Copycat, copycat…

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Via American Public Media’s Marketplace, a story on whether the entry of Hollywood studios into the business of film production in India might affect how industry professionals in Mumbai think about “copying” everything from scripts to lighting and camera angles. You can listen to the story here, and here’s a part of the transcript (full text here):

Rico Gagliano: Late one Wednesday night in the city of Mumbai, I do what hundreds of thousands of Indians do every day: head to the local cinema to catch a flick.

[MOVIE SOUND]

This one’s called “Welcome” — the slapstick story of an average Joe who finds himself engaged to the sister of a mob boss. Now even though the characters inexplicably break into song every 20 minutes, and even though the Hindi dialogue isn’t subtitled, I find the film strangely familiar. That’s because “Welcome”‘s story is the same as an American film: 1999’s “Mickey Blue Eyes.” And it turns out in Bollywood, that’s hardly unusual…

Sometimes it’s more than dialogue. Anjum Rajabali is a successful Mumbai screenwriter. He says he’s been on sets where everything was copied directly from a video of a foreign film.

Anjum Rajabali: There was a video monitor, and the VHS was actually playing. The angles of the camera would be taken directly from that. The actors would actually watch, and say, “OK, this is how you want me to do it? Fine.” Camera angles, lighting, properties…

…All copied. And film songs, of which there are several per Bollywood film, might not always be 100 percent original, either.

The story also relies on some quotes from CNN-IBN’s entertainment editor, Rajeev Masand, but what intrigued me most was Anjum Rajabali’s presence. Now Rajabali is a key writer in an industry that is only now beginning to recognize the importance of well written screenplays and, in fact, Rajabali heads the scriptwriting division of Whistling Woods International (the media and film school founded by director-producer Subhash Ghai – story here). It is odd, however, to hear Rajabali suggest that filmmakers are merrily “copying” scripts simply because they can get away with it and that once Hollywood studios begin investing more in Mumbai, this practice will wane.

I find this odd because Rajabali wrote Ghulam, an “adaptation” of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. A story of a petty criminal (played by Aamir Khan) who rebels against a more powerful thug, Ghulam is, as Ranjani Mazumdar writes in her book (Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City), an important film in several respects – for offering what Mazumdar terms a “jagged history of the national movement,” forcing us to think about contradictory relationships between history and memory, playing with anxieties surrounding masculinity and sexuality (Aamir Khan is a boxer in the film), and so on. By all accounts, Rajabali’s adaptation worked and it would be unfair to dismiss Ghulam as nothing more than an imitation.

Given his own work, I find it disappointing that he did not offer a more nuanced explanation. To be sure, there are several films each year that are direct lifts and have nothing original to offer. But in an industry that produces over a hundred films each year, there is more than just “copying” and I wish Rajabali had pointed to Ghulam as an example of how well a writer can factor in historical and cultural contexts to re-tell stories.

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