Raja Filmwala & Piracy In Indian Cinema

Image: Chummels/ Public Domain
Piracy is as old as Indian cinema. Today, India had the highest percentages of pirates to broadband users in the world.

Piracy and the movies in India have an age old connection. From the 1920s, with hit films like Ben Hur, Robin Hood and Thief of Bagdad, to 2017 and the leak of episodes of Game of Thrones; Indian pirates have long circumvented the law to distribute media illegally.

Film-making began out of inspiration in India. It was only one year after the first films were screened in Paris that the French Lumiere Brothers took the technology to India. On July 7, 1896, the brothers sent their cameraman – Maurice Sestier – to hold a public showing at the prestigious Watson Hotel in South Bombay.

The legacy of Indian cinema began on that day. For in the audience was a young photographer named H.S. Bhatavdekar. He was enthralled by the experience and promptly ordered a movie camera and projector from London. When it arrived, he made the first film in India, showcasing a wrestling match in Bombay.

But in these early days, cinema was restricted to elite audiences. Film makers hadn’t the resources to build theatres for their audiences. The few theatres that existed were insufficient, and so cinema had to come to the masses rather than the masses to the cinema. Travelling cinema shows grew in popularity; often using old equipment and discarded reels. These so called ‘junk films’ were mostly from London, and had been deemed unfit for British audiences by the time they reached India (as they featured deteriorated reels or a harmful flickering effect).

As Sudhir Mahadevan writes in ‘Traveling Showmen, Makeshift Cinemas: The Bioscopewallah and Early Cinema History in India’:

Films were incorporated into variety shows in bazaars and fairgrounds, sandwiched between theatrical productions, snake dances, and opera shows.

But in the meantime, the nascent Indian film industry was making its move. Early studios made profits by screening foreign films. In fact, until the talkies came to India, 90 percent of films screened were imported. But this raised copyright issues.

The British Government set up the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927-28 to “investigate the adequacy of censorship and the supposedly immoral effect of cinematograph films.” It was a massive endeavour, interviewing over 4,000 people from the film industry, government, civil services as well as public figures like Gandhi. The report also had a section on piracy and condemned it. But this would have little effect on Hollywood movies being pirated in India.

Madan Studios, one of the largest and most popular film studios of the time, is mentioned in the report – protesting that their exclusive rights to screen films in India were being violated.

Unscrupulous dealers in India import unauthorized copies of films…some exhibitor in the Foreign countries having made a legitimate arrangement to exhibit a motion picture by contract with the original suppliers of their Agents, thus obtains possession of a film. While this film is in his possession he causes to be made a photographic duplicate of the film…the copies or reprints from the wrongfully made film are placed on the market and sold. Such unauthorised copies are called pirated films.

The complaint listed Robin Hood, the Thief of Bagdad, Don Q. Son of Zorro, Son of Sheik, Ben Hur and Beau Geste as films that had been illegally screened. But the irony was that British copyright law had little effect on American films. Britain and the United States had yet to sign an agreement on copyright, and as the report noted, “an American author may lose his copyright by fresh publication abroad.”

But by the time sound came to Indian cinema, the film studios had made their money from screening – and were ready to invest in the medium. A cinema-going culture began to rise, and the silver screen developed an allure like no other. There really was no replacement for a feature film; as consumer technology had yet to emerge that could let audience goers watch movies in their homes.

Technologies like the Bioscope – where you had to peep into an elaborate contraption to view moving picture – continued to survive. Those who wielded them were called ‘bioscope wallahs’ – and they usually exhibit old images of Bombay. Bombay also had a curious innovator in its slum – a man named Raja Filmwala. Without access to the latest films or technology, he turned his slum into a screening hall.

There, using discarded reels and tapes from the film studios, he’d mesh together action sequences, songs and dramatic moments – charge the lowest rates in Bombay (ten paise per ten minutes) to exhibit them. He even circumvented regulations by breaking up a three-hour film into multiple small screenings – making for a total of 14 hours of screening per day. Raja retains a ‘repeat audience’ and earns more than he would have with a single screening – whilst being legally ambiguous.

The 1970s and the rise of cassette technology saw piracy shift to the music world. Nagli tapes, featuring bootleg recordings of concerts or copies of previously-released commercial tracks, took up 95 percent of all cassette sales in 1985.

When cable TV was deregulated, piracy branched out into copies of films on VHS tapes. But the new private cable TV channels also played a role, blatantly screening pirated films on TV – while the industry was at a loss for how to legally challenge this (until 2003, at least).

By the time broadband internet arrived and became commonplace, piracy had become too easy. The older methods of circumventing copyright – duplicating the reels, snipping together old tapes, recording over VHS tapes and even setting up private channels – grew obsolete.

As of 2016, piracy had cost the Indian film industry more in lost revenue than it was making itself – despite being the world’s largest producer of films. Piracy has, in regions like Africa and China, helped spread Bollywood to a larger audience. But it drastically affects the revenues and ability of creators. A 2009 study by the Motion Pictures Association found that India had the highest percentages of pirates to broadband users in the world.

By 2017, Game of Thrones held the record as the most illegally downloaded show in the world – a record it had held for five years. With the latest season, its publisher HBO had invested deeply in offering legal streaming alternatives – such as Hotstar, Star India Pvt. Ltd. or HBO’s website. But this too backfired when employees from an Indian partner of Star TV, leaked an episode several days in advance of its release date.

Currently, the government acts on copyright requests by ordering ISPs to shut down the websites. But it is still not illegal to view or download pirated material; unlike in the United States. Historically, regulations have not evolved fast enough to catch up with technology, when it comes to piracy in India. The future will demand a mix of legal and administrative capability if piracy is to cease in India.

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