A few months ago, a prominent theatre director was called out on social media by a peer for having copied sequences of images from a well-known stage production in the UK. The calling-out was substantiated with images of the original and the allegedly copied version. The comments were varied, and the post was shared extensively as most social media exposés are. Everyone agreed this shouldn’t be done. The director offered an apology and an explanation. The debate continued and, soon, a symposium on copyright issues plaguing the performing arts was arranged. It wasn’t surprising that many groups who were vulnerable to being called out in a public forum excused themselves from attending the symposium. These are groups that do remarkably creative works that are original. Some of them have supported new writings and are well respected. So I have no doubt we are not talking about wilful creative property theft. There is a disconnect somewhere, between what some people see as plagiarism and others as fair usage. I am not sure whether we achieved anything concrete with that symposium held this April, but it suddenly became a flavour of the week with yet another symposium on copyright issues plaguing the film industry organised the following month. And then it died like so many of its predecessors. The question that I have is how we view artistic appropriation. And whether it is harmful.

Artistic appropriation has been around for a long time. RD Burman did it (his song Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko is markedly reminiscent of If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium ), Raj Kapoor copied the mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin, and I know for sure that many theatre groups have in the past taken famous plays, changed the title and presented them as new creations. So this is certainly not a new subject. Shakespeare appropriated ideas from his peers too.

Film as a medium makes a product that can be identified as belonging to someone. I cannot lift an image from Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) where the eponymous character is singing a Tagore song while on a swing. At best, that would be a homage to a great master. But the idea has been realised by Ray and so is a trademark. The great film-maker was far more vulnerable with his sketches of an extraterrestrial creature for a film he never got around to making. Steven Spielberg’s ET (1982) bore a remarkable resemblance to Ray’s sketches. But Ray hadn’t made the film so it remained an idea. An idea that he could not lay a claim on.

Intellectual property rights law is very clear. Nobody owns an idea. Ideas can come to anyone and they could be similar or identical to someone else’s. What is unclear is whether you are in the wrong if you didn’t have the idea in the first place but appropriated it after hearing or seeing someone else’s work.

A recent case of a film on India’s space mission to Mars titled Space MOMs (Mars Orbiter Mission) was shown to many in the mainstream film industry as a script focusing on the achievements of the women scientists at ISRO. The original writer of the script, also a director, made a feature film without the involvement of the people she had solicited help from earlier. But she soon found out that a mainstream Bollywood film, involving the same people she had approached, has been hastily announced. Not to be outdone, another mainstream producer slapped together a poster with famous faces and a tacky picture of a rocket, announcing a web series on the same subject.

So now the question is — was the idea stolen, appropriated or legitimately seeded in the brilliantly original minds of our Bollywood producers and directors? It is hard to say. Perhaps this is all legitimate. The matter is sub judice as I write this column. But one of them is already marked for release on our 73rd year of Independence.

In the art world, it gets greyer than in the world of entertainment. Lighting design can be appropriated, a fashion style can be suitably modified, a script is altered and all this receives ethical corroboration when such art is consumed readily by an innocent public who acknowledges the first in the public domain as the original.

In the days before the internet, story writers were afraid to narrate their ideas in restaurants lest someone overhear and steal their plotline. Today, when information is so readily transmitted and disseminated, it is almost impossible to track down its misappropriation. Until it is too late.

The issue cannot and should not be one of legality or social acceptance. The issue is whether a self-identified artist can expropriate another artist’s idea and live with the lie. Is this harmful to society? Maybe it is if it leaves the original ideator bereft of their artistic potential.

(Dull Bits Cut Out is a new monthly column on theatre and culture)




Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director