Does Indian Film Industry Share a ‘Parasitical’ Relationship with Foreign Film Industries or Vice Versa? A Take on the Recent Piracy Controversy Surrounding the Oscars, 2020 Show-Stealer Movie- Parasite

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!           

About Neha Singh 7 Articles
Pursuing Masters in law at the University of Birmingham (class of 2020), Lawyer, Interested in intellectual property law, international law, human rights, criminal justice and environmental law (seems like a varied canvas, but I am just a curious person with quest for learning), love to write, aspire to teach. When I'm not busy being a nerd, I love to cook, read fiction, sing, workout, overthink and sleep.

29 Comments

  1. This has always been a contentious issue in all copyright infringement cases. To draw a line between inspiration and copying is a hard nut to crack. I doubt if there has been any case where courts have said that the later movie is a substantial copy of the first movie. The concept of originality in a cinematographic film is not that easy as it sounds.

  2. I am of the opinion that, in this particular case, the copyrights of the movie Minsara Kanna have not been infringed as the expression of the ideas is completely different in the two movies. The idea of highlighting social issues might be similar in both the movies, however, the way they are portrayed are completely different.
    Backing my argument is a case from 2003, Star India Private Limited v. Leo Burnett (India) Pvt. Ltd. 1 where it was held that there will be a copyright infringement only if a copy of the copyrighted film is made by duplication by any means. But if a person produces a film which substantially resembles an earlier film in all aspects, it will not be termed as copyright infringement, even if it is apparent that the subsequent film lacks originality.

    • Hi Karan! Thank you so much for reading the article and giving your valuable opinion. I personally agree with your deduction that Minsara Kanna’s copyright has not been infringed but I defer with your reasoning.
      There came a judgement in 2019 MRF Limited v Metro Tyres Limited, wherein the court said ‘making a copy of the film’ did not necessarily mean producing its physical copies or duplication. It meant if a movie substantially or fundamentally resembled another movie, it may be a case of copyright infringement. I suggest you check out the judgement. Thank you again for taking out time to give your critical appraisal.

  3. I am of the opinion, that the copyright of the movie Minsara Kanna, has not been infringed. Even though the ideas might seem the same, the expression however, is completely different. To back up my argument, there was a case in 2003, Star India Private Limited v. Leo Burnett (India) Pvt. Ltd. 1 where it was held that there will be a copyright infringement only if a copy of the copyrighted film is made by duplication by any means. But if a person produces a film which substantially resembles an earlier film in all aspects, it will not be termed as copyright infringement, even if it is apparent that the subsequent film lacks originality.

    • Hi Karan! Thank you so much for reading the article and giving your valuable opinion. I personally agree with your deduction that Minsara Kanna’s copyright has not been infringed but I defer with your reasoning.
      There came a judgement in 2019 MRF Limited v Metro Tyres Limited, wherein the court said ‘making a copy of the film’ did not necessarily mean producing its physical copies or duplication. It meant if a movie substantially or fundamentally resembled another movie, it may be a case of copyright infringement. I suggest you check out the judgement. Thank you again for taking out time to give your critical appraisal.

      • Thanks for enlightening me of the judgment, ma’am. I was unaware about this particular judgement.
        Having analysed it, I think that a Layman observer test, even though not always effective, might actually be effective in this case. If the matter goes to court, it will be an interesting one for sure.

    • Thank you for taking out time to read this, Anushka. Times have been difficult, yes, but we can paint a silver lining by using it to do things we like, right? #GlassHalfFull

    • It really will be interesting. We’ll have to wait for the case to conclude to make an analysis again. Thank you very much for taking out time to read and respond to it.

  4. It’s an interesting reading. As you said it’s difficult to draw the difference between infringement and inspiration, but I think it could help to see the details in the scenes and how the characters are handle, and how frequently one find those things in storytelling in cinema or TV.

    • Thank you for your insight, Grace. Identifying details in scenes and characters to determine copyright violation is one way to go about it, but cumbersome nonetheless. Hope you enjoyed the article.

  5. Exactly, Grace, that’s what helps to identify the copying. However, its easier said than done given the scope of expression in a movie. The background of the movie is so vast that you can easily play with someone else’s script and make it look altogether different from the original film.

  6. An interesting insight into copyright issues but the core debate of idea-expression dictomy has always been central to copyright laws. While movies might not have faced many injunctions, tv serials (including news format editions) have been subjected to injunctions and damages have been ordered. But in the case of parasite, it don’t think it even infirnges the idea. Certain problems( like social inequality and misogyny) and feelings (like love and hate) don’t see state boundaries. Felt in equal measure by all humans irrespective of place.

  7. I must confess , reading this article has helped me revise my basic concepts from ipr class . Very well written Neha singh . Looking forward for more.
    Best wishes

  8. Absolutely, this is the everlasting conundrum. It is so difficult to tread on that fine line of inspiration and copying. But this case seems to be more black and white!

    • Hi Shelly! Thank you for your comment. Agreed with your opinion. Let’s see what happens if and when they take it to the court. The arguments would be interesting I reckon.

  9. I appreciate your ‘incognito’ comment, keeping up with the theme of the article, dear reader! Thank you for taking out time to read it.

  10. Absence of a statutory provision makes it even more difficult to make a clear distinction between idea – expression dichotomy.
    We may refer Mansoob Haider v. Yashraj Films (Dhoom 3 case) where the court stated that the plot (in the movie) had been expressed differently and also, the residue that is left after sieving the differing expression does not amount to an infringement. Nonetheless it would be great to see what conclusion the Parasite movie case delivers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*