How Barfi! could have avoided the 'plagiarized' tag

Last Updated: Thu, Oct 18, 2012 07:51 hrs
Barfi is India's official entry to Oscars

It would have taken little for Anurag Basu and UTV to escape the 'plagiarism' tag in Barfi! says Satyen K Bordoloi, as he highlights some points he hopes will save Bollywood future embarrassments.

If you took the biggest Bollywood hits of the last 40 years, you'll find that nearly 60 to 70 per cent of them have been more than 'inspired' by Hollywood or World Cinema. Nearly half of them have been straight lifts with minimal cosmetic changes. In this context, the attention showered on Barfi!, which did overwhelmingly well despite unconventional characters, seems unfortunate.  

Yet, when you compare the scenes from the original sources and the ones in Barfi!, it becomes nauseatingly unbearable to see such a blatant copy. The sensation after comparing the two, for anyone with even a little moral decency, is of disgust. Despite this, it also seems unfair, that the entire focus of critics of the film, is on the 10 per cent of copied elements and not the other 90 per cent of 'original' or truly 'inspired' elements in it.

What is stranger is to be accused of stealing from masters like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, two original fountainheads who have anyways inspired almost all filmmakers after them. One could easily say that it seems like colossal stupidity on the part of director Anurag Basu and UTV, for their inability to cross the thin line that separates copy from inspiration.  

It is particularly unfortunate, when you consider many films which are 90 per cent copies of western or eastern films but don't find themselves in half as much soup as Barfi!. Why, Quentin Tarantino has made a career out of 'copying' films and scenes from other films, but no one seems to mind his 'homages'.


For one, he himself does not claim to be making anything original. Indeed, he makes it a point to tell others where he 'copied' a particular scene or character from. Secondly, he never does a direct lift, but mixes and matches things up so that you don't really recognise the original even if you see it. For example, in Kill Bill 1 the set and even the clothing of Uma Thurman may have been what Bruce Lee uses in one of his films, but the fight that follows is entirely different. For one, Bruce Lee never used a samurai sword in that scene.

In a world where everything is supposed to be a copy of a copy of a copy, my sympathies lie with Anurag Basu despite detesting his stupidly blatant copies when he could have easily done better. Yet, instead of judging him with self-righteous black-and-white indignation, I'd like to offer some pointers on how Bollywood can avoid the 'plagiarism trap' and cross over to 'tribute land'.

Why copy, when you can truly get inspired

Let's take the case of two popular Bollywood films which often find themselves on either side of an intense debate on inspiration vs plagiarism: Sholay and Munnabhai MBBS.

Sholay becomes a classic study of how deep and long winding the river of inspiration flows across the world. The fundamental story of gun slinging, fancy free cowboys coming to the rescue of a village under attack from a ruthless ruffian that you see in'Sholay was directly 'inspired' by The Magnificent Seven

Yet, if you see the latter film, you'll realise how superior Sholay is to its inspiration in every department. That is perhaps because both these films had another source of inspiration, the film from which the The Magnificent Seven was itself 'inspired' or 'copied' from - Akira Kurosawa's rousing masterpiece, Seven Samurai.

It is interesting here to know that Seven Samurai, as a film, and Kurosawa were in itself hugely inspired and influenced by cowboy and spaghetti western movies (John Ford was Kurosawa's favourite director) to such an extent that his own peers accused Kurosawa of bringing western sensibilities to an otherwise 'uninfluenced' Japanese cinema. 

And yet, when you look at his samurai films, you'll realise that despite the western 'inspirations', his films fit perfectly into the 16th century Japanese milieu in which they were set. This, in turn, inspired Hollywood westerns as most of his films were remade into hit Hollywood film and some even into sci-fi films with his The Hidden Fortress becoming the 'inspiration' for Star Wars.

Yet if you look at Sholay and Seven Samurai you realise that besides the most fundamental element - the basic idea - there's nothing that is so similar as to raise the fears of plagiarism. That is because Sholay was in itself, just like many of Kurosawa's films, inspired by many other western films and many of its iconic scenes were reminiscent of the scenes from the 'original' western films, most specifically of the films made by Sergio Leone.

Yet, you couldn't really call it a copy. You could call it a truly 'inspired' film.

You will find 'copies' of The Magnificent Seven in films like Khotey Sikkey (which incidentally came a year before Sholay) and China Gate among many others.

Munnabhai MBBS

There's perhaps no better film to understand the copy vs inspired debate in Bollywood than Munnabhai MBBS. There are many who put it in the 'copy' category with its 'original' being the Robin Williams starrer Patch Adams

Yet if you look at both the films one after the other, you'll find that besides the basic theme of looking at modern medicine to be more than about 'medicines' and a character who believes in the adage 'laughter is the best medicine' there's nothing even remotely inspired or copied from Patch Adams in Munnabhai MBBS.

The sensibility, the sensitivity and even the story is typically Indian. India, till a while back, was one of those disgusting countries, where a man dying after an accident had to be reported to the police before any medical help could be provided to him. 

I shudder to think of the hundreds of thousands of people who must have died over the decades waiting for police reports to be filed before being given medical care. 

This was one of the things that Munnabhai attacked and a few years after the film, the law requiring people to file police reports was finally quashed and today when a doctor sees an accident victim, it is the doctor's moral and legal duty to treat him or her immediately.

Calling Munnabhai MBBS a copy of Patch Adams is like calling half the love stories in India to be copies of Romeo and Juliet. You can take the fundamental theme of unrequited love and weave a story around it, just like Anurag Basu took the fundamental theme for Barfi! from films like Benny and Joon and the Korean masterpiece Oasis or even our own Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bachchan starrer Koshish, of two people with disability finding love. 

To avoid the plagiarised tag, you have to turn them around, make it in accordance to local flavours. And yes, you cannot, I repeat, you absolutely cannot have a scene bearing striking resemblances to the original film or any other film you were inspired by.

That absolute no-go zone which even the great copycats of the world tread with caution, is the reason why 90 per cent of the 'original' work in Barfi! was overlooked for the 10 per cent blatantly copied parts.

Benny & Joon

The film that Barfi! was most inspired by, is Benny and Joon. The film gives clues about how to avoid being called a copy. In that film, like in Barfi!, Johnny Depp loves playing the joker, a la Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. But no one complained that those were copied scenes because there are enough references to Buster Keaton in the film. 

Right in the first scene, Depp is seen reading a book on Keaton. Then there are enough dialogues in the film which talk about this character's fixation, perhaps because of his mental retardation, on Buster Keaton.

If Anurag Basu could take so much pains and screen time explaining why the character is called Barfi (inspired by the Murphy kid of the radio company), he could have done the same to his imitating Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Almost all the films of Chaplin and Keaton are in the public domain (thus using it in the film wouldn't have cost money) and Anurag could have shown Barfi somehow looking at some of those films and trying to imitate what he saw. He could have shown him watching the fighting with the doll scene in Singin' in the Rain and thus copying it to make Jhilmil laugh. 

What would it have taken Basu: five extra, entertaining minutes in his film, and a little haggling to get permissions for some of the films which the UTV team could have done easily and a little credit at the end of the film highlighting the original source, which no one would have read anyway.

An old adage explains the difference between research and copying thus: in research you state the source. 'Stating the source' becomes a very legitimate way to copy. It's then called referencing, and not copying.

It is hence sad that Barfi! is blamed for 'copying' when with little effort it could have become a 'tribute'.

Blatant copy just doesn't cut it

Where Anurag Basu goofs up big time is in directly and blatantly copying scenes, making these shot-by-shot lifts, something which just doesn't cut it either morally or cinematically. This is the reason why 90 per cent of Barfi! - the sensitivity (though flawed) with which Basu shows his disabled characters, the way he built up other funny 'non-copied' scenes and little nuances - is simply forgotten in the din over the cry of the few copied scenes.

What could have been a celebration of the representation of disability in Indian cinema - a far cry from the regressive melodrama, sympathy-mongering, over-acting and copies of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films - ended up becoming a clarion call for Anurag Basu's plagiarised cinematic blood.

I am personally and deeply saddened by all this because I have worked with children with different disabilities, in the same organisation from where Anurag took most of his kids for the film: ADAPT - Able Disable All People Together (earlier known as the Spastics Society of India). 

And it was an absolute delight watching the film with them when Anurag Basu and UTV kept their promise to hold a special screening for the children of our school. It was wonderful to watch them laugh and cry along with the film, to relate to it and the need for love, caring and support in the life of people with disability.

After the film, a girl living with cerebral palsy told me how the film gave her hope that perhaps she too would find a partner like Barfi and get married someday, just like Jhilmil. Her comment choked me up much more than the film and I had to admit that my revulsion to Barfi! being copied was swept away with that innocent comment.

Hence, it makes me extremely angry that Anurag Basu could allow the film to be lost in the din of plagiarism when he could have very easily and conveniently avoided it.

It makes me angry that filmmakers in India don't realise their responsibility to the rest of the country. 

As India stakes its claim among the world's greatest nations, one of the most fundamental things we have to remember is respect for intellectual property. Nowhere does its blatant misuse become as evident as it does in films, music and works of art. If they are found to be plagiarised, it becomes convenient for the world to label us a nation of thieves instead of original creators.

So cinema, especially commercial cinema - since no other arts can ever hope to compete with its reach - has to be sensitive to their responsibilities not just to the profession, but to the nation and its citizens.

It is outright dumb when anyone is found to be copying blatantly, and then to see them have the tenacity to defend it. To find the same in a very sensitive film about disability just seem to double the 'crime' of copying.  

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