Mirror Magazine
9th April 2000
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Billboards struggle for survival

"Every curve in a smile, every eyelash has to be in place when you do a cinema billboard because they all add to the effect and the idea expressed by the actors." 
By Chamintha Thilakarathna
Have you ever stopped to stare at cinema billboards and wondered who is behind them? I did, and in my search stumbled upon not only a remarkable industry but also on an extraordinary group of artists.

Finding the men was easy. Just mention the trade, and you will soon be directed to the place where they work. I expected a big gate and a group of serious minded artists bent over their canvasses. Instead, I found freshly painted billboards and cut-outs lying in the sun to dry, on a narrow road.

The stars were all there Sangeetha in a temper with her arms held high, Jeevan ready to fight to save his lover, a shark about to swallow a girl who is in the sea and comedian Tennyson Cooray in a comic marriage scene.

A billboardInside a large warehouse in Grandpass, seven artists were poring over billboards, one trying to make an actor take on an aggressive stance and another a lover a romantic smile. Bending low and then stretching up, one artist was adding the final touches to a billboard almost as high as two containers.

"Every curve in a smile, every eyelash has to be in place when you do a cinema billboard because they all add to the effect and the idea expressed by the actors," said Jagath Rohan, the man behind the scene.

In a corner of the building, an artist was making sure that Denewaka Hamine looked her age, with wrinkles on her forehead in a scene from the film, 'Sath Samudura'. In fact, the artists agreed that she was one of their favourites. "The challenge is greater when you get to paint a very expressive and rough complexioned actress or actor," they said. 

The letters on billboards also have to be calculated meticulously. "They can't be too small or too big, too fancy or too formal, too bright or too dull. They have to reflect the title, the film's interest and the producer's taste," an artist explained.

The place may not be an ideal painter's gallery, but it is colourful and inviting. Each artist sits down with his mixtures of paints and oils, and his own preference of canvas, hard board or steel boards, depending on the requirement. If it is a permanent billboard, steel is used. 

Proprietor Jagath Rohan is not only interested in the paintings themselves. They have more meaning for him than just a source of income. For 50 years his family has maintained the 'title' of being the first in the trade which began with the screening of Indian films in Sri Lanka. The very first Sinhalese film for which they painted a billboard was 'Satha Panaha' (Fifty Cents) in the 1950s. 

Taking after his father, Prem Jayanth who is a renowned actor, Jagath says that about four people are required to complete a board. "Before we start work on the board, we square out the pictures given to us by the producer." 

Then, we paint the board white and square it with the exact number and size that was done as a sketch in the picture. The artist mixes the paints to get the right texture and begins painting, taking a square at a time. In each square, the description of the picture provided is outlined to make it easier." 

"Unlike when doing an object drawing, the artist cannot see the full canvas while he does the job. All he would see are parts of a picture." 

He needs to wait till all the squares are completed to see whether everything is in order. He has a difficult task, for it is not just a painting, but a painting that tells a story or reveals a scene. It is a painting that concerns real people and he has to capture their emotions in that scene. This means that the drawing has to look true to life and revealing."

Being the oldest cinema billboard painter in the country, Jagath feels lucky to have some of the most experienced artists working for him. "After all, the boards which cost thousands and the contracts which cost lakhs may be returned if the producer or contractor does not like the paintings," he said.

With business being threatened by the latest technology such as digital billboards, Jagath's concerns have increased. 

"Often we face the problem of not being paid. In fact, 75% of our customers either pay half or do not pay at all. Now we fear for the industry that it may not survive in the years to come, with advanced technology and lack of artists." 

But for artists like Jayathilaka it has been very rewarding. He has spent 20 of his 45 years doing this job. Similarly, Trevin (28) who has been involved in billboard painting from the tender age of seven feels that he can walk with his head held high knowing that his paintings attract thousands of people to a movie. 

But for aspiring young artists, Nalin Chaminda (29) and Manoj Suranga (17) the chances of realizing their dream seem slim.

"There is no doubt that this is a dying art form. India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are probably the only countries in the world where this art form has survived. India will continue it because of its large film industry. However, in Sri Lanka, there is very little that can be done to save it, since no one recognizes this trade," Jagath lamented.

A few years ago though he received orders for 10 to 15 lobby cut-outs and billboards each month, today there are only three to five. The price too has dropped. Those days Rs. 150,000 was paid for a billboard forty feet wide and thirty feet tall, but now it gets only Rs. 75,000. They also have to bear the transport cost.

These artists also do portrait banners for elections and billboard advertisements. 

With an income barely sufficient to keep them going and no support from anyone including the National Film Corporation to which they belong, they struggle for survival.

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