Three days after the release of Judgementall Hai Kya, Hungarian visual artist Flora Borsi pointed out on Twitter that one of the film’s posters looked suspiciously similar to one of her works. The poster, featuring Kangana Ranaut, seems to have wholly borrowed from Borsi’s surreal, digitally manipulated photograph, that of a woman’s face half covered by the side profile of a black cat, the creature’s eye doubling as one of her own. It’s not that the film’s producers came out with an official statement, or gave her a credit, but Borsi’s post went viral. Some online news websites ran articles on it.
There is something else as well that the film has plagiarised. The film’s main theme, which plays for the first time when we see Bobby (Ranaut) witnessing a tragedy as a little girl, which scars her for life; it becomes a leitmotif for the character, returning in regular intervals, marking her journey. The piece is suspiciously similar to the main theme of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, “Long, long time ago”, composed by Javier Navarrete: a girl’s voice softly humming a tune, haunting, ghostly even, accompanied by a spare piano, and gradually as it progresses, joined by choruses that sound as though they are sung by angels.
Most people didn’t see it, not even critics — only a couple of users on Twitter, nerds with discerning ears, pointed it out. Because such little attention is paid to background score anyway, let alone spotting similarities in a theme with that from a Mexican film. Not that people care a great deal about film posters, but unlike the latter, the score in Hindi cinema doesn’t have an existence outside the film, officially speaking.
I say Hindi cinema — or any other Indian language popular cinema — because the concept of an ‘original soundtrack’, the instrumental themes of a film’s score released in an album form, is alien to our cinema. Unlike the West, where it is the mainstay, ours is a song-driven culture. Exceptions aside, there is no legitimate way of listening to a Hindi film score other than when you are watching the film. That’s why there’s so much on plagiarised songs out there — there is a whole website dedicated to it — and little to nothing on scores.
All of which might lead a composer to think that he can possibly indulge in a bit of cheating — and get away with it — even in this age of social media. (It must be far tougher to plagiarise a song today, because it’ll be all too embarrassing to get caught within ten minutes of a song launch.) When I reached out to Daniel B George, who has done the score in Judgementall Hai Kya, he admitted to have been “inspired” by the Pan’s Labyrinth theme — “It was an inspiration, I won’t lie about that,” he said — but defended it by calling it “technically different”.
He emphasised that the piece in question ends in a different way, even as he admitted that “the first few notes are same.” What I couldn’t explain to him is that in a theme the central melody becomes the very foundation, from which everything else emerges. He said “a Berklee student will know” what he is trying to say, and he said that I can “sue him if I want”. In a conversation, which I’d say was awkward, at one point he also called it “Spanish Labyrinth”, and said that it is a film by Pedro Almodovar, and that he doesn’t like any of his movies.
To be fair, George could have denied having ever heard the original. Like Amit Trivedi did when he was accused of plagiarising the theme of One Day by Rachel Portman in Lootera, gold of an album, forever but blemished by the shame of ‘stealing’. Should we be giving Trivedi the benefit of doubt on the basis of his talent and his otherwise-clean track record? Why would someone like him be stupid enough to copy something that is not even that obscure? Especially when the piece would be played prominently in the trailer, and that is also an integral part of one of its songs (“Shikayatein“). Could it possibly be an episode of cryptomnesia, where a forgotten memory comes back as something new and original? In which case, it’d still be deemed plagiarism, as the judge noted when he passed the verdict on George Harrison, over the charges that he copied “My Sweet Lord” from The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine”.
While Lootera made a fair bit of noise, other instances of plagiarism in film score in the more recent years have largely fallen through the cracks. Vishal Bhardwaj took the siren portions, a ‘sampling’ if you may, of a piece called “Freedom” in Haider from Moby’s “Extreme Ways” (also the theme of the Bourne movies). Salim-Sulaiman’s rousing theme for Krrish took its first two melody lines from Kenny G’s rather soothing “Havana” — and dare I say, made it better. Koi Mil Gaya, the sequel to which was Krrish, had a wilder source of inspiration; the main theme, which was shown in the film as a combination of musical notes that are used to communicate with the alien world, was lifted from a track called “Trans-Europe Express” by German group Kraftwerk, pioneers of early, analogue era electronic music.
Rajesh Roshan, the composer of Koi Mil Gaya, has been a repeat offender. Anu Malik may have been the most prolific plagiarist when it comes to songs back in the day, but Roshan is your man for themes.
His Koyla theme (1997) was lifted from Vangelis’ epic “The Conquest of Paradise” (which also became the central melody for a song in Josh (2000), composed by Malik). In Karan Arjun (1995), Roshan ripped off the Terminator 2 theme by Brad Fiedel – something that Viju Shah had already done in Mohra (1994) the year before. Shah would then go on to copy the The Exorcist theme and mix it up with a Deep Forest song for the title song of Gupt (1997), a track I absolutely loved a kid.
The theme in Judwaa (released in the same year as Gupt), that plays every time the twin brothers at the centre of the film – played by Salman Khan – are shown together, was a flat out copy of another Deep Forest track “White Whisper’. Agneepath (1990) used French electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre’s synth-heavy, Tangerine Dreamish Rendezvous, and didn’t credit him.
The nineties really were shameless that way: not just stealing, but stealing the same thing for different films, by different composers, or stealing from different sources and mashing it up into one song. . It’s impossible to say if there are more instances of plagiarism in film scores in the pre-nineties Hindi cinema, and this in no way is an exhaustive list. There can, and should be, more that haven’t registered with us yet.