Rafi Mohammed saw Barfi! on 17 September and just couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. He wrote a review on Tanqeed.com under his moniker Sputnik at 4.40 am American time.
He had loved the first half, but couldn’t shake off the feeling that specific scenes were lifted from other movies. ‘The mother telling the daughter about her lover is a straight ripoff from The Notebook,’ he wrote, ‘Even the final scene is a ripoff from The Notebook. Another scene of Barfi asleep and not listening to her father’s scream is inspired/copied from a similar scene from Koshish.’ Rafi’s post got 530 views and readers pointed out that many other scenes were plagiarised as well. So he set to work again. His new post on 18 September, at 11.30 am US time, listed other scenes that had been copied. He had spent a whole night on YouTube looking for them, and his list included lifts from Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer and City Lights, apart from The Notebook, Singing in the Rain, and Buster Keaton’s Cops. The post, which has now got almost 87,000 views, sparked off a storm of online indignation.
And then, on 22 September, India announced Barfi! as its official entry to the Academy Awards.
Rafi, a web developer who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, is aghast. “I had first thought that the post would get a lot of criticism and I would get branded a Ranbir hater,” he says, “But that’s not happened—because people are shocked at the copying. Those who were reading and commenting were actually posting more scenes that they’d discovered. And then a TV channel picked it up and things went crazy. There is a difference between paying homage to a certain kind of movie and copying. It doesn’t stand a chance at the Oscars.”
It’s a debate that’s now raging even off the web. Even if we discount the plagiarism, is Barfi! an apt kind of movie to be India’s official entry? It leads to more questions. Why is it that since 1957, only three Indian movies—Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan—have made it to the final five at the Academy Awards? Who is to blame for the fact that the world’s largest film industry can’t get even a single Oscar year after year? Why is it that, barring rare exceptions, it is only Hindi films that are ever sent by the selection committee?
Manju Borah, an Assamese filmmaker who is also chairperson of the Oscar committee appointed by the Film Federation of India to pick the official entry, blames the film industry. The committee, she says, has very little choice—since so few filmmakers in India put their films up for selection.
For a film to be considered, its producers must submit an English-subtitled version of it, which, together with an entry fee, could cost them up to Rs 1 lakh. This year, the 11-member committee watched a total of 20 movies, and the majority was in favour of Barfi! as the most deserving. “I don’t think about the allegations,” says Borah, “Which movie is allegation-free these days? The film’s treatment is good and Ranbir Kapoor is great. I am not 100 per cent happy about it, as it could have been more realistic. But recently I went for a party and all the common people there [said they] loved it, even if intellectuals don’t like it.”
Critics of the process are unsettled by Borah’s candid clarity on the kind of movies she wants sent to the Oscars. “I can’t speak for other people, but I like movies with a message. A filmmaker needs to have social responsibility.” She is no less clear about her disapproval criteria of films. She cites the example of Gangs of Wasseypur, which was also in the running. “Art needs to have a pleasing aesthetic,” she says, “I thought GOW was too crude. And what do you take away from it? All I… learnt [was] some new gaalis.”
This seems like much too arbitrary a way of looking at movies. Also, if the purpose is to win an Oscar, there is nothing to suggest that movies with a message do any better than movies with gaalis. The Academy’s nominees in the ‘foreign film’ category tend to be varied. A Separation—the winner this year—was about the relationship between a son and his father suffering from Alzheimer’s. It is set in Iran but could have been anywhere. Poland’s In Darkness was about a sewer cleaner in Nazi Poland who hides a group of Jews. And Canada’sMonsieur Lazhar was about an immigrant teacher and his class. These stories were about relationships, and India also produces several such heartwarming movies. The regional film industries, especially so. But these are not considered for selection because most Indian filmmakers are unaware of how an entry is picked. Many more may not be able to afford the additional cost, which includes the promotional machinery that needs to be set in motion once the movie is sent.
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