Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Wrought from Steal”

Posted on September 2, 2011

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What do filmmakers from outside our country think about what we do so freely, so frequently?

While we wrestle with our souls about our films sourced without credit from the cinema of elsewhere – are they copies? Homages? Remakes? Plagiarisations? – here’s Quentin Tarantino cheerfully absolving Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante. (The quote appeared in an article, a compilation of what non-Indian directors had to say about Indian films, published at Firstpost.com – so yes, I’m crediting the source, like I wish our filmmakers would.) “I think it was fabulous. Of the many rip-offs (of Reservoir Dogs) I loved Hong Kong’s Too Many Ways To Be No.1 and this one, Kaante. The best part is, you have Indian guys coming to the US and looting a US bank. How cool is that! I was truly honored. And these guys are played by the legends of Bollywood. Here I am, watching a film that I’ve directed and then it goes into each character’s background. And I’m like, ‘Whoa’. For, I always write backgrounds and stuff and it always gets chopped off during the edit. And so I was amazed on seeing this. I felt, this isn’t Reservoir Dogs. But then it goes into the warehouse scene and I am like, ‘Wow it’s back to Reservoir Dogs’. Isn’t it amazing!”

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This quote is astonishing for a variety of reasons. One, Tarantino thinks Kaante is “fabulous” – not many of us thought that – despite labelling it a rip-off. Two, the things we thought were ridiculous about the film – “Indian guys coming to the US and looting a US bank” – are deemed “the best part.” He thinks it’s cool. Three, he almost appears to say (without saying) that Kaante is, in some ways, better than his film. He wishes he’d been able to cover the backgrounds of his characters the way Kaante did (and the way he, in Reservoir Dogs, was not able to). How tragic that there’s no more to the quote. (What did he think about the songs, for instance?) But the essence is that there is, on Tarantino’s part, no indignation at his property being stolen and refurbished. He says, instead, that he’s “truly honoured.” Perhaps this is no surprise coming from Tarantino, who has fashioned a career from being inspired – though he is also a natural-born talent who bestows his creative vision, his stamp, on everything he takes from elsewhere.

Listen, then, to what Krzysztof Kieślowski, one of the world’s most celebrated auteurs, has to say on the subject (in Kieślowski on Kieślowski, edited by Danusia Stok). “Nor do I think that there’s anything wrong in stealing. If somebody’s gone that way before and it’s proved to be good, then you have to steal it immediately. If I steal from good films, and if this later becomes part of my own world, then I steal without qualms. This often happens completely without my being aware of it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t do it – it did happen but it wasn’t calculated, or premeditated. It’s not straight plagiarism. To put it another way, films are simply part of our lives. We get up in the morning, we go to work or we don’t go to work. We go to sleep. We make love. We hate. We watch films. We talk to our friends, our families. We experience our children’s problems, or the problems of our children’s friends. And the films are there somewhere, too.”

“They also stay somewhere within us. They become part of our own lives, of our own inner selves. They stay with us just as much as all those things which really happened. I don’t think they’re any different from real events, apart from the fact that they’re invented. But that doesn’t matter. They stay with us. I steal takes, scenes, or solutions, just as I steal stories and afterwards I can’t even remember where I stole them from.” If there’s a bit of contradiction in this exquisitely moving confession – “I steal stories” gives a sense of volition, while later he says it happens without his being aware of it – it doesn’t matter. What he’s saying is that films are like the air we breathe and it’s inevitable that we inhale another man’s exhalations. No, these quotes do not come anywhere close to ending the “but is it stealing?” debate. But how fascinating that two major filmmakers from two ends of the spectrum should be so tolerant about something we, in our nation, are so intolerant about.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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