In 2002, a small news item caught my attention. Famous Indian composer and songwriter Bappi Lahiri had sued American rapper Dr. Dre, claiming a record produced on his label for Truth Hurts borrowed heavily from a 20-year-old Hindi song. Lahiri had filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, accusing the producers of “Addictive” of copying four minutes of a song performed by Lata Mangeshkar called “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai.” On first pass, I thought it was a legitimate suit. But wait a minute. Hadn’t Bappida lifted tunes from several western songs during his hey days?
If a thief breaks into your house, steals cash, jewelry, or food, and is caught, what would you do? You would call the authorities and make sure that the thief is put behind bars or punished appropriately. So then why are hundreds of thieves roaming about freely in Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, and being rewarded with awards and accolades at major film functions that are watched by millions of people on television?
You might be wondering, what is this guy talking about? I am referring to the dark side of Bollywood, an industry which has blatant disrespect for creation, originality, and intellectual property. Bollywood writers shamelessly steal ideas from foreign films, including scripts and specific scenes, and pay no respect to their original creators. They have ripped-off and stolen stories from several Hollywood films and do not care to provide credits or mention their sources.
Now, one could argue that everyone is influenced or inspired by great ideas. But when most of the western world uses copyrighted materials, licenses are negotiated; the individuals involved must agree to pay a legitimate fee for use. But Bollywood directors and producers have decided to walk the path of shameless stealing. Recent movies such as Welcome (a copy of Mickey Blue Eyes), Paap (lifted from Witness, with the Amish clan changed to Tibetan monks), Partner (a scene-by-scene copy of Hitch), Aitraaz (Disclosure), Footpath (lifted from State of Grace), Humraaz (A Perfect Murder), and others are incredible examples of plagiarism. You can find the growing list online at Wikipedia, under “Bollywood and plagiarism.”
Is plagiarism only happening with Bollywood films? A careful look at the booming music industry provides insight into how much copying and lifting of other people’s compositions is happening in India. The web site Inspirations in Indian Film Songs (www.itwofs.com) does an incredible job of playing original songs along with the copied Hindi film songs in question. Topping the list in musical plagiarism is none other than popular music director Pritam. It has become something of an industry joke: how quickly can you find out from where Pritam has lifted his tunes? No one can argue that Pritam has developed a unique talent of Indianizing the Arabic or Chinese originals, and he does this quite well by stealing the mukhda from one source and the antara from another.
No country can truly prosper until it respects copyright laws, intellectual property, and originality. Rule of law is essential for any country to make progress.
There is no point highlighting the problem without proposing some solutions. So what can we do to stop such plagiarism and protect intellectual property? Ironically, India has very strong laws against such plagiarism, but they have never been tested. Putting a famous music director or a producer behind bars will have a chilling effect on the industry and open up possibilities for the countless true artists, screen writers, and music directors who all work very hard for a break but have not had opportunity to succeed. I propose the following:
• Anyone who wishes to use copyrighted material must pay the license to use or royalty, and acknowledge their sources in full. Bollywood now has enough money to do this.
• Hollywood studios and other artists whose original work has been lifted should go after the Indian producers and sue them.
• At major film functions, instead of giving awards to plagiarist, the hosts should disclose the original movies from which the Bollywood films have been lifted, and they should be charged accordingly.
• People should start to boycott films or DVDs which are shamelessly plagiarized. The box office may be the biggest fix.
I want to return to the irony of Bappi Lahiri’s lawsuit. Dr. Dre was sued for producing a song by Truth Hurts. And yes, when someone copies from you, it hurts. But you do it shamelessly anyway! The truth hurts, indeed.
Samir Chatterjee is a professor of computer networking and telecommunications at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Information Systems and Technology. He is also a music composer and recording artist.