Pirating pictures, yo-ho-ho, a bottle of rum

Pirates are no longer called Long John Silvers. They do not lean on their crutches with parrots perched on their shoulders — an image immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson in his unforgettable 1883 classic, Treasure Island.

piracy in Indian films alone is now a whopping US$250-million market

Piracy in Indian films alone is now a whopping US$250-million market

Modern pirates may be found at sea, but they are perhaps not as dreaded as those seen at street-corners — whose disarmingly ordinary looks are deceptive. For, they are part of a multi-million industry which the world calls video piracy.

India is undoubtedly one of the most notorious hubs where movies are converted into handy disks and sold in their thousands.  Often such illegal copying takes place in villages and small towns after the last show is over, and camcorders are used to capture the fleeting images as projectors are clandestinely run.

Nobody, really nobody can tell me the actual amount that is lost through this illegal venture. There are hundreds of guesses. One avers that piracy in Indian films alone is now a whopping US$250-million market. It is an industry employing thousands of people.

A Northbridge Capital Asia report contends that the Indian movie industry, which produces around 1,200 films in many languages every year, loses 14 percent of its revenue to video piracy.  This can be an underestimated figure, for I am sure that the widespread practice of unlawful downloads from the internet has not been taken into account.

And what about foreign cinema? If one were to include this, the black industry would be worth much more. And Indian cinema piracy extends across its borders.  Some years ago, when was I researching into modern Japanese movies, I found to my shock and disbelief that pirated DVDs of Hindi and Tamil films were freely available in Tokyo a  day or two before they were theatrically released in India. Probably, these were pirated in labs with the connivance of technicians.

During my recent trips to the Marrakech Film Festival, I have found hundreds of disks of the latest Bollywood hits in the souk or marketplace for as cheap as US$ 3 apiece.

In India-Chennai’s ‘Burma Bazaar’, one can get pirated versions of current movies, including those in English, Hindi and any other language. From the French novella vague to the Italian neo-realism to British classics and Japanese gems to films that may have opened the other day, are all there for the asking, and they cost just 80 cents  a disk.

In comparison, if one were to walk into a regular store, one may end up paying ten times as much — provided one is lucky enough to find a movie of one’s choice. Most foreign films are unavailable. Why, even a Bengali movie or an Oriya work, for instance, may be hard to find in, say, Chennai or Mumbai. And vice versa.  This certainly encourages and necessitates piracy.

So does the fact that good American or British cinema (forget French or Iranian or Japanese) hardly ever get into Indian auditoriums. In the recent past, Woody Allen — that delightful director who has given us rip-roaring comedies and nail-biting murder stories — refused to let one of his works screen in India, because of the government regulation which required a scroll to appear at the bottom of the screen warning of the ill-effects of liquor and smoking every time characters clinked a glass or blew rings in the air!

At other times, India’s sexual prudishness disallows nudity — while turning a blind eye to sadistic scenes and bloody violence (where fights are choreographed or copied from Quentin Tarantino fare). I remember French director Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool. A good 30 minutes were chopped off for Indian viewers, and one can well imagine what would have remained out the film’s total length of 103 minutes. Indian censors probably assumed that a nude Ludvine Sagnier (that attractive French actress) was not a good example for the moral heath of the nation.

For years, the government has been asked by the cinema industry to consider an American-type rating system, where a movie is not censored (read cut) but classified according to its suitability for different age groups. This is still to happen with the result that many directors and producers are wary of sending their films to India. To name just a few, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Tim Burton, Nanni Moretti and Pedro Almodovar.

To check piracy, big Indian production houses like Yash Raj Films, UTV, Eros International, Shemaroo and Moser Baer joined hands, in December 2008, to  try and invest a ‘significant amount’ to fight  the evil. However, they would need US$ 4.5 million for this, and where is the money?

A few months ago, Tamil producers thought that they could stop all new releases for three months, and this would dry up the pirates’ market. But with about three new openings every Friday, imagine the kind of pile up at the end of the moratorium in a country where there are not enough screens.

Obviously, easier options have to be thought of and executed. The window period between a theatrical and a video release must not be more than a few weeks — like it is in Japan and some other countries. Big producers can factor in video rights in their agreements with distributors or make disks of their own movies at rates that will stop consumers from peeping into a pirate’s den. When Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan wanted to release his Viswaroopam on the Direct-to-Home platform and in the cinemas simultaneously, huge protests stopped him.

Finally, the archaic government censorship must be replaced by a rating scheme to help world cinema roll into India. Indian films must be freely available across the country, and subtitles in English and any other Indian language of choice will immensely help home-grown movies travel around India.

I remember a famous quote from one of India’s best known auteur-directors, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who makes cinema in his native Malayalam (language spoken in Kerala). “I would hope that my movies are pirated and people get to see them, rather than the highly limited reach of my works, which is now the case”.

Most of his 11 films, each a brilliant piece of cinematic art and social study, have never found distributors outside his home state of Kerala. This is a telling commentary on the sad state of Indian cinema.

So, India will continue to see its Long John Silvers singing “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” in sheer elation — till of course the government and the film fraternity come together to silence the pirates.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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