Copywood Part I

Bollywood plagiarism or "inspirations" form a recurrent topic in the desi blogosphere. Try this, this or this as recent examples. Their ire is understandable for in this age of globalization, there is no place to hide. Filmi producers might think they are cutting corners by lifting entire plots and scene layouts from elsewhere but with plentiful online video, BitTorrent and relatively large overseas following of Bollywood, more and more members of the audience are already familiar with the source material. The whole practice is objectionable for several reasons:

  • The obvious: it cheats the original creators and content producers.
  • It deprives desi writers out of a living. Why would anyone want to pay a writer when source material is only a DVD away?
  • It deprives the audience. Imagine this: you've forked over your hard earned money to watch latest desi blockbuster X only to find you've seen it all before in Hollywood indie sleeper hit Y. To make matters worse, Y's themes and plots have been "Indianised" to the point where the femme fatale actually gets caught as opposed to ending up in a retired private island somewhere. After all, in Filmisthan, the baddies must always pay.

Small wonder, interest is growing in the lack of copyright enforcement in India as this recent report from National Public Radio, Bollywood's copycat film industry, illustrates:

Rajiv Masand: I also think that in the West, I don't think they realize to what extent the borrowing is happening. Increasingly you see entire screenplays literally unfolding exactly like the original film, and every now and then you'll see films that are just dialogues translated down to the last word.

Sometimes it's more than dialogue. Anjum Rajabali is a successful Mumbai screenwriter. He says he's been on sets where everything was copied directly from a video of a foreign film.

Anjum Rajabali: There was a video monitor, and the VHS was actually playing. The angles of the camera would be taken directly from that. The actors would actually watch, and say, "OK, this is how you want me to do it? Fine." Camera angles, lighting, properties...

...All copied. And film songs, of which there are several per Bollywood film, might not always be 100 percent original, either.

[MUSIC: "THOIA THOING"]

That's R. Kelly's tune "Thoia Thoing." I think that's how it's pronounced.

[MUSIC: "GELA GELA"]

...And that's a song called "Gela Gela," from the Bollywood film "Aitraaz."

Take a bow Adnan Sami/Himesh Reshammiya ("Aitraaz" music director/singer). Your music was piped into a whole lotta speakers in the USA just now. But not in the way you imagined it. So, what can be done about this?


Gagliano: Does anybody point this out in media or fans, anybody?

Karthik: They do, but nobody cares.

Except, well, you'd think the original artists would care. And according to Indian intellectual property lawyer Praveen Anand, intellectual property laws are very strong -- yet no Indian filmmakers have been taken to court.

Praveen Anand: There are lots of them which have copied concepts and a lot of detail -- clear infringements of Hollywood films. But somehow, Hollywood producers have not come forward to file cases and test the proposition.

Small wonder then desi bloggers are reduced to fantasizing about how best to punish perpetrators. In particular, consider this genius piece from greatbong where a particularly noxious fate awaits Sanjay Gupta, director of Zinda, a pretty gratuitous Oldboy ripoff:

But where is he now? A small room with one television set, a rack full of DVDs—it is obvious to him he has been kidnapped.

But by whom? He had given the overseas rights to Bhai, sought the “blessings” of the Balasaheb–in all discharged all the duties of a Mumbai director/producer. And yet why is he in this solitary room with just a TV set , DVDs and a plate of pao bhaji inserted through a hole in the door?

He breaks down. Pleading with his unknown captor to let him go. But noone replies to his anguished cries. He only gets regular meals of the same pau bhaji and nothing else. The TV tells him about the outside world—-and then there are the DVDs. Realizing he can do nothing else and besides he always made films based on DVDs, Sanjay Gupta starts watching these movies one by one. Putting the time to good use—he thinks.

Aaah what a treasure trove. He starts making copious mental notes of which movies to copy once he gets out, how to “Indianize” it and how to pass off each of them as his creations. But he knows not when he shall get out—if at all.

From time to time, a strange tune plays (he notes in his mind to copy that tune once he gets out), his room fills with noxious gas—the kind one smells after one too many bean burritos and he collapses. When he comes to, he finds he has been shaved, bathed and his DVDs replenished with new ones.

A year passes. And another. On the TV he sees all the movies he had plans of Indianizing being remade one by one by his one-time friends—Manjrekar, Ramgopal Verma and suchlike. All his babies being taken away from him in front of his own eyes and Sanjay Gupta powerless—confined in this hellhole. He breaks down, tries slashing his wrists with a extras DVD (the 2nd disc noone watches) but his evil captor wont even let him die.

In greatbong's fervid imagination, Gupta's tormentor ultimately turns to be Chan Wook Park, the director of OIdboy, taking revenge on the wholesale pilfering of his work. The whole thing is great. Check it out. As for real life, there is hope yet. From the NPR segment again:

Anjum Rajabali: There is no doubt it'll change. I mean, economics will ensure that it'll change. Hollywood studios have begun investing in Indian productions as of the last six to eight months, in a very big way. There's a big market -- we're talking about one billion captive eyeballs in India. Hollywood studios would like to cash in on that. Now, they might also want their own earlier successful films adapted. But if somebody else has already done it without paying them anything, they will stop that.
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- March 20, 2008 10:33 PM // Bollywood