Eight years after being classified a ‘disaster’ by boxofficeindia.com, scoring a 2/10 on IMDB and an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, the tragic tale of Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag continues. The movie has now been held by the Delhi High Court to be violative of the moral rights of the authors of Sholay. The Court has further prescribed punitive damages of Rs.10 Lakh plus costs upon Ram Gopal Varma and his Production House. Read the judgment here.
The rights owners of Sholay are not new to litigation, and they have locked horns with Ram Gopal Verma (RGV) in the past. The facts of the case are the stuff of tabloid gossip and the culmination of a series of lawsuits. When the Plaintiffs proposed a sequel to Sholay in 1999, RGV was slated to be the Director of the Film. However, when the parties found that they had different visions for the sequel, negotiations broke down. The Plaintiffs then found that RGV continued to market the film as Sholay’s sequel, and instituted a suit in 2007 restraining him from doing so. The Court awarded interim relief in favour of Sholay, and RGV agreed to stop marketing the film as a Sholay sequel. The title of the film was changed to ‘Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag’ from the intended ‘Ram Gopal Varma ke Sholay’. Meanwhile, a suit was filed in 2008 restraining Ajit Sippy, one of the erstwhile rightsholders in the film who got divested of ownership upon retiring from the Partnership Firm that managed Sholay’s rights, from distributing the film. It was held that Mr. Ajit Sippy ceased having rights over the film in 1976, when he retired from the partnership firm that held the rights over the film. The Defendants however had always claimed that they procured rights over the film from Mr. Ajit Sippy.
In the present case, the Plaintiffs, represented by Advocates Pravin Anand and Gitanjali Visvanathan, argued that despite the name change, Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag violates the moral rights over Sholay as it has distorted and mutilated the original copyrighted work of the film. They also argued that even if the film is considered an adaptation of Sholay, the same was done without the authorization of the rights holders (as authorization from Ajit Sippy was invalid). Further, they argued that the impugned film constituted passing off as it used names (Babban Singh, anyone?), dialogues, music, etc that was similar to Sholay. Justice Manmohan Singh agreed with all of the above, and granted punitive damages of Rs. 10 Lakh in favour of the Plaintiffs.
There was also some interesting argumentation that the characters of Gabbar Singh, Jai, Veeru, Radha, etc are copyrightable in themselves as they are “extremely well developed, unique and distinctive making them sufficiently delineated, with widely identifiable traits”, and this copyright was infringed. However, this did not have bearing on the final decision.
The case was heard ex-parte, so there still exists no written defense for Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag available anywhere on record.