Bollywood's copycat film industry

The poster from the recent Bollywood film "Partner," which has much in common with the Hollywood film "Hitch" starring Will Smith.

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KAI RYSSDAL: India is home to several regional film industries. Altogether, they release around 900 movies a year -- nearly twice Hollywood's output. That's more than any nation on Earth, and their movies are longer. It is a lot of content to create. And there's a growing awareness that in the regional industry based in Mumbai -- better known as "Bollywood" -- some filmmakers may be cutting corners. Rico Gagliano reports.


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. Rajeev Masand is the entertainment editor at India's news channel CNN/IBN.

Rajeev Masand: Easily 60 percent of the movies -- almost one film that releases every week -- is either blatantly copied or inspired by some fairly big American film. In addition to that, I'm going to stick my neck out and say a good 10 to 15 percent are borrowed from non-American foreign films. And maybe 25 percent -- I'm not even comfortable saying 25 percent -- is original.

Now I know what you're thinking: "Hey man, it's not like Western filmmakers are paragons of originality either." But unlike Bollywood, Western filmmakers generally obtain rights to the material they're swiping, and mention it in the credits.

Masand: I also think that in the West, I don't think they realize to what extent the borrowing is happening. Increasingly you see entire screenplays literally unfolding exactly like the original film, and every now and then you'll see films that are just dialogues translated down to the last word.

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.

[MUSIC: "THOIA THOING"]

That's R. Kelly's tune "Thoia Thoing." I think that's how it's pronounced.

[MUSIC: "GELA GELA"]

...And that's a song called "Gela Gela," from the Bollywood film "Aitraaz." You'll find that and literally a thousand other examples of suspiciously familiar Indian film songs on the Web site Itwofs.com. It's run out of Bangalore by a young guy named Karthik. He says copycatting has been going on in Bollywood for decades.

Gagliano: Does anybody point this out in media or fans, anybody?

Karthik: They do, but nobody cares.

Except, well, you'd think the original artists would care. And according to Indian intellectual property lawyer Praveen Anand, intellectual property laws are very strong -- yet no Indian filmmakers have been taken to court.

Praveen Anand: There are lots of them which have copied concepts and a lot of detail -- clear infringements of Hollywood films. But somehow, Hollywood producers have not come forward to file cases and test the proposition.

There have been rumblings from Hollywood. Last summer, India's Times News Network reported Sony pictures was considering a lawsuit over "Partner" -- a Bollywood take on Sony's film "Hitch." But CNN/IBN's Rajeev Masand says since then, there's not been much action in the matter, and he thinks he knows why.

Masand: Now Sony Pictures is... in India, making films, also distributing films, so they wouldn't want to take on the very industry that they're working in -- the very people I'm guessing they want to work with.

Sony says it won't comment on legal matters. But even if they never go to court, many agree the threat could have a chilling effect. Screenwriter Anjum Rajabali thinks it's just a matter of time before Hollywood chases out the copycats.

Anjum Rajabali: There is no doubt it'll change. I mean, economics will ensure that it'll change. Hollywood studios have begun investing in Indian productions as of the last six to eight months, in a very big way. There's a big market -- we're talking about one billion captive eyeballs in India. Hollywood studios would like to cash in on that. Now, they might also want their own earlier successful films adapted. But if somebody else has already done it without paying them anything, they will stop that.

Because if there's one thing the West would like to copy from Bollywood, it's box office success in one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth.

In Mumbai, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

About the author

Rico Gagliano is the host of Dinner Party Download.

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