Souvenirs of a different era, lobby cards were in some sense mini posters, that were displayed in the foyers and lobbies of cinema theatres in order to promote ongoing and upcoming films. Playing a crucial role in popularising and marketing films up until the 1970s in India, they belonged to a larger ambit of film advertising that also included newspaper advertisements, hoardings, posters and song booklets. Typically issued as a set of eight (sometimes running up to twenty) by the publicity departments of film studios, the prints were traditionally meant to be displayed in series, to provide the audience with a sense of the narrative and genre of the film.
The earliest known lobby cards date back to around 1910, and were initially produced in Hollywood, by the Motion Picture Patents Company (also known as Edison Trust). The first of these cards were sized 8×10 inches and contained a black and white film still printed in sepia or duotone, sometimes tinted by hand. Originally developed as silver gelatin photographic stills, they gradually also started to be printed using the Rotogravure process, which led to the prints having brown and white shades. This process also made the cards more durable, than the photographic stocks on which movie stills were developed.
With time, photographic printing techniques and marketing techniques grew more sophisticated, and lobby cards underwent newer changes: they grew bigger and were now usually 11X 14 inches big, were usually executed in colour, became more florid, elaborate and imaginative. Fusing photography and poster art, they began to grow more stylised, having dynamically designed borders, sketches and slogans that attempted to reflect the spirit or story of the featured film. Unlike film posters however, the distribution and circulation of the lobby cards were carefully monitored by the film studios, prior to the release of a film, and they were therefore perceived as more exclusive artefacts.
The following eight images were produced to advertise the 1968 film Aabroo (Honour): a ‘romantic crime drama’ and ‘great emotional entertainer’ whose plot line included romance in Kashmir, scheming relatives, death and loss, a sacrifice of love in the face of familial duty, murder and false accusations, climaxing in a dramatic court room conflict – that the lobby cards attempt to mirror.
With a growing awareness of the influence of stardom in the cinema choices of audiences, many lobby cards began carrying single images of the actors starring in that particular production. While, not surprisingly, many of these focus on female stars imagining them in specific ways when it comes to femininity and Indian-ness, one may also find quite a few instances where there are not only the male stars, but also secondary characters (such as the mother of the male/female protagonist, or the comic relief), providing more evidence to the conclusion that early stardom in Hindi cinema was not restricted to only those actors playing the leads, but also those who were intimately associated with certain kinds of roles or stereotype characters. Conversely, lobby cards were in later times, also used as vehicles to promote specific actors and propel them into stardom, by visually posturing them as icons.
Film studios often employed some of the best photographers and art designers to produce designed lobby cards; and as the following illustrations depict, these took on myriad shapes and forms – sometimes florid, sometimes with montage effects, sometimes in the nature of grids, or a play with foreground and background. Laid with the responsibility of conveying genre and mood, lobby cards employed the same larger cinematic aesthetic, for the most part – focusing on melodrama, saturated colours, and mirroring the values, politics and ideas of its socio-cultural environment.