Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The sincerest form of flattery

I could start with Shakespeare, but frankly, it’s a lot more fun to pull out “Tezaab”. Remember 1988 and “Ek do teen”? Rake the ashes of your memory a little more and you’ll find Anil Kapoor as Munna, sitting at a plank table with his knife stuck into it. Did we find it unusual that he gestured with his left hand? He, along with a couple dozen other aspiring stars of the day, (some of whom still hover on the fringes of our TV screens – Sudesh Berry, Mukesh Khanna et al) spent his screen time delivering killer lines with slightly pursed lips, waving his left hand about, standing with his hands on his hips, dancing stiff-legged like a racehorse with stiff fetlocks. All punched out of one mould and torn apart by the critics for it. You can’t blame them; they grew up watching the “one-man industry”, the ultimate superstar, they didn’t know stardom could come in any other form. Their ultimate accolade was “Tu toh Bachchan ban gaya!”

But here’s the rub. In 1982, a bootleg video from Pakistan did the rounds. It was called “Copy Cat” and it consisted of scenes featuring Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar inter-cut with footage of … three guesses? Yes, got it in one – Amitabh Bachchan. The similarities were unmistakable. Dilip Kumar was to Bachchan as the Big B was to an entire generation. But Yusuf Saab was not the only “inspiration”. The 1971 cult film “Dirty Harry”, and Clint Eastwood’s gait as he walks towards the bank robbers to deliver the most famous line of the ‘70s. Very familiar, if you play it in split-screen with Vijay Kumar walking across a smoke-filled mining site, lighting dynamite fuses from his beedi. Yes, “Trishul”. Or even the inspired riff on Chaplin, talking to his mirror image after getting beaten up in “Amar Akbar Anthony”.

So do we dismiss the most enduring star of Indian cinema because he borrowed from all over? Or do we give him credit for a graceful synthesis of the most striking features he found? If we take the former view, the Big B is no more than a screen version of Kavya Vishwanathan. (Remember “Opal Mehta” in 2006, when we briefly basked in the reflected glory of an Indian origin girl not only getting into Harvard but writing a bestseller before she was 18? And the subsequent disappointment when she was labelled a plagiarist?) For that matter, Aamir Khan, now a byword for versatility, spent the first 12 years of his career subtly copying Rajesh Khanna. Who in turn blatantly copied Dev Anand. Who spent 30 years trying to be Gregory Peck …

Where is the fine line between “inspiration” and “imitation”? Or, in the recorded arts, outright plagiarism? One of my favourite stories is the row that Vishwa Bharati University created over the tune of “Chhnoo kar mere man ko”, a Hindi song from a Hindi film where the song sequence was coincidentally shot in Calcutta. Of course it was a direct lift from “Tomaar holo shuru” and Vishwa Bharati, as the guardians of the tradition, went all huffy about it, even threatening to sue Rajesh Roshan. Only to be deflated by an interview where RD Burman ingenuously mentioned that the Great Bearded Bard had taken the tune from an old Scottish folk song.

RDB knew what he was talking about. His genius lay not only in his creativity but in the way he hungrily devoured music from all over the world. Consider this eclectic list of songs that he copied or adapted from – “Tera mujhse hai pahle ka nata koi” from “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Tum ho mere dil ki dhadkan” from Procol Harum’s “A whiter shade of pale”, Sholay’s “Mehbooba” from a Greek hit by Dennis Rousso, the title song in “Kasme Vaade” from “Sesiya Hamba” by Ipi Ntombi. Would I then agree that that very modest musician Anu Malik is, as he claims, every bit as great as RD Burman? Excuse me while I die laughing!

And now for the Bald Bard who recreated the English language. What’s common to “Love’s Labour Lost”, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest”? They are the only plays that Awld Will wrote with his own original plots! Every other one of his 37 plays – that means the other 33 – is based on someone else’s story. Shakespeare, after all, was writing the jatra of his day and milieu. He followed the same reasoning as Bollywood directors today – if you “adapt” something that’s already successful, you’re not guaranteed a hit, but you stand a better chance of making some money.

There are some cases where perceived plagiarism may be no more than the persistence of memory. After all, given the 5000 years of recorded history, of musical traditions, of poetry and myth, the chances are low that we can come up with a creation that is altogether new. Why, even our beloved Guv’nor, Thomas Stearns Eliot, has been accused of lifting the refrain of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from a line by Madison Cawein (the “Keats of Kentucky”). Should we believe it? And if we do, where is the difference between TS Eliot and Kavya Vishwanathan (or for that matter Dan Brown)?

In the translation. In making something new from something familiar. In adding one’s own special bits of genius to a piece of gold until it sparkles like a solitaire. In the final analysis, have you added more than you’ve borrowed, have you given more than you took? The truth, my friends, lies in the telling.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful read!

If the inspired have added to the original, I'll call it "standing on the shoulders of giants".

longblackveil said...

Most fantastic, sir. Enjoyed like anything.

Asad said...

a very very relevant write up,especially in the context of our times !

km said...

Recycling and reuse are good for the planet, right?

Even Mozart borrowed ideas from the lesser-remembered Haydn brother.

(Also see Georges Polti and his 36 dramatic situations. What film, book, play, epic cannot be derived from those situations?)

//A secondary debate that often breaks out every time this topic is raised is about attribution. Were Led Zeppelin wrong in not attributing the original sources for songs like Whole Lotta Love or When the Levee breaks? What about Bob Dylan's own liberal use of classic folk/blues/country structures, lines and sometimes whole verses?

litterateuse said...

Absolutely. How easily we forget we are so much richer today because of inspired lines that transcended into ingenious originals to have created history.

I had written a post on inspired music with a quite the same perspective. Do read it when you get a chance.

Anonymous said...

Amir khan copying Rajesh Khanna? No sir.

Making Life Better said...


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