histories of the Tamil cinema industry and regional political parties in Tamil Nadu.

The overarching agenda of the book is to make the case that the visual culture of the streets in India should be understood as a prominent and influential dimension of contemporary art production in this region.

Multiple lenses of ethnographic fieldwork, socio-historical research and visual analysis reveal the broader significance of banner and cutout advertisements. The juxtaposition of film and political imagery in the extra-cinematic terrain of city streets was pivotal to the production of a cult status for regional celebrities. The charismatic power of these individuals derived from a potent combination of fan adulation accorded to film stars, awe and devotion accorded to revered political leaders and worship accorded to deities.

Watch an interview of Preminda Jacob conversing about Celluloid Deities with novelist, Manil Suri.