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Where does inspiration end and plagiarism begin?

by Vivek Kaul  Aug 29, 2012 19:38 IST

#Fareed Zakaria   #Malcolm Gladwell   #Plagiarism  

So all’s well that ends well. Fareed Zakaria, after a couple of weeks in the doghouse over an alleged plagiarism charge, is back in business.

But the question: what is plagiarism and what is it not? Where does inspiration end and plagiarism start? Let’s explore these questions in the context of music and films, both international as well as Indian, and journalism.

As I write this I am listening to the song “Papa Kehte Hain Bada Naam Karega” from the movie Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. The song starts of sounding very similar to an old Roy Orbison song “O Beautiful Lana,” but changes track after that and acquires an identity of its own. The composers Anand-Milind may have clearly been inspired by Roy Orbison in the way they composed the song, but they hadn’t plagiarised.

Reuters

The best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, in an essay titled Something Borrowed – Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?, tries to examine the questions I raised at the beginning of this piece. He describes an experience that he had with a musically inclined friend of this.

As Gladwell writes, “He played Led Zeppelin’s “Whotta Lotta Love” and then Muddy Water’s “You Need Love,” to show the extent to which Led Zeppelin had mined the blues for inspiration…He played “Last Christmas” by Wham! followed by Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” to explain why Manilow might have been startled when he first heard the song.” (You can listen to Can’t Smile Without You here and Last Christmas here)

Gladwell talks about the famous heavy metal band Nirvana and their inspiration. ““That sound you hear in Nirvana,” my friend said at one point, “that soft and then loud kind of exploding thing, a lot of that was inspired by the Pixies. Yet  Kurt Cobain” – Nirvana’s lead singer and songwriter – “was such a genius that he managed to make its own. And “Smells Like Teen Spirit’?” – here he was referring to perhaps the best-known Nirvana song. “That’s Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling.’” He began to hum the riff of the Boston hit, and said, “The first time I heard ‘Teen Spirit,’ I said, ‘That guitar lick is from “More Than a Feeling.” But it was different – it was urgent and brilliant and new.”

So what this tells us is that a lot of good old music formed the base of a lot of good, new music. But does that imply plagiarism? Clearly not!

Let us look at some examples from closer to home. Talat Mehmood once sang a song, “Haan sab se madhur geet wohi jo hum dard ke suron main gaate hain.” This song, from the movie Patita, was written by Shailendra and set to tune by Shankar Jaikishan. Those who know their English poetry well, will know, that this song is clearly inspired from PB Shelley’s poem To a Skylark, in which he wrote “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Or take the case of the song, “Jab hum honge 60 saal ke, aur tum hoge 55 ke, bolo preet nibhaogee na phir bhi apne bachpan ki” from Randhir Kapoor's directorial debut Kal, Aaj aur Kal. Any guesses on what is the inspiration for this song? It is the Beatles number “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I am 64?

In both these cases something new was created from something that was already in existence. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal explore the difference between inspiration and plagiarism in their brilliant book RD Burman – The Man, The Music. As they write, “The pièce de résistance of Shaan was the title song, ‘Pyar karne waale pyar karte hain shaan se,’…The recurring beat in the song could have been inspired, in part, from ‘I feel love’  by Donna Summers, but the song in itself was multi-dimensional, a grand mix of Asha’s voice and a host of instruments, and bore no resemblance to the Donna Summer hit.” (You can listen to I feel love here).

RD Burman was accused of plagiarising right through his career. “Right through his career, this was probably one question that Pancham had to defend himself against, in most of his interviews, and he often clarified that inspiration was part of the game in any field of art and that his rule was to use one line and recreate an entire song out of the same, something that most composers did,” write Bhattacharjee and Vittal.

“Pancham’s stand against charges of plagiarism was matter-of-fact; he did not go out to copy tunes if given the chance to operate on his own terms. He might have needed a start, only to help him trudge along,” the authors add.

There was a lot of inspiration that went into the composition of 1942-A Love Story, RD Burman’s swansong. “With ‘Ek ladki ko dekha’, he got on to the full-on mukhra-antara style that his father once pioneered in ‘Borne gondhe chhonde geetitey’ (the original tune for ‘Phoolon ke rang se’ in Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari), where the mukhra and the antara are merged as one… ‘Kuch na kaho’  found Pancham fleetingly referencing the tune of SD’s ‘Rongila, rongila’ (SD as in SD Burman, RD’s father) and giving it a totally different colour and contour, with an orchestration bordering on the symphonic…RD went back to Indian classical music and Rabindranath Tagore for ‘Dil ne kaha chupke se’, basing it on the dual inspiration of Raga Desh and Tagore’s ‘Esho shyama sundaro’, and using strains from ’Panna ki tamanna’ (Heera Panna) and ‘Aisa kyon hota hai’ (Ameer Aadmi Garib Aadmi,1985),” the authors point out.  

So clearly even the best musicians are inspired when they do their best work.  The same stands true for cinema as well. Take the case of “Manorama Six Feet Under.” I saw the movie when it was released and was impressed. The screenplay, dialogues, music, performances...everything about the movie was brilliant. Then I read in a review that the movie was copied from Roman Polanski’s 1974 Jack Nicholson starrer Chinatown.

I managed to locate a VCD of the movie some time later and happened to see it. Broadly speaking, yes Manorama is a copy of Chinatown. The story is more or less the same. But Navdeep Singh, the director of the movie, has managed to Indianise it very well. And Manorama's end is brilliant, much better than Chinatown's vague arty ending. Of course, Manorama does not have the incest angle to the story that Chinatown had.

Now this was a clear case of a director who was inspired. Yes he copied, but I don't think he plagiarised.

So the distinction between plagiarism and inspiration is not always easy to draw. Malcolm Gladwell makes the point when he writes about something that most journalists have to do at some point of time. As he writes “When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to “match” a story from the Times  (I presume Gladwell means the New York Times here):  to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we “matched” any of the Times’ words – even the most banal of phrases – it could have been a firing offence. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality only on the level of sentence.”

This is a very important point that Gladwell makes furthering the point that in many cases it is difficult to distinguish what is plagiarism and what is not.

But that is not always the case. Musicians like Bappi Lahiri and Anu Mallik made a career out of plagiarising western tunes. So did Anand-Milind by copying Ilaiyaraaja. The same is true about Sanjay Gupta's Kaante. It is a shameless copy of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. In fact Anurag Kashyap, the dialogue writer for the film, even admitted in an interview that he was given the DVD of Reservoir Dogs and asked to translate the dialogues. So much for being creative.

Sanjay Gupta's Zinda is also a scene by scene lift of the Korean Movie “Old Boy,” even though Gupta claimed that “international films” inspired him.

So that brings me back to the question that I have been trying to answer. “Where does inspiration end and plagiarism start?” The answer to this most likely is: It is a very individual thing. Every creative individual knows where inspiration ends and plagiarism starts. As Justice Potter Stewart, a US judge, wrote in Jacobellis versus Ohio (1964), “I cannot define pornography, but I know it when I see it.

It's the same with plagiarism.

Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com