Vantage point

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bollywood and Plagiarism

The latest issue of Man's World has an article by me on the long history of plagiarism in Bollywood. Here it is.
Last year I was driving through the Pennsylvania countryside on my way to New York, and playing with the car radio dial trying to locate some music that would keep me awake. Imagine my surprise when I chanced upon what sounded like the mandolin melody from 'Mehbooba, mehbooba', the classic hit from Sholay. I thought to myself - radio stations in rural Pennsylvania are playing songs from Sholay? Bollywood really does seem to be crossing over. Until the vocals kicked in, and I realized the song was in English! Being sung in exactly the same throaty-nasal voice that RD Burman rendered the hindi song in. My first thought, a rather silly one retrospectively, was – someone from the West has copied RD Burman!

Of course, a simple google search after reaching my destination proved me wrong. The song was 'Say You Love Me' by Greek singer Demis Roussos, released a couple of years before Sholay was being filmed. The song was almost completed copied, note-for-note, by the late great R D Burman. Even the throaty-nasal voice, which I had gullibly assumed to be a novel innovation conjured up by Panchamda as a reference to the gypsies on screen, was dutifully emulated or rather imitated from Roussos. It was like scales falling from my eyes. We all love to make fun of Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik, and other contemporary Bollywood music directors for shameless plagiarism. But it turns out that they are only following in the footsteps of other illustrious "composers".

Anu Malik's only misfortune seems to be that he lives in an era where MTV, Channel V and VH1 are accessible in India, and the awareness and following of Western music has grown in leaps and bounds. So any tune that he copies is readily identified, earning him ridicule. But paradoxically, the ridicule is often heaped by the same people who consider RD Burman to be some sort of a musical genius. They listen to his songs from the 70s and 80s, and nostalgically wax eloquent about a time when Bollywood music was "real and authentic". I too have considered myself to be an RD Burman fan, and although once in a while I detected some "inspiration" in his songs (like when I noticed how much 'Mila gaya humko saathi' resembled ABBA's 'Mama Mia'), I never suspected of him having plagiarized on a scale comparable to Anu Malik or Bappi Lahiri.

So I wanted to find out how many of the pre-Anu Malik Bollywood "classics", specifically those by RD Burman, were rehashed from foreign hits. In doing so, I chanced upon, a website which painstakingly compiles instances of plagiarism in Bollywood. A whole page dedicated to Panchamda shows that he was quite voracious about plagiarizing foreign musicians without giving them any credit. Take another song from Sholay – "Jab tak hai jaan, jaane jahaan". Copied from the prelude of 'Jomeh' by the Iranian singer Googoosh. Or listen to 'Mamunia' by Paul McCartney and the Wings, and then listen to 'O Maria' from Saagar. The website lists dozens of such songs.

Amitabh Bachchan spoke about an instance when he sat together with Panchamda after hearing a Persian tune to "imbibe a few notes that we liked on that number". That number being the ever popular 'Jahaan teri yeh nazar hai" from Kaalia. But listen to the original Persian song, 'Heleh Maali' by Zia Atabay, and you will realize that it was not a "few notes" that were "imbibed", but pretty much the whole opening stanza is a direct lift. Other Pancham "classics" like Tumse milke (Parinda), Chura liya hai (Yaadon Ki Baraat), Katra Katra (Ijazat), and so on are also either direct copies or heavy adaptations of foreign tunes, of course without any credit being given to the original.

But just like plagiarizing without giving credit did not start from Anu Malik or Bappi Lahiri, it did not start from RD Burman or his other plagiarist contemporaries like Laxmikant Pyarelal either.. If you, like me, might enjoy shocking your parents by showing them how tunes from their youth in the 70s and 80s were blatant copies, then you might also like to inform your grandparents that many popular tunes from the 50s and 60s were lifted too. Evergreen OP Nayyar classic like Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan, Babuji dheere chalna, Lakhon hain yaha dilwaale, and several songs by Shankar Jaikishen, Salil Choundhry, SD Burman are also listed on with their originals.

This is not to say that all Bollywood composers have just been copycats, lifting foreign songs in every instance. All these greats have also composed several outstanding original tunes over the years. But then, the same could possibly be said of Anu Malik. So when all the greats from OP Nayyar to RD Burman plagiarized dozens of songs, it seems a bit disingenuous to heap scorn on poor Anu Malik. In fact, one could argue that the success and adulation RD Burman and the likes received despite their plagiarism, actually paved the way for others to do the same. Considering how Anu Malik seems to cop a disproportionate amount of blame for plagiarism, one song that no one would grudge him plagiarizing is Billy Joel's "We didn't start the fire, it was always burning, since the world's been turning".