Studio lawsuit set to end plagiarism in Bollywood

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am

The days of Bollywood filmmakers copying the plots, scenes and dialogues of Hollywood movies and passing them off as their own could be numbered.

Plagiarism, a time-honoured tradition in the Indian film industry, is showing at cinema halls right now. Audiences watching a new comedy called Hey Baby are experiencing a strong sense of deja vu if they have already seen Three Men and a Baby.

Hey Baby's producer and director deny copying. So does Sohail Khan, producer of Partner, another hit movie showing to packed halls.

Khan denies Partner has plagiarised the 2005 Hollywood hit, Hitch, starring Will Smith, although he admits being 'inspired' by it - the traditional Bollywood euphemism.

But Sony Pictures, which made Hitch, is planning a US$30 million plagiarism lawsuit against the makers of Partner.

If it goes ahead, it will sound the death knell of plagiarism and force Indian filmmakers to activate their creative juices instead of lifting plots, as they have done from Philadelphia, Kramer vs Kramer, Witness, Out of Time and Collateral.

'Bollywood has been unashamedly and unapologetically copying for years,' said Mumbai-based film critic Anupama Chopra. 'It's time it stopped because it's no longer a cottage industry tucked away somewhere. It's a global industry now, and you can't do these things.

'I saw video players [in a Mumbai studio] running in a corner showing a Hollywood movie and it was being copied, not scene by scene, but frame by frame.'

If directors in the world's biggest film industry - more than 1,000 movies produced every year - have been getting away with blatant copying, it is partly because Indian viewers are unfamiliar with non-Indian cinema.

Of the millions of moviegoers in India, where film songs, stars and gossip about stars dominate daily life, only a tiny fraction watch European or other Asian movies.

'Not many people realise that what they are watching is a copy of another film,' said New Delhi film buff Subhash Mehra. 'A recent movie that won a lot of praise from the critics, the low-budget Bheja Fry, turned out to be a copy of a French film I'd seen, Le Diner des Cons.'

For critics of plagiarism, the solution is simple: obtain permission, buy the rights and acknowledge it.

'Doing your own version and adapting it to another culture and society still requires creative talent,' said film critic Parsa Venkateshwar Rao. 'No film can work unless you place the situations and characters in India and localise it.'

Apart from the principle, one reason Sony Pictures is not putting up with Partner's apparent plagiarism is that it is looking at the Indian market with great interest.

It is making a Bollywood musical, directed by an Indian for Indian audiences - a first by a Hollywood studio.

Sony is attracted by the lucrative market, where box office takings reached US$57 million in 2004.

With ticket sales slipping in the west, studios like Sony Pictures and Warner Brothers - which has also just announced its first Indian film - are looking to India and Russia for profits. But since US$19 out of every US$20 spent at the Indian box office goes to Indian films, tapping this market requires making indigenous films, not American movies.