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We are pirates all

Film>> Partners in Crime • Directed by Paromita Vohra • Produced by Magic Lantern Foundation

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Sunday 31 July 2011

imageAzim Anwar is a smiling young man with a singular mission in life: downloading everything he can possibly find on the Internet related to his interests: movies, funny videos, music, games and football matches.

He gets more stuff from his network of friends and relatives (his brother has given him a cache of documentaries) and he saves all of this in neatly catalogued folders on his laptop. Anwar uses a 500 kbps Internet connection for which he pays Rs 700 monthly. His only regret is that he cannot afford a 10,000 GB hard drive to store more.

For Anwar all this downloading is a work of passion and is not illegal as far as he knows. How can the films be illegal when the prints available on BitTorrent are original, he asks somewhat disingenuously. Besides, “I never buy pirated films,” he adds rather righteously.

Anwar is one of the many charming pirates who appear in Partners in Crime, a sometimes witty film that traverses the gray, black and red landscape of the copyright debate with elan. Copyright is one segment of intellectual property rights (IPRs) which protects original literary, musical, artistic and dramatic works from theft. What copyright grants is an exclusive right to the author over his works; this includes a basket of related rights such as the right to authorise reproduction, adaptation, performance and distribution of the work. This, it is argued, helps foster creativity. But it also raises the question of who owns this “property”, or art in this case.

Vohra forces the viewer to address this question with an excellent example. She takes the smash hit Bollywood number “Munni badnaam hui, darling tere liye” written by Lalit Pandit and traces its cultural genealogy back to the 1970s when it was popular in Kanpur as “Launda, badnam ho gai Naseeban tere liye”, a song said to be penned by Razia Begum. Everyone on the streets of Kanpur was familiar with the song, say stage artistes Rampat Harami and Rani Bala. Their eponymously named nautanki (theatre) company used it to wow small town audiences with a raunchy dance number set to these lyrics. Later, the song was made more popular by Pakistan qawwals who produced two versions which survive today. So, does Pandit “own” the “Munni badnaam hui” song or can he be accused of piracy or at least brazen plagiarism of a popular cultural motif?

These and other questions underpinning the morality and ethics of copyright pop up throughout the film which is at once a primer on the history of copyright and piracy and a thoughtful examination of the conflicting movements under way on the IPRs debate. On the one hand are industry organisations that are mounting steady pressure on the government for harsher legislation on copyright violations—after China, India is said to be one of the biggest offenders—and a sophisticated international campaign to portray copyright violators as funders of terrorists. On the other hand is Copyleft, a movement that draws inspiration from the Free Software movement of Richard Stallman and aims to make culture more accessible through the use of less restrictive licences such as Creative Commons.

The proponents of copyright argue that without such a provision there would be no incentive for artistes to write and sing, and hence there would be a general decline in creativity and the arts. But Copyleft champions like Lawrence Liang of the Alternate Law Forum counter that copyright actually hinders creativity by barring the free flow of ideas. Among those who subscribe to this philosophy are rock bands like Thermal and a Quarter who would rather market their own music than sign up with record labels that have copyright territories covering “the world and solar system”.

Partners in Crime does ample justice to these countercurrents. As the camera zooms in on speakers at a FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) seminar on piracy, it subtly highlights the hardening of the debate in industry circles. Ditto for the comments the camera makes as it ranges freely during interviews the narrator has with the spokespersons of the Indian Performing Right. This is the body which collects royalties (incredibly steep) for the use of copyrighted music and is at the centre of a controversy at the moment. There are plenty of reasons for liking this film: it covers all the pertinent issues on copyright, it has an interesting cast of characters like Sayyed Osama, an engaging street vendor of pirated CDs and DVDs, including adult films. Asked if he’s not scared, he replies cockily, “We are all in this together, aren’t we?”

As for me, I fell in love with this film when I heard a haunting snatch of Bade Ghulam Ali singing “Hindol Bahar”. That is part of a huge collection of classical Hindustani music with Chandra Pai, a private collector. He has a treasure with him but he is afraid to air it because of the law; someone might sue him. Chandra Pai, will you please let me listen to your treasure? I am a pirate myself.

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