India's Oscars entry draws copycat flak

Rachel O'Brien
28 September 2012
"Barfi" starsstars Priyanka Chopra (left) and Ranbir Kapoor (right), with celebrity Madhuri Dixit
Indian Bollywood actors Priyanka Chopra (left) and Ranbir Kapoor (right) pull on the arms of celebrity Madhuri Dixit during a promotion for their new film “Barfi” in Mumbai on September 12. The film, India's entry for best foreign language film at next year's Oscars, has become the latest Bollywood movie to draw flak for allegedly plagiarising foreign hits in a 'mash-up' of ripped-off scenes

India's entry for best foreign language film at next year's Oscars has become the latest Bollywood movie to draw flak for allegedly plagiarising foreign hits in a 'mash-up' of ripped-off scenes.

"Barfi!" has won over critics and cinema-goers for its portrayal of a love triangle between a deaf man named Barfi and two women, one of whom is autistic -- not typical subject matter in the prolific Hindi-language film industry.

But since its release two weeks ago, several videos have spread through YouTube and social media sites highlighting a number of scenes that appear to draw heavily from international classics.

Film buffs spotted stark resemblances with clips from Gene Kelly's hit "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), Jackie Chan's "Project A" (1983), Buster Keaton's "Cops" (1922) and "The Notebook" (2004) starring Ryan Gosling among others.

The plot has been likened to "Benny & Joon", the 1993 film starring Johnny Depp, while the soundtrack has drawn further comparisons with the musical score from "Amelie", the 2001 hit starring Audrey Tautou.

One of the clearest sources of inspiration is Charlie Chaplin: one scene shows Barfi dodging a policeman through a sliding door, just as the king of silent film did in 1917's "The Adventurer".

"Barfi!" director Anurag Basu has hit back at critics, saying the film is intentionally paying homage to Chaplin in a similar way to "The Artist", the black-and-white silent film that won Best Picture at this year's Oscars.

"If I would have changed the shot, twisted things around and made it my own it would have been stealing," Basu told the Indian TV show Headlines Today.

"I did shot-to-shot because they are famous iconic shots and scenes from famous masterpieces, every filmmaker knows them."

Bollywood has come under fire before for remaking Hollywood flicks in the Hindi language, but "Barfi!" is under particular scrutiny because the movie-mad country is yet to win an Oscar in the foreign film category.

"So why would an Oscar jury pick a movie that reminds them of the very many movies they've seen before -- and which include films that are now Hollywood legend?" asked online magazine Firstpost.

In one of several earlier Bollywood copycat rows, US studio 20th Century Fox submitted a $1.4-million claim in 2009 against BR Films over "Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai", alleging it was an illegal remake of "My Cousin Vinny". The case was settled out of court.

Image consultant Dilip Cherian worried that entering "Barfi!" into the Oscars could cause embarrassment for India in the long-run.

"The fact is that critics will start wondering at which stage does plagiarism end in Indian movies and at what stage is it inspiration," he told Headlines Today.

Only three Indians films have been shortlisted in the foreign film category at the Oscars: "Mother India" in 1958, "Salaam Bombay!" (Hello Bombay!) in 1989, and "Lagaan" (Land Tax) in 2002.

Manju Borah, who chairs India's selection committee, defended the latest choice.

"We selected 'Barfi!' because of its treatment and freshness," she told the Hindustan Times. "In any case, every filmmaker is inspired by some cinema."

Film critic and curator Meenakshi Shedde said an "affectionate tribute" to world cinema, such as "Barfi!", was not the same as stealing someone's ideas -- but she doubted for other reasons whether the film was the best selection.

"The criteria the Oscars look for is something uniquely Indian. Something that offers insights into the culture or society," Shedde told AFP.

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