Posterphilia: The Difference Between Plagiarism, Tropes And Tributes

A look at how similarities between movie posters don’t necessarily imply a rip-off and what constitutes fair use
Posterphilia: The Difference Between Plagiarism, Tropes And Tributes

In this series, Jahan Singh Bakshi talks about the relatively under-appreciated art of poster design and how it shapes our perception of a movie. 

Bollywood has always been notorious when it comes to the issue of plagiarism, both in films and their posters. We've seen countless poster designs that are ripped off from various sources – both shamelessly and stupidly.

There are countless examples of this, as you can well see in the images above – though I must admit, whoever came up with the hilariously brilliant idea of replacing King Arthur's sword with Mallika Sherawat for the poster of Hisss does deserve a special round of applause.

This kind of creative bankruptcy also has a flipside – it has created an audience that is so sceptical, that any kind of similarity between two pieces of art is almost immediately dismissed as plagiarism. A Google search on 'Copied Bollywood posters' will throw up countless results – but the examples cited often reveal a lack of understanding of design nuances and a tendency to paint everything by the same brush. In today's column, we look at the subtle and oft-blurry lines between plagiarism, pastiche, tropes and tribute – how similarities don't necessarily imply a rip-off, and what constitutes fair use.

Is anything really 'original' anymore? It's a question worth pondering over, and one that artists often grapple with. Almost all art we create is inevitably influenced by art we have consumed. Many of us will often have similar ideas, or will consciously and unconsciously recycle old ones. Legendary filmmaker Jim Jarmusch puts it thus:

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don't bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: "It's not where you take things from – it's where you take them to."

What Godard points out is crucial – the execution of an idea is often more important than the idea itself. This is where context and treatment come into play. Is the idea appropriate, smart and well used in the context of the film? Is the treatment – tone, typography, etc – distinctive enough for it to stand on its own merit and stand out from other similar posters? These are the important questions to think of when judging posters and their similarities.

The posters for The Female Brain (from the USA), CzechMate: In Search of Jirí Menzel (from India) and Synecdoche, New York (from Japan) all use the same basic visual concept, and yet, each one uses this fairly common idea in a different context and in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing and unique in tone and effect.


Over time, certain layouts, poses, fonts and visual concepts have turned into movie poster tropes. While some tropes can feel tired and overused and devolve into cliche, others serve as effective visual shorthand to convey certain themes or emotions. Often, the clever or subversive use of a visual trope in the right context or standout treatment can elevate it.

These character teaser posters for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind use two very common visual elements – the torn paper effect and the 'eyes covered' trope. True to the film, these posters depict characters who are blandly smiling, oblivious to the fact that a significant part of their memories have been torn off and erased from their minds.

Cracked glass and surfaces is another common trope that is used to depict characters who are psychologically damaged or emotionally fragile. It's no wonder then, that these posters for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and mother! both use the same motif with varying treatment – a large crack is seen on Natalie Portman's face and Jennifer Laurence's visage resembles brittle, chipped porcelain.

In 2016, actor Irrfan Khan reportedly accused the makers of Rajinikanth starrer Kabali of stealing the poster design of  his film Madaari. While it was later clarified that the Kabali poster was unofficial fan art – the idea of a giant face emerging from within a cityscape isn't particularly unique either – we see the same idea used in the poster of the 2012 Turkish film The Stranger (Yabancı). So was the poster of Madaari inspired from another source to begin with? Maybe, maybe not.


It's pretty common practice for designers to use a pre-existing image or photograph as a reference or to create a mockup for representational purposes. The problem comes when the final artwork becomes dangerously close to the reference used.

I suspect this is what might have happened with these posters for Rowdy Rathore and Heroine, which are nearly identical in composition to the poster for The Replacement Killers and promo image for Mariah Carey's album The Emancipation of Mimi, respectively. Personally, I'm inclined to give Rowdy Rathore a pass because the pose strikes me as fairly generic and the highlight of the poster is the colourful, kitschy treatment and copy. Honestly, it's much better than the original.

The Heroine poster uses another generic pose – that of a woman lying upside down – but even the angle is identical to the 'original' and the treatment doesn't help it stand apart either. But whether was a case of sticking too close to reference or sheer coincidence, it's an uninspired piece of key art either way.


Speaking of coincidences, I can cite two instances from my personal experience of working on the creative marketing campaigns of Ribbon and Newton. While creating the poster campaign for Ribbon (designed by Seek Red), we were working with a set of pre-shot stills from the film shoot. One of the images we all liked was that of the lead couple walking under an umbrella.

Ribbon is the story of a young, urban couple struggling with an unplanned pregnancy and the pressures of parenthood and surviving in a metropolis. For its poster, we discussed a concept where the lead pair's problems – career, baby, relationship, etc. – were visually represented as doodles and hand-drawn typographic elements raining on them, as they stand under the umbrella. To my great surprise, two days later IMPawards featured a new poster for a film called The Truth About Lies – with the exact same layout and style I had envisioned. There was no way we could try to make it look different  – we had been beaten to the idea, and it had to be scrapped.

(Image credit for exclusive Newton concept poster: Juan Luis Garcia / Drishyam Films)
(Image credit for exclusive Newton concept poster: Juan Luis Garcia / Drishyam Films)

The poster for Newton was alleged to have been copied from the one for Satyajit Ray's 1989 film Ganashatru. Now, there's no shame in admitting to being inspired by a Ray movie poster from 30 years back – by any measure, it would count as homage. But while we felt honoured rather than embarrassed by the resemblance – it was completely unintended.

Our original idea (pictured above) featured Newton upside down, falling into the Dandakaranya forest as hands with voting fingers pointing upwards emerged through the foliage. (Apart from the standout element of seeing the protagonist upside down – we also found the visual pun on gravity rather irresistible).

But not everyone was convinced by the idea, and after working on it for a while – we decided to abandon it. We had already done a photoshoot with this poster in mind, including images of the voting fingers. That's when designer Juan Luis Garcia came back to us with a couple of new compositions including what evolved into the final poster, where we see Newton in the centre with voting fingers pointing at him from all directions, one of them pressing a voting button which forms the 'O' on the title. Funnily enough, a few months later, Netflix released the poster for Jim and Andy – which featured an upside down Jim Carrey.


Indeed, there are many modern posters that pay open – and often clever homage – to vintage movie artwork. The poster for The Old Man and the Gun, which features Robert Redford in what is supposedly his last starring role is subtly modeled after the poster of Sydney Pollack's Jeremiah Johnson (1972), also starring Redford. The Rosemary's Baby inspired poster for Aronofsky's mother! teases thematic similarities, while the Cannes poster for Miss Lovely borrows its central image from the Nehle Pe Dehla pressbook artwork from '76, paying tribute to its B-movie lineage.

Miss Lovely director Ashim Ahluwalia echoes Jarmusch and says he believes in upfront tribute – "Pastiche with obvious original elements that reference back to the source is homage, but when elements are reworked or 'disguised' that tends to be closer to plagiarism. So for me there is a clear ethical divide between the two."

The key here again, lies in execution – in reinterpreting and reinventing existing ideas in uniquely personal ways, filtering them through our own aesthetic and worldview, instead of lazily rehashing them. The difference, as we can see – is often subtle, but always significant, nonetheless. After all, as Godard says – where an idea comes from is often much less important that where we take it.

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