January 3, 2010

Is this why there is a dearth of writers in Bollywood? The 3 Idiots controversy!

The 3 Idiots controversy has brought something to the fore. In Bollywood nothing is as it seems and originality and creativity will never find their due. The big name will always win the battle in the eyes of the media, the public, and the fraternity. So who would really want to write for Bollywood then? Are writers respected in the industry?

Who are the creative writing forces in the industry? Satyajit Ray wrote most of his own screenplays, did adapt some with rigorous adhering to giving due credit. Nowhere was this more visible than in his adaptation of Munshi Premchand's Shatranj ke Khiladi! A short story about two decadent nawabs, in an era of decadence in Oudh, who will do anything to have yet another chess game while the entire kingdom is in jeopardy. Around this fascinatingly simple tale that formed about 10% of the story, Ray built an elaborate structure of court intrigue, the Nawab of Oudh and his fascination for singing and dancing, the rapacious company authorities, the sensitive Persian speaking sympathetic "White Moghul" type, and yet none of this rich tapestry would have happened without the warp and weft made by the two chess players! So Munshi Premchand got pride of place in the story credits!

Then we have Gulzar, a master class in writing - be is scripts or lyrics. Most of his original work is scholarly, unique and exquisitely nuanced. But when he was inspired by the Bard's A Comedy of Errors to write a unique and very Indian tale in Angoor, Shakespeare featured prominently in the opening credits of the film. A worthy successor can be found in Vishal Bharadwaj - he has twice adapted Shakespeare and both times due credit was given by the team to the original storyline. Did this diminish the contribution of Abbas Tyrewala to the writing of Maqbool, or Vishal to the writing of Omkara? More recently was have had adaptations of Saratchandra novels in Parineeta and two versions of Devds, and event the "Devdas on crack" version in DevD told us who was the original teller of the tale. Was Anurag Kashyap's DevD a carbon copy of Devdas? He could have easily claimed only a very mild derivation, and a serious departure in the turning of the protagonist from a man bent on self-destruction to one who finds some value in his life after all!

So how does one understand this situation that has exploded with the 3 Idiots controversy? Vidhu Vinod Chopra bought the rights of the story for Five Point Someone from Chetan Bhagat, and Bhagat was paid 1+ 10 lakhs for it. He was told his name would show up in the rolling credits as "based on the novel Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat". Despite screaming at media, Vinod Chopra has made the contract public for all to see. And there seems to be no breach as far as one can tell. So what is the controversy all about?

Issue 1 - is 3 Idiots basically a retelling of FPS with some changes and embellishments?

"We never denied Bhagat the credit. I am confused as to why is he saying all these things after the film's release. We have not stolen the story, we have purchased the rights of the book and can modify or change it as per our requirements. There is nothing illegal in it. Chetan is lying," Hirani said.

But Bhagat is NOT upset about any changes that made the story different!

Issue 2 - HOW MUCH of FPS is retained in 3 Idiots?

"The book is not more than five per cent in the film," he said, adding that Bhagat had been paid his dues by Chopra even before the release of the film.

This seems to be the major point of departure! Those who have read the book, and the author himself claim that there is no 3 Idiots without FPS! And here the Shatranj ke Khiladi example becomes particularly germane. Even a kernel of a story that inspires the whole structure, is an important piece and diminishing it by assigning numbers like 5% is foolish!

Issue 3 - What exactly is Chetan Bhagat upset about? He signed a contract, he got money and he even got his name in the rolling credits!

"I also want to address the so called contract and spell out the issue, which they are either unable to articulate or are hiding. Yes, there is a contract, which you ethically abused. But how can you give ANOTHER credit for story, not including me, without my consent, right upfront and hide mine totally? Isn’t that negating my already buried credit? Who will people see. Who will go and collect the story (not screenplay, which is separate) awards? The screenplay is not an issue here. The people who have done that have adapted my story – not written a new one. Maybe they can be co-credited for story, but how can they exclude me? Add to that them constantly calling their story original, discrediting me in the media for over an year – does that not show an actual pattern of shutting me out? That is the issue. "

Chetan has it right here. If there is an earlier story credit in the main credits then what exactly does the rolling credit to FPS mean? How can one claim credit to and original story and also claim it was based upon something else?

Issue 4 - The 3 Idiots team is very hung up on claiming ORIGAL screenplay credit and story credit.

Here is what Hirani says in a TOI interview:
"I am sure it's defamation because lots of people I know are wondering (due to Bhagat's allegation)� in lots of Tweeter and Facebook sites we have been abused saying, 'we won't watch Hirani's film or Abhijat's film'. This kind of muck is flying all over the place. I think Vinod Chopra is looking into it, I guess he will follow the legal path," he added.

Hirani clarified that once Bhagat had given the rights to make a film on his book, there shouldn't be any "percentage issue".

Hirani maintained that the basic plot of the film is completely different from the book.

"In the book, there is no bet between the two friends, the journey
to find their friend is not there, the child delivery scene, the 'Balatkar' scene, the two weddings where they crashed these key scenes are not in the book. There are certain similarities, which I am not denying, but we had bought the rights for that.

"We can use 100 percent of it. What does he (Bhagat) mean by 70 percent? Are we supposed to pay more money for using 70 percent? Are we supposed to give different credit for 70 percent? I do not understand this percentage controversy," said Hirani.

But if you use 70% or 100% of material from another, even if duly paid for, can you claim that you wrote the story or screenplay?

ISSUE 5 - Finally we come to the originality in the screenplay itself!! Chetan is denied credit for the story because it was already paid for. But who was paid for the astronauts using pencils in space joke that is old as the hills, the scene about turning in exams by mixing them in that was copied from an ad film, Kareena giving birthing advice on a phone that is so much like a recent phone ad featuring Deepika Padukone?

Here is what Raju Hirani has to say about scriptwriting:
"This came as a shock to me that suddenly he is trying to hog the limelight; suddenly he is trying to take away the credit from the screenwriters who slogged for three years to modify the script. He doesn't understand the difference between book writing and writing for a film. If he continues doing these things, I would rather not associate with him."

No wonder there is dearth of good writing, if I were Mr. Bhagat I would stick to writing his books that seem to capture the fancy of the masses and sell millions of copies. Let the screenplay xeroxers - oops adapters - do the more literary copying job, and just keep on writing!

To end - here is a class act by Bharadwaj regarding Omkara!


Kunal said...

Good write up there, Pardesi.
I don't think anyone can deny that morally VVC should have credited CB upfront, but not legally bound to, not unless 75 or may be 80% of the original content is retained. I don't know how they calculate percentages, but thats how it is, I guess.

Pardesi said...

This will not go away!
'3 Idiots' and the morality of numbers
Shamnad Basheer
Thu, Jan 7 04:40 AM
... book on which it is based ("5 Point Someone") sports the number "5". Most interestingly perhaps, the producers of the movie claim that the book contributes no more than 5 per cent to the movie. The author, Chetan Bhagat disagrees, claiming his contribution to be 70 per cent. If only judges were this masterful at numbers and percentages, copyright disputes might have been far easier to crack. But first, a bit of background:

1. Bhagat entered into a contract with the production house (Vinod Chopra Films Pvt Ltd), under which he assigned all rights in any film adaptation to them.

2. As consideration, Bhagat received a certain sum of money, which he admits. In any case, the dispute is not about the money.

3. Although, as contractually promised, the credits right at the end of the film do mention the fact that the movie is based on the book by Bhagat, it crams up the attribution ("Based on The Novel Five Point Someone By Chetan Bhagat") in one line, whereas the contract stretches out the entire attribution to 3 lines.

Bhagat could therefore argue that even contractually, the form of placement was not complied with. This is buttressed by the fact that the credit at the end of the movie was so fleeting that even his mother missed it. Contrast this with the fact that the script writer, Abhijat Joshi was credited right at the start of the movie.

Anyway, what Bhagat appears to be really "hurt" about is the producers' claim that the movie contained no more than 5 per cent of his book. Fortunately, this unfair treatment meted out to him is not just objectionable from a moral standpoint, but is actionable under the law.

Having read the book and watched the movie, my view is that the script borrows significant amounts of copyrightable elements from the book, including the main theme, the various plots and most of the characters therein, including some dialogues. The fact that some new scenes and sub plots were added afresh to the movie does not detract from the fact that significant portions of the book were copied onto the script in the first place.

Therefore, Bhagat is legitimately entitled to be treated as a joint author of this script. Section 57 of the Indian copyright act deals with what are commonly termed as "moral rights" and vests every author with the right to insist that their works be attributed to them. And this right exists independent of the "economic" right to exploit the work. In other words, even if the economic rights are assigned away (as was the case here), the moral right of attribution continues to vest with the author.

One might even argue that such rights were brought into our copyright regime to prevent precisely the kind of harm that this case throws up i.e. a wily production house that buys out an author economically and then attempts to obliterate his status as author altogether!

Bhagat must therefore take a principled stand on this issue and pursue the matter without backing down, not just for himself, but for every small artist who end up getting a raw deal from crafty producers. It could end up cleansing some of the sharp practices that Bollywood has become culturally attuned to now.

Bhagat must sue in a court of law, demanding rightful attribution and appropriate damages. It helps his case that Indian courts have traditionally been very supportive of the moral rights of authors (Amar Nath Sehgal vs UOI).
Of course, it would be far better if the film-makers apologise to Bhagat and settle the matter in a fair manner. After all, even they understand that morality is not really about numbers.
The writer is the Ministry of HRD Professor of IP Law at the National University Of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata

Pardesi said...

A hilarious take on the Chetan Bhagat and 3 Idiots tale:
The Secret Diary Of Aamir Khan
Surprise! Surprise! The other day I got a call from the great Woody Allen. And, guess what? He wants me to star in his next film (working title: 3.5 Idiots).
Surprise! Surprise! The other day I got a call from the great Woody Allen. And, guess what? He wants me to star in his next film (working title: 3.5 Idiots). The decimal half here will be played by author Chetan Bhagat. My other two co-stars will be a Manhattan streetlight which has found its way to Mumbai and switches on only when you say “Joey, light up” and a cellphone in Cuffe Parade which claims it was used by Marilyn Monroe to call the White House. Now the casting sounded fine, but I ventured to point out that the mobile was a bit out of sync. “Well, Mr Allen,” I said in my best Bollywood voice, “wasn’t the cell invented decades after Ms Monroe’s death?” The response across long distance was high pitched and agitated. “For starters, call me Woody. Mr Allen reminds me of a nightmare in which Spinoza dances with a skimpily clad Rakhi Sawant to a remixed version of Moonlight Sonata (claimed to be an original by both Anu Malik and Shantanu Moitra). That apart, coming to your query on the mobile, anything is possible in a film. Aaaamir, a big Bollywood star like you should know better.”
Well, I admit, the strangest things do happen in our movies. But leave that for a later twitter. Right then I was curious to know the storyline of the film. And, more importantly, my role in it. “Aaaamir,” said the voice at the other end, “you play a filmmaker and Chetan is a struggling young writer putting together his first novel. But he does this unwittingly under the peering gaze of Joey. So, as and when he completes a chapter, you call the streetlight using the mobile and it tells you the story thus far and you start filming. It’s fairly simple.” I was quick to acknowledge that it undoubtedly was a very original idea but what on earth would the storyline of the film within the film be? Well, Woody cleared his throat and said that it would be about three idiots (this time wannabe teenage filmmaker, scriptwriter, producer) played by yours truly, Amitabh (Paa) Bachchan and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The trio join an institute which teaches them the art of generating controversy by publicly accusing each other of plagiarism. The high point of the film is when all three claim ownership of a Bollywood version of Kafka’s The Castle and even the copyright to the recipe of steamed rice which figures in one scene. Thankfully, after much name calling, they finally declare a truce, which is where the film ends.

“Interesting! A happy ending is always nice,” I said, but then it came to me, “...but Woody, where is the spicy stuff?” Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked because he had already factored the masala in. “My dear Aaaamir, I have signed on that ex-guv of Andhra, Tiwari N.D., and two Mumbai police officers. Every now and then, they will dance with a group of item girls,” Woody said with some professional pride. But I had one last query: who was producing the film? Woody’s answer stumped me: “Why? Chetan and Vidhu....”

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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