We are Family is a hit song by the American band Sister Sledge, an anthem for feminists and queers activists, and the title of the official Hindi adaptation of Stepmom. Unlike many of his counterparts in Bollywood, the movie’s producer, Karan Johar, has actually paid money to remake the Hollywood tear-jerker, rather than quietly steal the story of a terminally ill mother of two who trains her ex-husband’s young girlfriend to take care of the children.
Johar’s scrupulousness is a rare thing in an industry that doesn’t think twice before ripping off films from all over the world. Only in Bollywood do you find moments from a European arthouse classic and a Hollywood blockbuster within the same movie, sometimes in the same frame.
Abbas and Mastan Burmawalla are also officially remaking The Italian Job. It’s likely that most mainstream audiences haven’t watched the 1969 British caper or its 2003 update, but the Bros Burmawalla seem to have finally become sensitized to the constant criticism of their borrowing tendencies. Abbas-Mastan earned their stripes with Khiladi, based on the 1970s hit Khel Khel Mein, and Baazigar, a copy of A Kiss before Dying. Does their newfound conscientiousness have to do with the fact that Bollywood’s footprint now extends beyond India? Trying to sell an unacknowledged copy of The Italian Job to Indians in the US and UK might not be the smartest move in the circumstances.
However, the act of imitation has become complicated in recent years. What’s the difference between copying and conscious borrowing? At a film studies course I attended years ago, a film scholar described the similarities between Satya and The Godfather Part II and Goodfellas as director Ram Gopal Varma’s “tribute” to the gangster classics. An early scene in which Satya enters the lair of his eventual boss is shot exactly like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas. The climax, in which Satya kills a politician during the Ganpati festival, takes its basic idea from an act of murder during a Christian pageant. It was suggested that rather than simply stealing ideas, Varma was marking his place in a well-established tradition of gangster films. Varma’s body of work since Satya has been dominated by cops and criminals, suggesting a long-standing interest in organized crime and violence.
(Left) A still from Godfather. AFP. Sonam Kapoor in Aisha
Many directors don’t stoop so low as to steal whole movies, but they do recreate classic moments. Sholay has scenes and characters straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s slow-motion whirl in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was first seen in Paris, Texas. Dibakar Banerjee lifts a moment from Casino in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (while robbing a house, Abhay Deol makes a series of framed family photographs on a mantelpiece face the other way). Shah Rukh Khan spies on Manisha Koirala in Dil Se in much the same way that Harrison Ford gaped at Kelly McGillis in Witness.
Thanks to postmodern theory and the success of Quentin Tarantino, whose entire career is based on pastiche, even blatant rip-offs can be passed off as references. The scene in Delhi-6 in which two lovers in the throes of sexual passion keep hitting the buttons of a television remote lying on the bed, inadvertently changing the channels in the process, is no doubt a tribute to a similar moment in Midnight Cowboy. Sanjay Gupta has been paying his respects to Tarantino and Korean cinema for years. Aisha was an acknowledged adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, but the movie doffs its beret as much to the 1990s comedy Clueless as it does to the 19th century novel.
Reviewers take perverse glee in pointing out the similarities between Hindi movies and foreign films. It looks like we are now going to be robbed of one of the most satisfying aspects of critiquing Bollywood. Note to self: Replace the phrase “the movie is a copy of” with “the film pays tribute to”.
We are Family releases in theatres on 2 September.
Nandini Ramnath is a film critic with Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org