Correction to This Article
Previous versions of this story, both online and in print, misstated the amount of cash invested by Anil Ambani that was allocated for DreamWorks SKG studios. This version has been corrected.

Hollywood Finally Challenging India's Booming Bollywood Over Knockoffs

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

MUMBAI -- For years, Indian producers have paid Hollywood the ultimate compliment: knocking off American films scene-for-scene and turning them into Bollywood blockbusters.

Now, Hollywood is paying Bollywood a compliment of its own. Instead of ignoring the plagiarism, American moviemakers have begun suing their counterparts in India, a sure sign that this country's booming, $2.2 billion-a-year film industry has arrived as a global player.

"This is all a long time coming. It means India is no longer some country in the boondocks where no one cares what's going on," said Anupama Chopra, a film critic in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, which accounts for the B in Bollywood. "Personally, I am really glad. It got to the point where I said to one director, 'Where is your artistic skill?' And he looked right at me and said: 'My skill is knowing what to steal.' "

Last week, 20th Century Fox accepted a $200,000 settlement from the Bollywood film producer it accused of copying its 1992 Oscar-winning comedy "My Cousin Vinny," better known here by its Bollywood version, "Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai," or "This Guy Is Fearless."

Earlier this year, Warner Bros. took out public notices in the Times of India newspaper warning Bollywood against plans to make an Indian version of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." In an unexpected twist, a Warner Bros. case against producers of the Bollywood film "Hari Puttar: A Comedy of Terrors" was thrown out by the Delhi High Court. But only because the plot had more in common with Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone" than the boy wizard in the Harry Potter franchise, owned by Warner Bros.

The stepped-up vigilance for film copyright infringements follows a much-publicized round of buyouts and mergers between Hollywood and Bollywood, fueled in part by the growing popularity of Bollywood movies abroad and the desire to tap into each other's markets. Bollywood's escapist romps and emotional song-and-dance numbers are loved in many places across the world, including Washington's suburbs.

Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox have teamed up with Indian film studios to make several Bollywood movies. Disney invested nearly $200 million this year in one of Bollywood's biggest producers, UTV.

At the same time, billionaire Indian industrialist Anil Ambani, whose wife was a Bollywood starlet, recently led a total investment of $825 million, of which his company is paying $325 million to Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG Studios.

Indian film critics hope the landmark "My Cousin Vinny" payout will encourage Bollywood producers to find more experimental and original story lines. There has traditionally been a lot of pressure on Bollywood to produce proven moneymakers, especially because many of the films were bankrolled by Mumbai's wealthy underworld figures. But now, cleaner money is making its way into Bollywood.

The out-of-court settlement has alarmed directors of other alleged Bollywood copies of American movies, such as "Teree Sang," (Hollywood's "Juno"), "Salaam Namaste" ("Nine Months") and "Koi Mil Gaya," which borrowed generously from Hollywood hits such as "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Singing in the Rain" and "Rain Man."

Subhash Ghai, a popular director and the founder of Whistling Woods International acting school in Mumbai, said Bollywood filmmakers will still copy American plots. But now they will have to buy the rights.

"Sometimes I want to remake because I feel excited that I can make it better, with Indian values and song and dance," Ghai said. "There are only 36 plots in the world drama, and you can make 36,000 stories out of those. So stories don't change; science changes, times change and values change."

Some film industry analysts say it is hard to prove copyright infringement because many Bollywood films are almost compelled to feature song-and-dance numbers that confuse the flow of even the most carefully purloined narratives.

"Still, it kind of amazes me at times that it's so blatant," said Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, an innovative Bollywood director whose recent film successes have featured original plots. "There are so many great young Indian writers. Some are in the small towns. They just need to be encouraged."

Bollywood is increasingly starting to gravitate toward films that address issues of the day. The tear-jerker "Taare Zameen Par," Hindi for "Stars on Earth," was about a child suffering from dyslexia. Still, for many Indians who don't have air conditioners and who go to movie theaters for a break from the searing heat, questions about a film's authenticity are irrelevant.

Even a plot stolen from Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" is spiced with enough choreographed street fights, long-suffering mothers, megalomaniac villains and wet-sari scenes to make it entertaining for Indian moviegoers. A recent announcement that Bollywood wants to remake the testosterone-filled romp "The Hangover" prompted an MTV India call-in show to be flooded with text messages and calls of support.

"Many audiences in small-town India have not seen the English movies. Now they get to see a great story in their own language," said Anshi Bansal, 19, a university student in New Delhi. "Plus, it has all the Indian songs and dances."

Special correspondent Ayesha Manocha in New Delhi contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company