Bollywood pirates in the headlights
by Amrit Dhillon
Bollywood is beginning to realise that intellectual property is a serious matter - and it's all thanks to Harry Potter. Or to be more accurate, Warner Brothers' view that a Mumbai-based movie production house's new film, Hari Puttar - A Comedy of Terrors, infringes on the copyright of one of the studio's most bankable franchises.
The similarity is obvious, in spelling and sound. The difference is that 'Hari' is a common Indian boys' name and 'Puttar' is Punjabi for 'son'. Warner, whose suit is being heard by an Indian court, is annoyed at this similarity. The Harry Potter brand is estimated to be worth more than #7 billion (HK$98 billion) and more than 400 million copies of the series' books have been sold.
Hari Puttar is a Hindi-language film which tells the story of a 10-year-old Indian boy who moves to England with his parents. It was shot on the Yorkshire Dales on a budget of #2 million and tells the story of Hari, whose father works on a top-secret project for the Indian army. His plans are kept on a computer chip hidden in the family's house.
There are no wizard spells or flying broomsticks. If anything, the plot bears a greater resemblance to the comedy Home Alone which made Macaulay Culkin a star: when Hari's parents go on vacation, he is left to battle thieves who enter the house to steal his father's computer chip. Mirchi Movies' lawyer, Pratibha Singh, says that the case involves only the title, not the content or characters. She says that Warner had asked to see the script in 2005 to check that there were no similarities but Mirchi Movies had refused to show the script, saying the story was completely different.
'Mirchi Movies bought the film from a London-based director and producer called Harinder Kohli and it seems he wanted 'Hari' [as the name of his protagonist] because it's part of his name and he is Punjabi, hence the word 'Puttar'. I'm confident the court will understand our point of view,' Singh says.
Pending the verdict, the Indian film industry has been convulsed by fear at this development. Ironically, Bollywood filmmakers have been merrily plagiarising Hollywood films for decades - right down to the dialogue and individual frames - without ever running into legal trouble.
They got away with it because, for Hollywood moguls and executives, India was an obscure backwater. They knew little about Indian movies and cared even less. But all that has changed with their entry into the Indian market. Sony and Warner have opened offices in Mumbai and want to collaborate with Indian filmmakers.
They have recently tied up - for the first time - with Indian directors and producers to make Indian films for the Indian market. Sony recently made its first Indian film. Warner is also making its first Hindi film, an action film starring top star Akshay Kumar and called Chandni Chowk to China which is being released next year.
It is these new links that have made Hollywood sit up and notice when plots are stolen. 'A few years ago, no one in Hollywood would ever have heard of a movie like Hari Puttar. But India is on their radar now. These things come to their attention,' says film critic Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.
In fact, earlier this year, a rumour swept through Mumbai that Sony Pictures was hitting the makers of the Hindi film Hey Baby with a US$30 million lawsuit because it was strongly reminiscent of Sony's 2005 hit Hitch, starring Will Smith.
'I think Sony decided against it in the end probably because they probably didn't want to antagonise people they need long-term relationships with,' says Komal Nahta, editor of trade magazine Film Information.
Hollywood studios are drawn to the lucrative Indian film market where their films account for only 8 per cent of the market. In contrast, more than 120 million tickets are sold for Indian movies every week - the highest in the world.
Bollywood made revenues of US$1.75 billion in 2006. That's only half the revenue of just one Hollywood studio, Walt Disney, in 2006. But the important point is that while Hollywood's market inside the US is almost saturated, the 500 million Indians under the age of 20 will ensure that the market inside India will grow exponentially in the coming years.
Naturally, Sony, Warner and other US studios are looking to India for profits. Independent filmmaker Raja Menon believes the Warner lawsuit has sounded an important warning to the industry that it is time to respect copyright.
'If you want to use someone's story or song, then buy the rights to it and go ahead but don't just steal it. Intellectual property rights have to be respected now because companies like Sony and Warner are taking this kind of action precisely because of a new proximity between Bollywood and Hollywood,' he says.
Evidence is emerging that Indian filmmakers are being forced, for the first time, to respect copyright not by the big Hollywood studios but by Indians who do not like having their creativity stolen.
Earlier this year, Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan had to pay substantial damages to music director Ram Sampath for a song he used in his film, Krazzy 4. Sampath filed a case of copyright infringement because he hadn't been given due credit for Krazzy 4's music. His victory will make other filmmakers think twice before failing to pay for other people's talent.
'Some producers have now started buying the rights to foreign films. Before, they would just copy and say they'd been inspired by a particular foreign movie,' says Nahta.