Ever since the production houses in the west started to invest in the Indian film industry, the glare of Hollywood shifted towards the content of Indian movies conspicuously. Additionally, when movies like Monsoon Wedding and Lagaan joined the race for the Academy Awards (Oscars), Hollywood started to take note. It was soon after that the Indian film industry was seen facing multiple lawsuits for copyright infringement by the production houses in the west. In the veil of taking inspiration from the western movies, these movies were seen to be an almost scene-by-scene copies of the western counterparts. For example, Ghajini paying homage to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Chachi 420 being a rip off of Mrs. Doubtfire, Ek Main aur Ek Tu bearing striking resemblance to What Happens in Vegas et al. Any instance that showcases a situation the other way round, though present, is a rare occurrence. The most prominent example is Satyajit Ray’s story The Alien that was made into a movie by Hollywood and became a blockbuster of its time. The said movie was E.T. The Extra Terrestrial that released in 1982 and established Steven Spielberg as a bankable filmmaker in Hollywood. The point I am trying to make is ripping off or remaking a movie by encroaching on someone else’s copyrighted work is nothing new to the film industry, local or global. However, what is comparatively less heard of is an Indian movie being ripped off than the other way round. Therefore, when the acclaimed 2019 Korean movie directed by Bong Joon-Ho Parasite came under radar for being plagiarised, it turned many heads. The movie won 4 of the 6 nominated categories at the prestigious Academy Awards, 2020.
The Tamil Producer, PL Thenappan who holds the rights to the movie titled Minsara Kanna that released in 1999, claimed that the Korean Academy Award Winner had copied the plot from the Tamil movie mentioned formerly. Minsara Kanna was a movie about a guy who fell in love with a girl who would not marry him because her elder sister despised all men. She had unfortunate experiences with men in her life that led to her loathing. The sister owned a business where all the employees were women. Every domestic help she had hired at her house were women too. The guy gained employment in her house with a different identity with an aim to change her love interest’s sister’s views towards men and marriage. Eventually he got other friends and members of his family into the woman’s house as well. Parasite, on the other hand, was a movie where an economically backward family got employed in an affluent family under false identities. The movie showcased the stark and extreme differences in the way of living of people with such class difference.
Minsara Kanna was a movie propagating the message that no matter how independent a woman became, her place would always be by a man’s side. It promulgated a message that was extremely misogynistic and chauvinistic for a movie released right at the brink of entering into the 21st century. The movie Parasite bore no resemblance to the plot taken by the Tamil movie. It showcased a family in the lower economic strata deceivingly enter into a rich family, and live like them imitating their life style when the owners were away to get a taste of life that they could never afford in their original skin.
The question that needs to be answered is whether the resemblance in the setup of the movie amounts to copyright infringement or usage of a device in storytelling called a ‘trope’. The producer of the Tamil film went on record to say, “I saw the South Korean film ‘Parasite’ and I feel that they have stolen the film’s crux from ‘Minsara Kanna.’ I’m in talks with international lawyers and contemplating on filing a case against the makers of ‘Parasite’ soon.” He added, “They have taken the plot from my film. When they find out that some of our films have been inspired by their films, they file cases. Similarly, it is only fair for us to do the same.” These statements were made in February, soon after which the world was struggling with an immense global pandemic shifting everyone’s focus from everything else to quest for health and survival. However, hopefully soon, when life returns to normal, it will be interesting to see what path the Producer takes to assert his copyright claim.
As for my analysis, I tend to side by the argument that the resemblance in the setup of the two movies is coincidental. As is known, copyright law protects expression of ideas but not ideas per se. Here, the idea is similar but the expression is completely different. Legally, discussions over the idea-expression dichotomy have existed for a very long time. The courts in India, UK, USA and others have put forth their opinions that are akin in numerous landmark cases like Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, Warner Bros. Pictures v. Columbia Broadcasting System, R.G.Anand v M/S Deluxe Films and Ors.et al. The courts acknowledged that where the same idea was developed in a different manner, similarities were unavoidable. However, there needed to be substantial similarities in the mode of expression of the works, for there to be a copyright infringement. The courts also relied upon the viewers’ judgement to decide if there was a copyright violation by saying, “one of the surest and the safest test to determine whether or not there has been a violation of copyright is to see if the reader, spectator or the viewer after having read or seen both the works is clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original.”
To support my analysis, I shall quote the opinion of the courts that fits best to this scenario. “Where the theme is the same but is presented and treated differently so that the subsequent work becomes a completely new work, no question of violation of copyright arises.” The said movies Parasite and Minsara Kanna take completely different turns after establishing the one and only common similarity.
Taking it from the perspective of filmmaking and story-telling, a family entering another family incognito is not a story, but a narrative trope. This is called a ‘Trojan Horse Trope’. For people familiar with the story of Mahabharata, the 4th book called Virata Parva discussed the story of pandavas who spent the 13th year of exile incognito in the city of Virata. It was to fulfil one of the most crucial conditions of their exile that stated that if they were recognized in the 13th year of exile while living incognito, they would have to spend another 12 years in exile. The similarity in tropes is uncanny whether we speak of Mahabharata or Minsara Kanna or Parasite. However, one cannot deny that these are extremely different stories, dealing with and highlighting extremely different scenarios. Similar tropes can be envisioned and developed into different stories by writers. Therefore, in my opinion, the people arguing that the Oscar award winning film is actually a pale imitation of the Tamil film need more rationale to justify their argument than relying merely on the basic outline. Where Parasite is a movie that highlights universal class struggle, Minsara Kanna reinforces and justifies patriarchal values. However, in case there is a legal battle between PL Thenappa and Bong Joon-Ho on claims of copyright over the movies, it will indeed be an interesting one to witness. I, personally, would be hanging between showing my loyalty to a movie that is a product of my national film industry and the movie where the story steals the show hands-down and is in general more entertaining to watch. Quite a tough choice to make! Sigh!