Of pirates, hard drives and cinephilia in India

Bootleg DVDs in Carriedo Market, Manila. Photo via Getty
Bootleg DVDs in Carriedo Market, Manila. Photo via Getty


India can be a difficult place for dedicated cinephiles. Piracy often jumps in to fill the gaps

Last week, the chaos of house painting unearthed a cardboard box I’d deposited under a bed years ago. Inside were dozens of DVDs in thin plastic jackets with smudgy photocopied cover art. All were Film 101 standards—Jules and Jim, Wings of Desire, Metropolis, Notorious—bought between the ages of 21 and 26 at hole-in-the-wall shops in Mumbai and Chennai but most often in the dank underground of Delhi’s Palika Bazaar. There was an unvarying routine: you would ask for foreign films, be offered porn, explain that you meant the other kind of foreign film, bargain half-heartedly, and stumble into the sunlight clutching Renoirs and Kitanos that may or may not play when you got home. It had all the unreliability and exhilaration of a drug deal.

It goes without saying these were bootleg DVDs, ripped from the original Criterion Collection and Kino and Artificial Eye releases. Thus, my first steps towards a broader appreciation of cinema were founded on piracy. It wasn’t a moral conundrum at all. If you wanted to watch foreign films, this was just what you did.

A few years later, homegrown labels like Palador and Lumiere started releasing world cinema titles. I was earning by then, and graduated from bootlegs. But DVDs never really took root in India. Instead, by the end of the 2000s, torrents had taken over. They altered the reality of being a cinephile. Instead of hunting down a favourite director’s films one title at a time, you could download a “filmography" overnight. Hard drives became the new currency: a mark of your seriousness was if you arranged by director, country and genre or just dumped them into a giant “movies" folder.

A decade and a half later, it’s as much, if not more, of a struggle in India to access cinema that isn’t recent or mainstream. I subscribe to six streaming platforms. I watch at least one film a week in theatres. I spend an unwise amount of money buying Blu-rays from US and UK retailers, because you just can’t get them in India. And yet there’s so much I miss out on, films that critics in other countries watch as a matter of course.

Three very different cases in the last month or so have led to discussions about piracy on social media. There was the 2023 Japanese film Godzilla Minus One, which played with great success in cinemas in various countries (predictably, it never made it to India). Last month it was released on streaming exclusively in Japan, and was duly downloaded and streamed illegally elsewhere. The second case was on a much smaller scale. Vera Drew, director of the 2022 indie The People’s Joker, which released in US theatres this April, quoted a post on X asking for a print of the film, saying, “I get it, I used to torrent, but this was an indie project made by a group of broke trans people. If you steal this film or torrent it, you are actively hurting the queer community." Responses were divided between those who felt it was only right for an artist to want to want their film seen by paying customers, and those who said it was hypocritical to admit to torrenting but not expect it when it came to your own work.

Then there was Monkey Man, a Mumbai-set action film in which Dev Patel fights right-wing politicians. It had a digital release in the UK in April following a spell in theatres. With no theatrical release in India likely (the Central Board of Film Certification still hasn’t confirmed a ban, even after an RTI to the effect was filed), and no takers for streaming, a handful of viewers went ahead and did what they’ve done for the past two decades—bent the rules to watch a film they would otherwise never see. This resulted in some pearl-clutching and an alarmist piece by a Bollywood trade website seemingly out of airport looks to report on.

Piracy is a serious issue for the Indian film industry, with annual losses of 20,000 crore. It’s not hard to see the root of the problem—this is a film-crazy nation where the theatrical experience has become prohibitively expensive. Even if money is not an issue, it’s difficult to manage a well-rounded film diet—by which I mean watching new and old films in a variety of languages—without bending the rules. There are no dedicated repertory cinemas where arthouse titles, indies and restorations might play. There’s no culture of physical media. Of all the streaming platforms, only one—MUBI—is dedicated to world cinema. Cinephiles across the country must get their fix at one of the three big film festivals—IFFI, MAMI or IFFK—cramming a year’s worth of arthouse titles into a week of frenetic viewing. Miss out on these and 90% of that year’s world cinema will have passed you by (10% might make it to theatres and streaming).

One thing is certain: there was a romance to bootleg DVDs that can’t be found in the cold advance of downloads. In his 2015 film Taxi, Iran's Jafar Panahi paid wry tribute to the cinema pirates of my youth. One of the passengers in Panahi’s taxi is a bootleg DVD seller, a smiling, perspiring man who cannily uses the director’s fame to seal a sale with a young customer. Later, he tells Panahi: “This is a cultural activity too. They don’t show these movies in Iran. How else can students see foreign movies?" In the end, the movies must be seen.

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