Plagiarism charges against October bring the issue of an individual’s life rights to focus

Only a week after opening to critical acclaim, Shoojit Sircar’s film dogged by an unseemly controversy

April 20, 2018 10:42 pm | Updated April 22, 2018 11:28 am IST - Mumbai

Stills from Aarti and, right, October.

Stills from Aarti and, right, October.

A week after opening to critical acclaim Shoojit Sircar’s October finds itself in the thick of an unseemly controversy with Sarika Mene, a Marathi filmmaker, alleging that the film has been plagiarised from her August 2017 Marathi film Aarti--The Unknown Love Story. Though the approaches, vision and treatment of the two films are radically different (see box), the seeming similarity of ideas, situations and plot points, characters and relationships seem to emerge from the fact that both of them are based on the same source material--the life of Sunny Pawar who also happens to be Sarika’s younger brother. Back in 2006 Sunny was much in news for putting everything in his own life on hold to look after his girlfriend Aarti who had slipped into coma after a car accident.

“After seeing the trailer I thought October was 5% like my film but after watching it I found it 90% alike,” says Mene. She filed a criminal complaint against the makers of October at the Vile Parle police station on Monday, April 16. She was told by the cops to take legal recourse instead, considering it was a copyright issue that they don’t handle. She also filed complaints in the Akhil Bhartiya Marathi Chitrapat Maha Mandal, IMPAA and Screen Writers’ Association (who have called for a meeting with her on Saturday, April 21).

On being contacted on Thursday Sircar confirmed having received a letter [from the makers of Aarti ]. “We will surely respond to the letter officially. And post which we will let you know our official statement,” texted Sircar. On Fridaythe producers of October issued a statement: “We understand that there are some allegations of copyright infringement against our film October. We are creative people and have full faith in our work and our team, which has given extraordinary films like Piku, Pink etc. We have not heard of the film “ Aarti ” nor do we have full details of the matter as yet. We are sensitive towards feelings of film makers. We will look into this and deal with it appropriately.”

Mene’s charges bring to focus the larger issue of an individual’s life rights (as a subject of a film). Can a filmmaker “use” anyone’s life story and turn it into a film without taking permission for it? Can filmmakers claim access and right to interpret a news in the public domain without seeking requisite authorisations?

Mene claims that the rights to Sunny’s story weren’t taken by October makers. Forget signing any legal contract there hasn’t even been an acknowledgment of Sunny, neither in the film nor in the interviews. “Shivaji is no more so you can make a historical on him. But if the person is alive you have to take his or her permission. It’s not enough to say that film is based on true story, you have to tell whose story it is,” says Mene, who herself proceeded with her film only after getting a go-ahead from her brother. “If a family member can seek permission how can an outsider not do that?”

These permissions seem to matter for filmmakers only when a star or celebrity is involved. Of late life rights have been bought for several films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dangal and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. Recently screenwriter Shibani Bathija bought the rights to the story of Tajamul Islam, the eight-year old Kashmiri kickboxing champion. Filmmaker Rakeysh Mehra remembers signing the contract with Milkha Singh with a Re 1 note from the 1960s to mark the Flying Sikh’s Rome Olympics run. So it seems that all that Sircar and Co. Also needed to do was sign a legal contract with Sunny Pawar.

BOX: Aarti vs October

Aarti is a straight retelling of the incidents that happened in the Pawar family in the aftermath of the accident. It tries to encapsulate every event possible, including the relationship of the Pawar siblings and stories of other hospital patients and their families. The limited budget, resources and lack of technical expertise show in the home video like feel. Mene made it without any grounding in filmmaking and was planning on its Hindi remake with a New York filmmaker Hemal Trivedi and was hoping to have Rajkummar Rao play the lead.

October adds layers of profundity and philosophy to the tale and is leagues ahead cinematically. Mene herself appreciates the superior craft of the film compared to her own. It also makes a crucial change in that the young protagonists are not lovers; the film is about finding an undefinable bond in the thick of mortality.

But the inspiration of both is obviously Sunny’s life. So if the group of friends happen to be hotel management trainees in October , they are journalism trainees in Aarti . The bond between the boy and the girl’s mother is key to both the films. She speaks of the boy as her source of strength and tells him to get back to life and to his family in both. And both are journeys of self-discovery for their protagonists.

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