Monday, 10 November 2014

Of stolen screenplays and lost dreams

Aspiring filmmaker Na. Gopi (45) from Kattoor near Minjur here has been sleepless for several weeks now. Every morning, he leaves home at around 11 am, takes a train to Chennai Central and then borrows a motorcycle from one of his friends to drive around the city meeting people in the Tamil film industry to explain his plight.

Few have had the time and patience to hear him out. An even less number of people in the fraternity have been willing to invest their time to listen to his tragic story of a stolen dream. “For any filmmaker, the dream of seeing your story on celluloid is the ultimate dream. Someone has stolen that dream from me and I am not sure if I can do anything about it,” Gopi says.

One of the biggest blockbusters that released during this Diwali season, Vijay-starrer Kaththi  is just one among the long list of Tamil films that have been embroiled in a controversy over a stolen screenplay -- a mutual trust gone sour. Before kaththi, there was Thandavam, and Dasavatharam and so many other Tamil films whose story credits have been disputed in courts only to end in favour of the bigger, more popular producer/director.

Gopi alleges that atleast 70% of screenplay for Kaththi was written by him and pitched to ace director/producer A.R. Murugadoss way back in 2010-11. While Murugadoos had openly denied it, the matter has reached the courts and is all set for yet another legal battle on story copyrights issue.

According to advocate Vishnu Ram, Gopi is one more victim to have fallen prey to the deviant ways of the Tamil film industry. The young lawyer, who has taken up atleast three other similar cases only to see them fizzle out later, claims that the present laws are extremely weak when it comes to protecting the rights of a storyteller in Kollywood.   

“The only legal avenue available for any director/screenwriter who feels that his script has been stolen is the Indian Copyright Act 1957. But, that act is quite weak when it comes to penalizing the offender as the victim is only liable to claim compensation for the loss. We need a strong legislation to put an end to this menace,” says Vishnu Ram.

Assistant director P Ponnusamy who has been a victim of a similar story theft cannot agree more. “My original screen play that I had emailed to a multinational production house was later given to another popular filmmaker and made into a movie. I approached the directors’ association, producers’ council and many other avenues but did not get any justice,” he says. 

“The producers were willing to give me a handsome compensation but would not give story credit to me. The big players believe that people like us can always be bought.”
Eventually, Ponnusamy had no choice but go to court. But, even then he had no choice but give up as the laws were not in his favour.

“Filmmakers and actors fought against video piracy during the early 2000s and forced the government to bring out a strong legislation against video piracy that offenders are even booked under the Goondas Act.  This is a much bigger theft but the culprit cannot be tried for criminal charges. They get away with a mere compensation,” says Ponnusamy.

According to aspiring filmmakers like Ponnusamy and Gopi, there is a genuine need for strong laws to protect the story/intellectual right of filmmakers. “But, unless the big directors and unions make a call for such a move, nothing can be done,” says Gopi.

Secretary of the South Indian Film Writer’s Association Kavingar Pirai Soodan points that any screenplay writer who registers his scrip with the association will be protected. “We imprint every page of the script with a serial code and make an entry in our registers for a nominal sum of money. If any writer feels that his screenplay has been stolen, he can approach the association and we will form a dispute redressal committee that will come to a conclusion. Our decision will be conveyed to the courts if necessary,” Pirai Soodan says.  “However, we can only recover compensation for loss incurred to the story teller. If we have to take criminal action against story theft, new laws need to be made,” he adds.

Screenplay writers are an unheard of tribe in Kollywood

While those trying hard to break into the multi-crore movie making business through their original story/screenplay cry foul and press for stronger laws and protection from intellectual piracy, movie veterans claim that no one in the Tamil film industry can stake a claim for original screenplay as it is not done by an individual but by a team.

“Unlike in Hollywood or even in Bollywood, we do not have professional screenplay writers yet in Tamil cinema. Most stories are narrated verbally by aspiring directors to producers who take it up with their team of close confidants and mull over it. The story then undergoes several rounds of changes before being presented to the star who will play protagonist in the movie. This actor also suggests more changes to the script and by the time a final product is arrived, it is more of a collaborative effort and does not belong to any individual,” says the head of a leading production house in the city on condition of anonymity.

In some instances, the producer might feel that while the story is good on paper, the narrator might not be able to bring it alive on celluloid. “In such cases, it is common for us to give it to someone who could give it a more visual treatment. However, it is done with the consent of the original source and he is also given adequate compensation with credits too,” he says.

According to writer, film critic and actor Shaji, the biggest disadvantage for Tamil cinema is the lack of quality screenplay writers. “Nobody is interested in becoming a screenplay writer as there is no value for such a person in the present situation. Every storyteller cannot become a director and vice versa. If a screenplay writer produces a good script and would not compromise with it, it is hard for him to land a producer. It is time the industry took the role of a screenplay writer seriously. Only then, such controversies will not come up” he says.

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