Guest Post: Bollywood battles over scripts

Tania Sarcar, a student of NUJS, Kolkata who earlier blogged for us, has sent in this well researched piece on the various copyright disputes between script-writers and producers/directors.

Bollywood battles over scripts
By Tania Sarcar

Yet another controversy involving copyright infringement has come up in Bollywood. This time 75 year old painter-author Aabid Surti has filed a case of copyright infringement before the Bombay High Court against the makers of the 2010 film Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge on the grounds that the film’s story has been entirely copied from his Gujarati novel Bauter Varas No Babo which was later translated into Hindi as Bahattar Saal Ka Bachcha (72 year old child) and which was first published in 1975. Aabid Surti has been fighting the case for the past one and a half years before the Film Writers’ Association. The film in question was produced and distributed by Warner Bros Pictures and Wide Frame Pictures.

The Film Writer’s Association has a two-tier mechanism to deal with matters related to plagiarism. The Dispute Settlement Committee, which is the first tier, ruled after six months, that the story and screenplay of the movie were not inspired by Aabid Surti’s book. However this decision was over-ruled by the Appellate Board, six months later. A HT report on this story is available over here.

The Film Writer’s Association functions as a trade union and strives to protect the rights of its member-writers. The details of the functions of the Film Writer’s Association are available on their website.

In one of the sittings, Kumar Mangat who owns Wide Frame Pictures and screenplay writer Robin Bhatt claimed that the similarities between the book and the film were mere coincidences and that the film was inspired by the late Sharad Joshi’s family and has been taken from there. They also accused Aabid Surti of filing the complaint only for publicity.

The Appellate Board objected to the statement of the film makers that the similarities were merely co-incidences and stated that Surti should be compensated adequately. But the producers only agreed to formally apologize and did not offer any compensation.

If the decision of the Film Maker’s Association is not complied with, they may refer the matter to Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), which is a film industry workers union in Mumbai.

A recent matter where this was done was in the case of Sanjay Leela Bhansali in regard to his film Guzaarish. The director had been asked by the Dispute Settlement Committee of the Film Maker’s Association to pay a remuneration of ` 10 lakhs to Taabish Romani for allegedly plagiarizing from his script Goonj Uthi Shehnai for his film Guzaarish. They had informed Bhansali that they unanimously came to the conclusion that Guzaarish was lifted from Romani’s script. The committee also pointed out that Guzaarish was similar to Romani’s story in the ‘fundamental, material and substantial plot points’.

The committee also noted that the film’s script submitted to it by Bhansali did not mention the writer’s name although he was credited for screenplay and dialogues.

The apex joint-committee of the FWICE is to sit and hear the matter as an appellate body where due consideration is given to what had transpired at the earlier stage. The parties can then go to court against the decision of the joint committee if they are not happy with the decision.

The DSC had asked Bhansali to pay Romani `Rs.10 lakh as remuneration and by way of damages, and to give him credit in a separate card reading, ‘Story By Taabish Romani’ in all the subsequent copies of the film and film’s publicity material.

They also said that if Bhansali did not abide by the decision within 15 days, the matter would be referred to the FWICE. As Bhansali did not do the needful, the FWA referred the matter to the FWICE for appropriate and necessary action. A Rediff story on this dispute is available over here.

The apex joint-committee of the FWICE is to sit and hear the matter as an appellate body where due consideration is given to what had transpired at the earlier stage. The parties can then go to court against the decision of the joint committee if they are not happy with the decision.

Getting back to the Surti case, he decided to move the High Court since he had exhausted all other remedies. He has claimed a compensation of Rs. 1 Crore.

As per Section 14 of the Indian Copyright Act 1957, a literary, dramatic or musical work, not being a computer programme is protected under the meaning of Copyright and the owner of such copyright has the exclusive right and can authorize the making of any cinematograph film or sound recording in respect of the work. In the present case, Aabid Surti claims that it was his story that the film makers of Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge adapted their film from his story without his permission therefore infringing his rights under the Copyright Act.

The present status of the case in the Bombay High Court can be found over here.

The Warner Bros Representatives have been waiting to hear from their legal team in Los Angeles, USA and hence have not commented.

Tags: ,

About The Author

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Bollywood battles over scripts”

  1. Tania- A great post indeed. But i wonder what is the legal status of these associations to decide questions of legal nature and to enforce their dicta. I reckon that the position of the such association in the film industry is such that they actually make a difference. Would you be able to throw some light on this?


  2. A nice update on the state of affairs in one of the murkier industries of India. For all the fanfare and glamour attached to Bollywood, it has pretty much managed to remain free from any sort of viable and concrete regulation. This is often seen in cases where Producers, Script writers, directors etc…stake claims on titles and copyright on scripts.
    Each has its own set of associations and societies with their own rules of procedure and regulations for dispute resolution. The fundamental flaw in this structure is that most of these associations (not all) are not registered under any law. This results in Courts reprimanding and often questioning (and rightly so) the authority of these pseudo associations.
    In most cases the dispute resolution mechanism is often biased toward the members of the association.
    I am not an expert on trade unions but I seriously doubt the ability of trade unions to decide matters such as the ones posted here. There is an element of legal knowledge and wisdom required in settling copyright disputes. In short, copyright disputes must be decided by the enlightened judiciary and not trade unions.
    In the above case I believe that the complaint before the trade union is nothing but an attempt to force the producers to pay up with the threat of a complete boycott of future productions or even an attempt at strikes and the like.

  3. Coming back to the important issue of the Copyright claim, I find that the issue at hand has a lot of similarities with the celebrated case of RG Anand v. Deluxe films. In my opinion it is among the few significant rulings on copyright law in India.
    It lays down the fundamental law of copyright i.e. an idea is not copyrightable. However an often mistaken assumption in copyright law is that Copyright prevents others from copying. An analysis of RG Anand will reveal that what is prevented by copyright law is the substantial copying of works. And the issue of what is substantial or not is often left to the interpretation of the court.
    However it is my humble opinion that while the principle of substantial copying is quite concrete, the interpretation and application of the same is quite diluted.
    In a purely hypothetical case, there is a scene in the English movie “Night in a museum” where a monkey slaps the actor and vice versa. The same has been reproduced in the Hindi film Housefull. The movie also screens the re-enactment of a scene from the movie “Hangover “where a tiger is seen lounging on the couch”
    Now if one were to argue on behalf of the Hindi movie one would claim that there is no infringement as the work must be perused as a whole and hence there is no substantial copying.
    On the other hand, for the English movies one could argue that the particular scenes reproduced are a substantial part of their respective movies adding to the comical element of the film. Also the importance of these scenes is accentuated by the fact of their inclusion in the trailers of the respective movies. This fact is further substantiated by the presence of the reproduced scenes in the trailers and promos of the Hindi Movie ( houseful).
    While this is purely an academic exercise, I am sure that not many would not agree to the second view in favour of the English movies considering the prevailing legal thought on substantial copying. That’s where I believe the Indian judiciary should evolve better rules regarding substantial copying.
    In the case of literature, if one were to copy certain lines from another, modify the same and claim them as their own, it would be termed as plagiarism. A classic instance would be the case of Kaavya Vishwanathan and her book “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life”. However I must caution that the issue was never judicially pondered upon.
    Still, if one were to term the copying of limited verses as plagiarism can we not do the same in the case of films?
    The Bombay High Court is more or less likely to apply the ratio of RG Anand to the present dispute. But I hope that they go beyond the almost 40 yr old case and lay down rules befitting the present reality.

  4. As far I as I know, these organizations have been established by the people in the entertainment industry to take decisions on any problems arising in their area of work- kind of like gram panchayats in the old days. However as FWA and FWICE are not judicial bodies and mostly function as trade unions, their decisions are not likely to be enforceable. As said by Mr. Madhusudhan most of the the times the decisions are complied with even though they get to hear the phrase “We are not a Court” quite often. There are times when some producers decide to move the court with their grievances.

  5. Tania
    As far as these associations are concerned they do not have any statutory authority let alone have any judicial standing. Although these associations have for long been the support system of usually under paid artists/writer/ etc in the film industry theyre role is more of a mediator between the big production houses and the affected parties. However with the recent pro activeness of the judiciary esp the Bombay High Court and the Competition Commission of India these associations have lost theyre bargaining power to a fair extent. Also another for them them not playing a major role is the fact that most films are either produced / distributed by big corporate productions houses unlike individual producers with unlimited funds (read good lawyers) at their disposal.Please look up the website of for accessing orders/judgments of various courts in the recent past for a better insight into this,

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top