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American Faces:
Indian Cosmetics

Karishma — Na!

With the Karishma case in the Supreme Court, and the film’s release held up, the cat is out of the bag. Everyone knows it’s an old, old, flea-ridden cat. Everyone knows also that it isn’t the only cat in the bag.

Allegedly plagiarized from Barbara Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, Karishma is in the true line of succession of mainstream pseudo-Hindi cinema. As the Bombay Times very correctly puts it, “Many Hindi film story lines are straightforward (sic) copies of Hollywood originals” — Mere Yaar Ki Shadi from My Best Friend’s Wedding, Kaante from Reservoir Dogs, Raaz from What Lies Beneath and so on all the way back to the post-war era.

When the studio system died, much that was good in Hindi cinema died with it. There was a total lack of any system. Chaos ruled. Pugree, made in the late forties, was a frame-by-frame copy of It Happened on Fifth Avenue — to the extent of transporting a poodle in the American original to the faded Indian carbon copy. This writer exposed this unabashed plagiarism and was threatened with a lawsuit by the film’s producer, P.N. Arora. But, as everyone in the filmi duniya knew, it was an empty threat.

By an irony of the distribution process, Pugree was released in Bombay prior to It Happened on Fifth Avenue. The joke then current was that the American film was a copy of the Indian original! Anyway, the American producer wrote a letter of thanks for my expose explaining his helplessness, for the copyright law then was so loose that even if he had filed a suit and won, the Indian producer would have been fined just Rs. 100!

Recently a young baby-faced director proved to be even cattier than his veteran copycat colleagues. He made a film that was a copy of not one, but two American films. It was amusing to watch this young director, in a Star Talk interview, talk with a straight face of the travails he had undergone “writing” his film’s story. The only travail he could possibly have undergone was applying Indian cosmetics to an American face, sorry, two American faces. So what if the face continues to look unIndian: we are only cosmetologists.

The Indian film world is a make-believe world. The only problem is that the make-believe off the screen is more effective and better accomplished than the make-believe on it.

Bollywood’s creative base was, is and continues to be Hollywood. Mainstream film-makers are so mesmerised by Hollywood gloss and glitter, that they continue to ignore the rich treasure trove of true-to-life stories in Hindi and our regional languages. The Film Finance Corporation in 1967 did try to make up for this lapse by exploring this new avenue with surprisingly rewarding results. But that is another story.

Our producers tend to adopt the cynical stance of Dean William R. Inge: “What is originality? Undetected plagiarism,” or Mark Twain’s equally cynical excuse: “Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before him.”

No doubt borrowing story ideas and remaking them in different languages and placing them in a variety of cultural contexts is a part of international cinema. But as Rich Taylor of the Motion Picture Association of America puts it, “There is a right way of going about it.”

The Supreme Court may show our film-makers the right way.