The law is catching up but is it enough to deter Bollywood plagiarism?

Bollywood has a long and chequered history of lifting ideas from other sources

Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang. Courtesy Filmkraft Productions
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Thirty years ago, Khoon Bhari Maang smashed box-office records and resurrected screen goddess Rekha's career.

The thriller, in which a wealthy widow emerges from a crocodile-­infested marsh to avenge her evil husband and his wily mistress, went on to win critical acclaim and awards – ­however, not many blinked an eye on realising that it was a remake of 1983 Australian TV mini-series Return to Eden. This was, after all, the 1980s; India was a socialist nation and all imports were heartily welcome.

The trailer for Khoon Bhari Maang:

The film even featured a chart-­topping song, lifted, in turn, from the original 1981 soundtrack of Chariots of Fire by Vangelis. Plagiarism, unlike today, was not a matter of shame, but a source of pride – an unbridled sign of one's internationalism.

The ultimate form of flattery? 

While lifting films from an international blockbuster or The New York Times bestseller list did exist in Bollywood in days of yore, it exploded when the 1980s arrived, with the advent of the VHS player. The result was a manic – and perhaps lopsided – cultural exchange. While the noughties trope was "do this DVD in Hindi", "do this VHS in Hindi" already existed circa 1985.

While many see plagiarism as sheer laziness, it was rather hard work.

Rishi Kapoor-Tina Munim blockbuster Karz, directed by self-appointed "showman" Subhash Ghai, was a 1980 copy of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975), a J Lee Thompson horror flick distributed by American International Pictures. Yet, Karz remains one of Bollywood's most beloved films for its stylistic flourishes, terrific performances and unforgettable soundtrack. The story of a singer tracing his past life, as an heir thrown off a cliff by his diabolical wife, struck a chord with millions.

But stories were lifted from the page, too, with some Bollywooders taking the trouble to read novels as opposed to merely visiting a VHS library. Acclaimed Kannada director Rajendra Singh Babu chose to be inspired by the literature of Irving Wallace when making Sharara (1984): Wallace's The Second Lady was a thriller in which the Russians clone the US president's wife and plant her in the White House.

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Hema Malini, Bollywood's leading 1970s heroine, cherry-­picked Shirley Conran's 1982 international bestseller Lace for her 1992 directorial debut Dil Aashna Hai, which has the honour of being the first film that Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan appeared in.

Similarly, a year before Khoon Bhari Maang was released, director Rakesh Roshan had been struck by the literary panache of Jeffrey Archer: Kane and Abel, the 1979 saga of two businessmen, resulted in Khudgarz (1987), starring Shatrughan Sinha and Jeetendra. Archer is so popular in India that the former British MP, who was jailed in 2001 for lying in a libel case, embarks on a back-breaking India tour every year.

While most imitations delighted audiences in the 1980s with very little criticism, music composer Bappi Lahiri was often derided for his unabashed love of synth pop and lifting western songs left, right and centre. But to this day, he remains unrepentant, and has seen a renaissance of sorts in the past decade for his maverick spirit.

His chartbuster Hari Om Hari from Pyaara Dushman (1980) was, in reality, One Way Ticket by 1970s covers band ­Eruption. His foot-stomping Zubi Zubi from Dance Dance (1987) was Modern Talking's 1986 hit Brother Louie. Lahiri wore glares, gold chains and baggy suits – and didn't care about what people thought of him. He even sang some of his compositions, and with his synthesiser and do-or-die brio, everyone from the Eurythmics to Donna Summer to Michael Jackson was fair game. A recent retrospective concert at Mumbai's Shanmukhananda Hall in June was proof of his glamour: giddy fans were begging for more of his magic.

'Take the ideas and run'

India broke away from its socialist roots in 1991, paving the way for cable television, which brought with it TV series' such as The Bold and the Beautiful (1987), as well as MTV. If anyone thought that this international exposure would eradicate plagiarism from Tinseltown, they were wrong.

Plagiarism became democratic in the 1990s. In the 1980s, you had to have visited a bookstore or owned a VHS player, but by the 1990s, you merely needed to switch on your television set and take a few notes.

One tribe that truly blossomed with the, "take the ideas and run" mantra of the 1990s was the Bollywood dynasty of the Bhatts. The number of films that the Bhatt family have cloned from Hollywood is too big to mention in full here: Ghost, Cat People, Taxi Driver, It Happened One Night, Houseboat. Remarkably, the Bhatts also had the "honesty" of making shoot-for-shoot remakes of the films they choose to imitate.

The trailer for It Happened One Night: 

In a 2003 interview with The Hindu newspaper, director Vikram Bhatt said, "I'll never forget what [his mentor] ­Mahesh Bhatt said. 'If you hide the source, you're a genius. There's no such thing as originality in the creative sphere. Mozart copied tunes from his arch rival Salieri; Martin Scorsese did a remake of J Lee Thompson's Cape Fear and Spielberg's background score for Raiders of the Lost Ark is virtually copied from a Tchaikovsky composition."

The trailer for Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin:

How the law is catching up

That said, the law is catching up with this tradition in Bollywood. For one, Hollywood film studios and international media houses have set up shop in India, and come equipped with good legal teams. Creatives are standing up for their rights – and juries are taking note of their grievances with more sympathy. In 2008, the Bombay High Court ordered Rakesh Roshan to pay music composer Ram Sampath 20 million rupees (Dh1.05m) in damages for filching his jingles for Krazzy 4. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered director Kunal Kohli (whose claim to fame is 2004's Hum Tum, copied from When Harry Met Sally) to pay writer Jyoti Kapoor 2.5m rupees (Dh131,010) for stealing her story idea for his "acting debut".

The trailer for Hum Tum: 

Ideas-robbing directors are finding it increasingly hard to get away with their copyright crimes. But cultural bandits are also getting increasingly thirsty for creative output in this new media landscape. While legitimate "remake rights" are the new game in town, a gaggle of filmmakers is choosing the ­prolific explosion of world cinema as its fountain of knowledge.

The trailer for When Harry Met Sally: 

Some have begun lurking at obscure film festivals, picking up tropes from art-house cinema. Esoteric, cutting-edge films in foreign languages are easy targets. One celebrated film director, for instance, doesn't steal plot lines or stories from international cinema. Instead, he steals motifs and characters from various films he watches at film festivals, patching together a palimpsest of plagiarism.

Because in Bollywood, until you’re caught red-handed, you’re a maverick.