Knocked Out, Rightfully
Close on the heels of the stay ordered, and then conditional release (compensation of Rs 1.5 crore) by the Bombay High Court on the release of Sanjay Dutt, Irfan Khan, Kangana Ranaut starrer Knock Out on the basis of a petition filed by 20th Century Fox alleging that the Hindi film was a frame-by-frame copy of its superhit Phone Booth (2003) staring Colin Farell and Forest Whitaker (rightly knocked out of the theatres by the Indian audiences), comes the allegation from film-maker Avatar Bhogal who has just made Honour Killing that the other recent release, Aakrosh with Ajay Devgun, Akshay Khanna, Bipasha Basu is not an original but loosely based on Oscar winner Mississippi Burning (1989) which starred Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe in the lead. So what’s new, one may ask. Bollywood is notorious in stealing the show, and there are hundreds of examples.
Is contemporary Bollywood so brain dead, or bankrupt that it cannot generate fresh story ideas and then mount original screenplays? Such blatant plagiarism was understandable, though deplorable, in the 1970s and 1980s of the last century when satellite had not converted the world into a global village. But such acts “in current times when Hollywood has already reached home and it doesn’t require much effort to hunt for an original, netizens have quickly managed to hint on the source of Aakrosh,” contends Bhogal, who himself was accused of converting Sisterhood into Dimple Kapadia starrer, Zakhmi Aurat (1988).
There has always been adequate mushiness in Bengali literature to dissuade film-makers to seek inspiration, and much of South Indian cinema has tended to rely on the inventiveness of its own scriptwriters, to the extent the number of remake of these films in Hindi outscores it the other way round. But mushiness also being the mainstay of mainstream Hindi cinema till the 1970s, it only relied on situations and action in Hollywood films to be copied, or adapted into the screenplays. Until the maverick, Mahesh Bhatt crossed all lines of dishonesty, and openly declared that his Aamir Khan-Pooja Bhatt starrer, Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin was a frame-by-frame copy of the sixties Hollywood black and white blockbuster, It Happened One Night. A near mayhem broke loose after that, and even some of the reputed directors, and production houses (like BR Films, for instance that converted a then somewhat recent hit Lipstick into Insaaf ka Tarazu). Overnight the scriptwriters were asked to leave their thinking caps home, and handed over pirated videos to Indianise them.
The most-influenced lot of these gags-and-guns in the early 1980s was the second-generation young-educated elite. Indian cinema hadn’t globalised then, nor was the foothold of Hollywood production houses to keep an eye on plagiarism, as it has come to be in the past decade or so. The awareness of Hindi cinema is substantial in the United, the UK and the USA its products now get ranked amongst the top grosser. Not that Hindi films hadn’t been shot abroad earlier as leading film-makers like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Yash Chopra and many others moved away from Kashmir to more picturesque western locales to lure in the audiences. But in the new scenario, one of the earliest films to be shot entirely in UK was Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). This could also be described as the turning point in Bollywood, and its stars (notably, Shah Rukh Khan) popularity not only amongst the expatriates but also indigenous audiences in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and even the Scandinavian countries. Various Bollywood movies are dubbed in German and shown on the German television channel RTL II on a regular basis.
More than anything, it was the gold chase at the box-office, and lack of understanding of the Indian social milieu that motivated directors to go safe, and even make cost-effective movies by only slightly Indianising the script. Creativity got thrown out of the hotel room windows, where these exercises in plagiarism were taking place. It is difficult to zero down on the number of plagiarism cases, or calculate the exact number. But suffice is to say, it is huge whether it is complete or partial theft. The FIR will be Stolen shows.
The list of plagarised fare is too long to be enumerated here. While growing change in urban value system, and lifestyle has certainly necessitated a change in approach, and attempt films (to appeal to Diaspora in particular) that show the influence of western value system, it could be effectively incorporated into the screenplay to create better fare rather than to just blindly lock, stock and barrel that the likes of directors like Vikram Bhatt (nephew and clone of Mahesh Bhatt) did with What Lies Beneath and Jagged Edge to make disasters like Raaz and Kasoor. The same has now started to water down to TV shows with major stars at the helm. But that will be the subject of another column.
The slow judicial process, and distance earlier (as also knowledge) prevented the original producers to take recourse to law. But now with several Hollywood majors not only with a presence but also collaborations have found easier ways to remedial actions. What one fails to understand is the sheer attitude of big banners in not procuring reproduction rights. 20th Century Fox took the famed BR Films to court, and finally settled for a compensation of $200,000 for its My Cousin Vinny (1992) on which the Indian production house made Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai. Sometime earlier Sanjay Dutt-starrer Zinda (2005), and Salman Khan-Govinda bonding, Partner (2007) met the same fate.
It seems the Indian film producer, still basking in the luxury of ignorance, refuses to accept that the world is now a global village, and technology is advance which fails to keep any theft or act of plagiarism (whether it is song, a musical beat, a notation, or a screenplay) hidden for long. Beware Bollywood.
By Suresh Kohli