Just this month, we’ve seen an unauthorized, almost scene-by-scene Hindi rip-off of a Korean film (Murder 2 from The Chaser), an authorised Hindi remake of a Tamil film (Singham from Singam) and a partially-ripped off Tamil adaptation of an English film (Deivathirumagal from I am Sam… if you want to know my opinion on the film, email email@example.com to get it automatically in your inbox) sparking off an intense debate on originality between critics and fans.
Does it matter if the film is original as long as people like it? Is it okay to steal if a majority of the market will never get a chance to watch the film it is stolen from? What defines originality when ideas are only recycled from time to time and interpreted differently by different artists? Should critics really be passing moral judgments on the act of stealing itself or should they review the derived piece of art for what it achieves, irrespective of the source? And how thick is the line between inspiration and plagiarism, adaptation and remake?
As Quentin Tarantino famously admitted: “I steal from every film ever made.” He’s not kidding. He steals but also works hard enough to mix it all up to create something entirely different from everything he has taken. He even told movie buffs at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles a few years ago that he loved the Indian rip-off of Reservoir Dogs, ‘Kaante’. “Five movies for the price of one, he said,” recalls Vijay Venkataramanan, editor and former programmer for IFFLA.
Tarantino also called it one of his two favourite rip-offs, according to filmmaker Srinivas Sunderrajan, who asked him what he really thought of Kaante. As honoured as he was about the “famous guy with the big beard… who played Harvey Keitel,” Tarantino kept calling the film a rip-off. He probably loved it because imitation, as writer Charles Caleb Colton said, is the sincerest form of flattery. [Encouraged, Sanjay Gupta who made Kaante went on to make copies of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (Musafir) and Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy (Zinda)]
But consider this. Reservoir Dogs, the original of Kaante, drew it’s basic premise (of the heist gone wrong after a betrayal) from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, another part of the plot from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (the bit about an undercover cop infiltrating the gang planning the heist), crooks named after colours from Joseph Sargent’s Taking of Pelham 123 (Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr.Green…), the way they dressed and walked from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (men in suits and loose ties, shooting people all around), the graphic violence from Sergio Corbucci’s Django (the ear-slicing scene) and style of using profanity and popular music from Martin Scorsese. Yet, it was not called a rip-off. It was called “the greatest independent film of all time” by Empire magazine.
So why is one film a rip-off and the other the greatest independent film when both had borrowed elements? Wilson Mizner, a playwright, is supposed to have said: “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.” Or as Jean-Luc Godard observed: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
The biggest defense for plagiarism in India is that Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay considered by many as the greatest film of all time wasn’t original either. Critics of the film are quick to point out Sholay had plot elements borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai/ John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (hired guns protecting a town from bandits), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (the train robbery set-piece sequence), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the light hearted banter and camaraderie between the two thieves) and even some local influences like Mera Gaon Mera Desh (Seven Samurai plot simplified with just one hired gun fighting the bandit to save a village). But Sholay did not lift any scene or the storytelling style blatantly from any of these films.
Taking just a basic outline of Seven Samurai that can be written at the back of a bus-ticket and reworking the plot of the superhit Mera Gaon Mera Desh (from one hired gun to two fighting bandits to save a village), Salim-Javed went all out to create characters that became so iconic that filmmakers who tried to recreate the epic failed, Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag being the most ambitious effort of them all.
There’s always something lost in translation, more so when borrowed from a different era or culture. Which makes it all the more important for filmmakers to interpret and make the film their own.
As independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch writes in The Golden Rules of Filming: “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
Once the filmmaker has internalised what he wants to steal, he will find ways to give shape to the stolen ideas without feeling the need to keep referring back to the original. The student who has really understood what’s in the textbook will use his own words to explain everything he has learnt. He deserves the marks he gets.
And then there that student who writes his test copying verbatim from the textbook hidden under his desk… Would you be okay if he tops the class?
That’s the only question worth asking. Your answer reveals not just what you will settle for but also who you are.
(This story originally appeared here)