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IPR and Indian Cinema: A Scenario of Violation

April 7, 2020 | By

When you can’t prevent it, what can be the cure? Ratnottama Sengupta wonders…

kaagaz ke phool lobby card

Kaagaz ke Phool lobby card (Pic: Google Image Search)

A daylong brainstorming hosted by the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata had focused attention on Patents, Piracy and Copyright Violation – in fields ranging from electrical equipment to medicine, grains and cereals to cinema. When it was my turn to speak, I started with some stories about Intellectual Property Rights – IPR – Violation. And it dawned that classics too are not spared, nor are they all free from committing such violation. And to make the point – that this was IPR violation, not piracy – the opening story initially mentions no names.

It happened sometime in 1957-58. A writer from Bengal – a famous name in Bengali literature who became a celebrated screenwriter in Bollywood – penned a story about a writer and his muse. This story had a lot of cinematic possibility, and it appealed greatly to a highly acclaimed director who asked the author to write the screenplay. At that point in time the author was busy scripting another film, which is an all-time great of Indian cinema, by another legend. So he could not meet the director who took offence and engaged another screenwriter. He also made certain changes in the story and turned it into that of a filmmaker and his muse. And when this film released in 1959, the story was not attributed to anybody, only the screenplay was attributed to the new screenwriter. So the pained author met the director and asked, “This is my story, why isn’t my name there in the credit titles?” The director replied, “I have changed it – I have personalized it, now it is my story.”

Nabendu Ghosh

Nabendu Ghosh

The important thing is that he did not give the story credit to anybody else. The film was Kaagaz Ke Phool, the director was Guru Dutt and the author was Nabendu Ghosh – who happened to be my father. Why is this important? Because Kaagaz Ke Phool is a major classic and it was a violation of the writer’s intellectual property right. So he went to the Film Writers Association, a quasi-judicial body that used to intervene those days. Now once again there is a lot of talk about local level intervention in case of a piracy or IPR violation. At that point of time FWA had two much respected directors at the helm, Phani Majumdar and Gyan Mukherjee, with whom Guru Dutt had worked. They called Guru and said, “What is this?” In 1957-58, it was a small sized group making these films and they were all internationally recognized. The other film that kept the author busy at that point was Sujata, directed by Bimal Roy.

So they said, “This does not behove us. We are among the top people in cinema. Why are you depriving a writer of the credit due to him?”  But by then the film was ready, the prints had gone out to theaters all over the country and no amendment was possible. So the director offered the author – who had earlier scripted two films for him, Aar Paar (1954) and Sailaab (1956) – his next film as a peace move. “We will do the next film together and you will do everything.” (That film was to be Gauri which, had it got made, would have starred Geeta Dutt in the lead role and was to have Krishna Chitrakar of Vrindavan as the Art Director). As we all know, it did not happen.

Bonkubabur Bondhu

Sketch by Satyajit Ray (Pic: Travails with the Alien – Satyajit Ray, Harper Collins)

The second story is about The Alien. Satyajit Ray had written the original story, Bankubabur Bandhu published in the family magazine Sandesh, in 1962. Later he scripted it in English and titled it as Avatar. It reached Hollywood – Columbia Pictures, to be precise – in 1967. They changed the title to The Alien. It went around several hands, several characters came into the picture, major Hollywood actors like Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Peter Sellers were in the reckoning for important roles, a certain Mike Wilson offered to be production manager in Hollywood for the Indo-US co-production, he even copyrighted the script as co-writer and appropriated the fee, etc etc etc. At the end of it, Ray got disillusioned and the venture was abandoned. But, more than a decade after that, Ray saw ET (1982) which had seeds of the same story but developed by a different figure in world cinema – Steven Spielberg. His young imagination was captured by this story and he developed it in his own way – but there was no mention of Satyajit Ray who said, “Spielberg’s film would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.” But let alone crediting him for the story, Ray was not even acknowledged.

Nitin Bose

Nitin Bose (Pic: Nitin Bose: Flowering of a Humanist Filmmaker – an NFAI publication)

The third IPR story I will share happened more than 85 years ago. This concerns a bilingual film, Bhagyachakra/ Dhoop Chhaon produced by New Theatres. It was directed by the distinguished filmmaker Nitin Bose, son of entrepreneur Hemendra Bose and nephew of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose who made pioneering discoveries in plant physiology and established that they have life. The biophysicist used his own invention, Crescograph, to measure plant response to various stimuli and thereby proved parallels between plant and animal tissues. His automatic recorders registered extremely slight movement, including quivering of injured plants. AJC Bose also studied the action of microwaves on plant tissues and young Nitin, with his acumen for photography, assisted his uncle in these recordings. Further, Nitin Bose’s father used his experience with Pathe of France to set up Swadeshi Records, the first recording company in India. Why am I giving this history? To establish beyond doubt that Nitin Bose had a lot of understanding of music and of recordings.

To let the full significance sink in, go back to the days when an actor necessarily had to be a singer. But after 1929, once sound came, you could not continue as an actor unless you were a good singer too. In early 1930s this was proving difficult since there were many good actors who were not trained to sing. One day Nitin Bose, waiting in his car outside a home, heard a song playing on the radio and one gentleman – Rai Chand Boral? – simultaneously singing it. And he thought to himself, “What if we record a trained singer, and then, get an actor to play out the song before the camera?” That is how he introduced playback singing in 1935. But we in India did not know about patents, and the entire world did not recognize this innovation in cinema. This was the first instance of playback singing on screen. However, five-six months later a Hollywood film comes along – with the patent for playback singing.


So it is clear that IPR violations have happened many a times in the past. But those were different times. Technology was not so developed. Today when World Trade Centre in New York gets hit, at the very same moment we sit in India or anywhere in the world and watch the second Tower come crashing down before our very eyes. And that too happened more than 15 years ago.

Ghawre Bairey Aaj

Ghare Baire adapted as Ghawre Bairey Aaj

Technology has made everything superfast. Everything is happening in a lightning. It has made even IVF – In Vitro Fertilization – possible. This whole concept of one seed germinating in a totally different body, even outside a marriage is not only legal – it is very much in practice in society. Today, if Aparna Sen adapts Romeo and Juliet as Arshi Nagar or Ghare Baire as Ghawrey Bairey Aaj, that is not an IPR violation because Shakespeare passed away 400 years ago and Tagore nearly 80 years ago. It does not remain Shakespeare’s or Rabindranath’s Intellectual Property but comes into Public Domain.

But, such instances apart, any story happening anywhere in the world – be it Hollywood, Russia, Iran, Japan, wherever – can immediately be adapted to our screens. Why? Because lifestyles the world over has got homogenized. Not only technology, political curtains too have come down, so we no longer have distinctly Socialist or Capitalist lifestyles. Malls are cloned in every corner of the globe. Cars on Indian roads are hardly different from cars in Europe or America. Of course, even today, when Hollywood dubs its films into Tamil, Marathi or Hindi, I have a major problem accepting a white man living in the First World speaking flawless Telugu or whatever. But it is not so difficult to accept in terms of content. That probably gives a certain legitimacy to IPR violation. I might think, “Everything that is done in those countries I have made my own, so what’s special about adapting their stories?” The concept of ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’ has also gone awry.

One other development has overtaken us. Earlier Regional Cinema – Bengali in particular – was based on stories and novels from literature. So they flaunted the author’s name, be it Tagore or Bankim, Sarat Chandra or Premchand. Whether Bengali or Hindi, we were proud to be making films based on these masters’ creations. New Theatres was foremost in this: they even assisted Tagore in making Natir Pujo (1932). I don’t know what the financial arrangement used to be, but there certainly was no IPR Violation. Subsequently also, Bengali Cinema in particular based its stories in literature, and many of them became such super-hits that they were remade in Hindi – often by the same director.


Golpo Holeo Satyi (1966) was remade by Hrishikesh Mukherjee as Bawarchi (1972)

The classic instance is Asit Sen, who directed Chalachal (1956) and Safar (1970), Deep Jele Jaai (1959)/ Khamoshi (1970), Uttar Phalguni (1963) into the super successful Mamta (1966). There were others: Tarun Majumdar remade Balika Badhu under the same title (1967/1976) and Palatak (1963) as Rahgir (1969). Sushil Majumdar directed Lal Patthar in both Bengali (1964) and Hindi (1971). Agradoot’s Lalu Bhulu (1959) became Satyen Bose’s Dosti (1964); Hiren Nag’s Jiban Mrityu (1967) was remade by Satyen Bose as Jeevan Mrityu (1970). Ajoy Kar’s Saat Paake Bandha (1963) became Anil Ganguly’s Kora Kagaz (1974), Tapan Sinha himself remade Sagina Mahato (1970) as Sagina (1974); his Apanjan (1968) was remade by Gulzar as Mere Apne (1971) while his Golpo Holeo Satyi (1966) was remade by Hrishikesh Mukherjee as Bawarchi (1972). But these were known to be remakes of the cult movies – there was no IPR violation.

That started happening when Hollywood movies were surreptitiously adapted. In the days when internet, social media, mobile phones, videos or even television was remote from our lives, people thought nobody would know. When Mozart’s 40th Symphony powered Itna na mujhse tu preet badha (Chhaya/ 1961) it was not a violation. But the Beatles classic, I want to hold your hand, which in 1963 was the first four-track recording, became Dekho ab toh kisko nahin hai khabar (Janwar/1965) without batting an eyelid. What’s more, if the song and its playing was described as “Beatlesque,” Shammi Kapoor was hugely “inspired” by Elvis Presley. Of course the practice continued, and the theme music of Summer of 42 (1971) became O hansini kahan urr chali (Zehreela Insaan/ 1974).

It is hardly surprising to find that our films have appropriated their celluloid Classics without so much as a ‘by your leave’. How many memories of Sound Of Music (1965) are part of Indian Cinema? Gulzar made Parichay /1972 in Hindi and in Bengali we saw Jay Jayanti/1970. My Fair Lady (1964) came off Pygmalion but it was the Hollywood blockbuster, not really the Bernard Shaw play nor P L Deshpande’s Marathi adaptation, Ti Phulrani, which inspired Basu Chatterjee’s Man Pasand (1980) featuring Dev Anand. Irma la Douce (1963) was Shammi Kapoor’s Manoranjan (1974) written by Abrar Alvi!

Closer to our times Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) became Yaarana (1993), Agni Sakshi (1996), Darar (1996), Pelli and Maduve in Telugu and Kannada, Khilona and  Shagorika in Urdu and Bengali – all in 1997; Aval Varuvala (Tamil/ 1998), Mu Swapnara Saudagar (Odia/ 2008). And this happened some 20-25 years ago. But we would be mistaken in thinking this was restricted to Indian cinema: the Enemy was embraced by Bangladesh (Ranga Bou), Korea, Lebanon-Egypt, and as recently as 2017 it reappeared in English as Till Death Do Us Part.  In fact piracy became rampant after video came in, forcing Hollywood to take action and come down heavily on such appropriation of its IPR.


Bhooter Bhobishyot Poster

Bhooter Bhobishyot Poster

Within India also we started getting stories from our language into another without proper acknowledgement of the source. That was again strongly objected to until production houses started financial agreement. Which led to another peculiar IPR violation: Bengali blockbuster Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012) was remade in Hindi as Gangs of Ghost (2014) but the writer – director Anik Dutta himself – was deprived of any financial gain as the producer took home the booty!

Most recently, three films – Bala (Hindi), Teko (Bengali) and Ujra Chaman – all released in November-December 2019 – built on the insecurities of their protagonist going bald. Likewise, Anubrata Bhalo Achho (Bengali/2014) and Waiting (Hindi/2015): Partho Sen’s film featured Ritwik Chakraborty and Swastika Mukherjee, Anu Menon’s film had Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin. But both were about a man daily meeting a woman in the hospital where their spouses are undergoing treatment – and in the course of the visits, they bond over their situation and become extraordinary friends. Essentially the same storyline though set in different cities and culminating in different resolutions. And, interestingly, they too released at pretty much the same time. It is not as if one director saw the other film and got inspired or thought of doing the other.

No One Killed Jessica

No One Killed Jessica

This could be because they are picking up ideas from channels and newspapers which report whatever is current in the surrounding – and writing stories about that. Something sensational in the headlines, a ‘Breaking News’ – a rich man’s son running his Mercedes over sleeping men (Jolly LLB/2013), a Jessica Lal murder (No One Killed Jessica/2011), the Mumbai serial train blasts (Mumbai Meri Jaan/2008), the terror attack on Tajmahal Hotel (Hotel Mumbai/2018), the nuclear test at Barmer (Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran/2018), the military action against terror camps (Uri: The Surgical Strike/2019) – such happenings are capturing contemporary imaginations. That is one of the reasons for the clash of storylines.

This has given rise to one other trend:  Biopics. Certain personalities capture our imagination –and with most of us seeking inspiration from role models in real life, they are becoming bumper hits. Even as I am writing this, actor Parambrata Chatterjee is directing a biopic on thespian Soumitra Chatterjee. This year we are likely to see The Saint on Mother Teresa and Thalaivi on Jayalalitha; Kathanayakudu (Telugu) on NTR and Yatra (2019) on YSR Reddy. Everywhere in the world, historical lives have always been mined for the big screen. Manikarnika (2019) on Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi will soon be joined by Marthanda Varma (Malayalam) on the King of Travancore; Srijit Mukherjee’s bio on freedom fighter Bina Das and Anjan Dutt’s on Binay-Badal-Dinesh.


Dangal (2016) was based on the Phogat sisters of wrestling, Geeta and Babita

So biopics are no longer “Boring!” documentaries from Films Division, they are larger than life projection of an Ordinary Citizen’s extraordinary achievement. Since 2010 the list has grown with Paan Singh Tomar (2010) on a bandit, Dirty Picture on Silk Smitha, Bhaag Mikha Bhaag (2013) on the Flying Sikh, and Mary Kom (2014) on the boxer, Neerja (2016) on an air hostess and Dangal (2016) on Phogat sisters of wrestling, Geeta and Babita; Sanju (2018) on Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt. Now we are celebrating the lives of mathematicians (Shakuntala Devi/2020, Super 30/2019) to the courageous IRS Officer Sharda Pasad Pandey conducting IT raid on an MP from Lucknow (Raid/2018), hockey players (Gold/2018) to cricketers (M S Dhoni: The Untold Story and Azhar, both 2016). Even ordinary lives are worth celebrating, underscores Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Chhapaak on an acid attack victim, Mariyappan on Paralympic High Jumper Thangavelu. And, given mankind’s curiosity about the Dark Side of Man, we have witnessed ‘neo-noir’ expositions about killers like Dhananjay Chatterjee (Dhananjoy/ Bengali/ 2017) and psycho Raman Raghav (Raman Raghav 2.0/2016) too!

Clearly, no one now has the time or the inclination to mine stories from literature. In such a scenario, how can we protect IPR? This probably is one situation where prevention is not possible. What can be the cure, then? Penalty must be implemented but how? When Bala and Teko released within a week of each other, their pre-release publicity alerted viewers that they are traversing the same ground. There is a national quasi-judicial body – the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) – but no national body for patents or for registration of ideas. If we had an All-India Register of Storylines, then we would have a record of who registered a certain synopsis first. But ultimately, how can you penalize – through Monetary Compensation or Credit to the aggrieved party? As we have seen earlier,  it is impossible to credit a person once the film is released. Monetary compensation? But that is why they did not give the credit in the first place!

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

More to read

Nabendu Ghosh: The Master of Screen Writing

The Writer, the Hero, Shows Nabendu’s World

Women in Hindi Cinema in Post-Colonial India

Space and Time in Films

India’s Vanishing Films Need Urgent Policies to Avoid a Bleak Future

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A National Award winner for her Writings on Cinema, Ratnottama Sengupta is a natural writer with keen understanding of Cinema and Visual Art. A Journalist since 1978, she has been with The Times of India, The Telegraph, Screen and been the Editor of the online magazine Daughter of writer Nabendu Ghosh, she writes extensively on Cinema and on Art. She has contributed to Encyclopedia Britannica on Hindi Films, and has to her credit many titles including on Plastic Arts. Ratnottama has curated 'Little Languages Film Festival' in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata; 'Prosenjit: A Retrospective', Delhi; 'Bimal Roy Centenary', Goa, Kolkata; 'Bengali Cinema After Rituparno', Delhi; and initiated the 'Hyderabad Bengali Films Festival'. * She has been on IFFI Steering Committee; National and International Award juries; with CBFC; and on NFDC Script Committee. She scripted Mukul, a short film on Nabendu (2009). She debuts as director with And They Made Classics.
All Posts of Ratnottama Sengupta

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