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In Tamil cinema, copyright has meant copying left, right and center

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In a way, it’s nice to see that Tamil cinema is going through a rash of plagiarism charges now, because, for quite a long  time, the only copyright that seemed to be followed was the right to copy left, centre and right!  Producers might have crossed swords in the distant past over ownership of a story or a song or even a tune, but only lately have writers been finding a voice to demand their due for their work. In that sense, the plagiarism row over ‘Sarkar’ might prove to be a turning point, as only in this case, first blood has been drawn.

But even here, according to G Dhananjayan, film producer and distributor,  Sarkar’s producer, Sun Pictures, and director A R Murugadoss came to a settlement with Varun Rajendran, who made the charge that the film was based on his story ‘Sengol’, only because the case he had filed in the High Court was threatening to come in the way of the impending Deepavali release of the film. Otherwise, it would seem that there might have been a whole pack of gambits to deal with a plagiarism charge, even as there are now enough ways to explain away the compromise with an adversary in a copyright wrangle.

Thematically, Murugadoss’s Vijay-starrer is said to be based on the premise that the film’s protagonist fights for his voting right after finding that his vote has been cast by an impersonator, and ends up on the gaddi himself, saying, as the promo has it, ‘Get ready folks..Idhu dhaan Namma Sarkaar’.

Given this storyline, it is ironical that writer-director K Bhagyaraj, who was president of the South Indian Film Writers Association and took the plagiarism charge seriously as Varun Rajendran had registered his story with the Association as far back as 2007,  has had to resign his post after casting his vote, in a manner of speaking, for the aggrieved writer!

The Sarkar case and its aftermath show that even in the almost solitary instance of a writer getting some recognition for his work from the makers of a big budget film with deep pockets and huge influence, the scenario seems to be heavily loaded against the underdogs and those who may make bold to speak up for them.  This despite the fact that director Murugadoss has been in the line of plagiarism charges repeatedly, though until ‘Sarkar’ the allegations remained feeble cries in the wilderness that did not get any critical mass. With ‘Sarkar’ there is at least a perfunctory gesture at recognizing somebody else’s contribution to the film in question.

Earlier, Murugadoss had gotten away from the obvious resemblance of his Tamil and Hindi hit film, ‘Ghajini’ to the Hollywood neo-noir thriller ‘Memento’, saying that he hadn’t seen the Hollywood film when he wrote his own script. Though director Christopher Nolan reportedly rued the fact that his film had inspired a Hindi hit but he had got ‘no credit, no money, no nothing’, he did not pursue the matter in any Indian court. But Murugadoss faced a police complaint from the producer of the Tamil Ghajini on the score that the director was making the Hindi version without his permission! Murugadoss was even arrested at the time, but later reached an understanding with the Tamil producer! Understandings have their uses, even as plagiarisms have their cases!

Plagiarism issues have plagued Tamil cinema from its inception, with MGR’s first ever film ‘Sathi Leelavathi’ (1936) having had to face copyright issues. The makers of the film ‘Pathi Bhakti’ (1936), based on a play of the same name written by the memory wizard T P Krishnaswami Pavalar, sued the producers of the film ‘Sathi Leelavathi’, based on a novel written by S S Vasan. There were such stunning similarities between ‘Pathi Bhakti’ and Vasan’s novel that there could be no shadow of doubt that it was copied from the former. But the case is said to have been won by Sati Leelavathi’s makers by saying that even ‘Pathi Bhakti’ had been lifted from Ellen Wood’s ‘Danesbury House’! This was undoubtedly a great exaggeration and removed from the truth as ‘Pathi Bhakti’ was more or less an original work!

Story ideas obviously form a vital component of Tamil cinema and during the puranic period of the pre-Independence decades, producers and directors milked the immense inventory of traditional stories, often clashing over the same subjects to their own detriment. In the succeeding decades, Bengali, Marathi and Hindi films were turned into roaring hits like ‘Pudhiya Paravai’ (Sesh Anka) and ‘Uyarndha Manidhan’ (‘Uttar Purush’) in perfectly legal and laudably creative ways. Of course the intra-regional give and take in the Southern film industries was always there. After all they were all based in Kodambakkam for decades.

Producers frequently took the option of the Hollywood lifeline for movie ideas.  For example, ‘Come September’ and ‘Captain Blood’ inspired fabulous MGR hits like ‘Anbe Vaa’ and ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’. Cho turned ‘My Fair Lady’ into ‘Manam Oru Kurangu’. The ‘Sound of Music’ became ‘Santhi Nilayam’.

AVM fell into the piracy trap by turning ‘The Parent Trap’ into its family melodrama, ‘Kuzhandaiyum Deivamum’. Venus Pictures  experienced windfall gains with ‘Pattanathil Bhootham’ by copycat adaptation of  the goofy Hollywood comedy, ‘The Brass Bottle’.

In a way, the history of Tamil cinema is partly the story of its borrowings, adaptations and plagiarisms. The camera genius K Ramnath adapted Shuddananda Bharati’s translation of Les Miserables into his iconic film, ‘Ezhai Padum Paadu’ but acknowledged it in the film’s titles. Vietnam Veedu Sundaram later honed the story for his own ends in his stage play and subsequent film, ‘Gnana Oli’.

Tamil film-makers who lift basic premises from either Hollywood cinema or films in foreign languages, suffer a problem that a Vadivelu character confessed to: ‘‘Building strong but basement weak!’’  This is the reason why a Balu Mahendra known for his magical cameral work was most of the time doing remakes of Hollywood films and a  Kamalahasan himself used the template of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ to upload all his ideological stuff in ‘Anbe Sivam’.

As far as Tamil cinema goes, poignant turns to plagiarism charges come to the fore when film makers take short cuts to an interesting screenplay by plugging into the imagination of debutants or struggling assistant directors who desperately seek a place in the industry’s echelons. A good screenplay requires quite some time and energy to be spent on it, and high-flying directors placed in orbits beyond their limited talents because of their commercial success sometimes find it difficult to measure up to expectations. This is where the temptation to cut corners is extremely high.

Some sinister opportunists might also use this opportunity to come up with plagiarism charges just to put a spanner into the release of big films. It is therefore high time that the Tamil film industry devised means, a la the Screen Writers Guild in Hollywood, to inject transparency into the film writing process. This would also help set right the ‘basement weak’ problem of Tamil cinema. After all, did not Hitchcock  say, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script’’.

(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema)

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