19 August 2009

on theft and stealing

Three months ago* I watched two foreign films, though they were not totally unfamiliar to me. They shared a title, Ghajini, and a plot.

You see, they're both about a guy. He's the CEO of a growing telecom company, but finds himself thinking less about business and more about love when he meets a wonderful, outgoing girl who constantly surprises and delights him. She's a model-slash-actress who hasn't taken on any substantial roles, and he's letting her believe that he's also trying to break into show business or modeling. She's not the only person being fooled - in fact she's lying to the whole country, claiming that some telecom CEO has fallen in love with her, and the two are dating, even as she's more or less dating, unknowingly, that very same guy.

So, we can tick a few things off already - mistaken identity and a love story, love under false pretenses, even. Given we're talking about a Bollywood and a Tollywood movie, here, there are a few song and dance numbers, too.

But I neglected to mention something in the plot. The girl gets into some trouble. You see, she's got a heart of gold. she goes out of her way to help people, and incurs the wrath of some gangsters when she helps out some women on a train who would otherwise be headed for a life of slavery or worse. They come after her, murder her, and almost kill the guy, who happened to be nearby when the thugs show up. He was about to come clean about his deception, too. So the guy's beat up pretty bad, and the blow to his head left him with a terrible malady: he can't hold any new memories in his head for more than fifteen minutes. In order to keep track of anything he carries around a Polaroid camera that beeps every fifteen minutes for him to take a picture and record what's going on, who he's with, and what's he's doing. He has covered his body with tattoos with all the important details he knows about the girl's killer, and he's working on tracking him down for vengeance.

Oh yes, I know what you're saying. Polaroid didn't make a camera with an alarm, that's just ridiculous!

Or were you thinking the plot sounds awfully familiar. It's obvious that this Ghajini is inspired by Chris Nolan's Memento. Both of them are - remember there are two films here.

The one I watched first was the Bollywood one, starring Aamir Khan (better known for his starring turn in the period cricket blockbuster Lagaan). It dispenses with some of the more clever mechanics of Nolan's film, namely, showing scenes in reverse order, and adds cliche Bollywood touches like the songs and extra hour of love story, but the result is nonetheless enjoyable. With all its similarities, some would consider it a complete rip-off, even with those differences. It's more accurately considered a remake.

But it's not a remake of Memento. It's a remake of a remake of Memento. It was remade first in Telugu (Tollywood instead of Bollywood), and up until the ending, the two films are very, very close.

Without giving anything away, the two endings are different enough to make seeing both of them worthwhile.

But it's a fair assumption many people outside of the India wouldn't watch one of them, let alone both, due in no small part to the connection to Memento.

What brought this to mind, though, was something I read, about Warner Brothers taking out a full page ad in The Times of India. They were threatening legal action against any movies made "either in English or Hindi or other language, having a similar script, screenplay or story line or character sketches or interplay of characters or sequence of events" to Benjamin Button.

That struck me as a little bit odd. I know it's fairly common for there to be Bollywood movies borrowing pieces, or plots, or sequences of events from popular Hollywood movies (and, heck, some that aren't so popular*. I remember watching Partner and wondering how they could've gotten away with such a close ripoff of Hitch.

Well, it turns out in that case some legal action was threatened, and there may well have been some sort of settlement. But it made for some interesting quotes:

Producer Parag Sanghvi:

Seven hundred films are made every year. Can all of them be original?

Director David Dhawan:

It’s rubbish. How many producers can they sue? Five hundred films are made here that are inspired by Hollywood films.

I can't imagine Sony and Will Smith lost out on too many rupees from Indians paying for a version of their movie, in the local language, rather than buying the DVD of Hitch. But what do I know?

I do know that Hollywood producers work through official channels to secure the rights to remake popular foreign movies, and can get in trouble when they don't.

But, from an artistic standpoint, what's the harm? Is the original film somehow damaged by the existence of the copy? Did Johnny Cash's excellent rendition of "Hurt" in any way diminish the artistic merit of the Nine inch nails original?

Where do you draw the line? Innovations get copied. Watch a movie like Citizen Kane or A hard day's night or any number of groundbreaking films (hell, even The matrix. Sure, you can think back on other movies that have copied those techniques. Sure, some of the derivatives are equally as interesting, if not better. But does it make the originals any less great?

Well, maybe not The matrix. Influential and great aren't necessarily always the same.

* At least I think it was over three months ago I had the idea. That's when I'd dated the draft, but sometime in between I lost my train of thought, as well as the motivation to write the article. All that I'd written was "Ghajini, Ghajini, and Memento. Also, Coming to America." and I've tried to remember what I meant to say about them. Looking at the dates, that's when I'd just watched Coming to America, and the other two, two weeks previous.
** There is, from what I have read, a Bollywood remake of Who is Cletis Tout?. I recently also enjoyed Maalamaal Weekly which bore eerie similarities to Waking Ned Divine.

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