Lessons not learnt

Hindi cinema has been a plagiarist’s paradise for ages

Published - October 14, 2017 04:10 pm IST

The questions raised recently about the originality of an exceptional new indie — Amit Masurkar’s Newton — because of its shared premise with Babak Payami's Iranian film, Secret Ballot, points to how easily we give in to unsubstantiated speculation in an age of clickbait journalism.

While Newton was accorded a clean chit by Payami himself, the controversy’s viral if short-lived fallout could perhaps be partially attributed to widely held notions of the Indian film industry’s own mendacity in these matters. More often than not, such aspersions are not unfounded, and quite regrettably our cinema has been a plagiarist’s paradise for ages.

Credit to many

A long forgotten episode from 60 years ago should have had much more to say about this culture of subterfuge and bluff than it eventually did. A microfiche relic of a news snippet can be accessed in the The New York Times archives, titled ‘Indian film barred; Bombay Court Rules it Copy of a Paramount Picture’, dated November 13, 1957.

The film in question was Kishore Kumar starrer, Begunah , which was adjudged a rip-off of the 1954 Hollywood caper, Knock on Wood , in which the legendary Danny Kaye played a lovelorn ventriloquist whose green-eyed dummy repeatedly thwarts his romantic aspirations.

The case was filed on the behest of Kaye himself — the actor was Bombay, quite by coincidence, within days of the film’s release — and the injunction ordered the movie off theatres with immediate effect and all master prints and negatives were destroyed. Later, because of prints that remained in circulation in Hyderabad for more than two years, more penalties were levied, and the producers, Rup Kamal Chitra, reeling under fines and losses, were left destitute. The much vaunted Indian Copyright Act was passed in 1957, and the Begunah verdict was likely a shining example of its new ironclad provisions.

An apocryphal quote attributed to Lata Mangeshkar anoints Kumar as the Danny Kaye of India. Kaye was the quintessential all-American entertainer who dabbled with equal felicity in singing, acting, comedy and dance. In his biography of Raj Kapoor, Bunny Reuben wrote of the showman, “Whenever he went to America, he would be with Kaye.”

In the 50s, Kumar was a distributor’s delight, and was fashioning himself, not unlike Kaye, as a singing star with a flair for broad comedy. His playback included his trademark yodelling. Some credit this to his brother’s Austrian records, others to James Singh, who gave him his first duets with Asha Bhosle in Muqaddar (1950), where he yodelled for the first time.

There were also some other signature skills that Kumar assiduously worked into his repertoire. Like Kaye's patter songs, for instance, which featured rapid-fire rhythmic patterns using text. Or Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing in vocal jazz, which involved verbal improvisations using gibberish.

Something borrowed

The debt that Kumar owed one of his self-avowed idols and the universe of entertainment he came from was, therefore, much more than just a borrowed plot-line in a film. Traces of the influence could be seen in songs like Eena Meena Deeka, from Aasha (1957), which he would preface with a specialised scat routine during live shows, or Hum The Woh The from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), which riffed off Tennessee Ernie Ford's Watermelon Song .

In Kumar’s own Bengali production, Lukochuri (1958), composer Hemant Mukherjee felt compelled to include a version of Kaye’s cover of the 1919 novelty song, Oh By Jingo . Kumar’s version went, Shing Nei Tobu Naam Tar Singha.

In the 1960 film, Bewaqoof , co-starring Mala Sinha, all the classic tropes of American entertainment made an appearance — from blackface boxing to cross-dressed comedy. It all came full circle in the 1962 classic, Half Ticket, which starred Kumar alongside Madhubala, once again an unauthorised version of a Paramount Pictures release, You're Never Too Young. This time, there were no remonstrations from the Hollywood studio. It would appear the lesson taught by the debacle of Begunah ultimately came to nought.

Even as a child, the writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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