Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Highway robbery… or happenstance?”

Posted on February 28, 2014


A few days after the release of Imtiaz Ali’s wonderful new film, the Internet is abuzz with accusations of plagiarisation. But is that really the case?

I liked Imtiaz Ali’s Highway a lot, and when rumours began cropping up on the Internet that the film was a copy of The Chase – a 1994 action-comedy with Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson – my heart sank. It’s a terrible feeling when we surrender ourselves to a work of art, fall in love with it, respect the filmmaker just a little more than we did after the release of his last film that we loved, and then find out he’s a thief – it’s like discovering that the spouse you’ve loved for 20 years is an axe murderer. So when these rumours found their way to my blog, I decided to watch The Chase and see if there was any truth in these allegations. And alongside, thanks to a commenter, I also got hold of Imtiaz Ali’s television version of Highway, which was one of the episodes of the Zee TV series, Rishtey.

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As it turns out, The Chase does have a few things in common with Highway. In both films, a rich girl is abducted by a man from the other side of the tracks. In both films, the initial antagonism gives way to understanding and love. But The Chase is a light-hearted entertainment that takes place entirely on the road – the entire film is, as the title promises, one long high-speed chase, along with some pointed commentary (again, light-hearted) about the media – whereas Highway is a drama whose main “action” takes place off the roads, and it’s about two scarred souls healing each other. The temptation to play armchair detective is strong: Could it be that Ali watched The Chase and was drawn to the basic premise, which he then reimagined? We often watch films and comment on them. This character shouldn’t have behaved this way. That twist wasn’t convincing. And if we watchers of cinema can harbour visions of “bettering” the film, surely a maker of cinema is going to be struck with ideas of his own.

But if Ali wanted to rejigger The Chase, then why didn’t he do so when he made that television episode long ago? (Or did he watch the film, if he did, after making that television episode, when he was thinking about how to expand it to a feature film?) One of the many accusations against Highway is that the abduction, as in The Chase, occurs at a gas station. But in the television episode, which the film closely mirrors, the abduction occurs on a deserted stretch of highway. Could it just be, therefore, that a gas station is a logical “set” on which to stage a scene in a road movie, and that ninety per cent of all road movies are going to have at least one scene set in or around a gas station?

I am not defending Ali. Only he knows what he did (or did not do). I am just pointing out why I think Highway isn’t a “copied” or a “plagiarised” film. If anything, The Chase may have served as inspiration, nothing more.

How does one differentiate between copying/plagiarisation and being inspired? I have this simple two-part rule of thumb: (1) If I sense a director’s unique vision or his equally unique fingerprints, and (2) if the scenes that are suspect (namely, similar to scenes from another movie) are outnumbered by the “original” scenes, then the film is either an original work or, at most, something that was inspired by the spark provided by the other movie. And Highway felt, to me, very much a continuation of Ali’s concerns – it belongs, solidly, in his oeuvre. A few years ago, Anurag Basu’s Barfi! faced a similar amount of finger-pointing, thanks to the direct lifts from silent comedy, but I enjoyed that film because these scenes weren’t the whole film – they were just a part of the film, a problematic part, certainly, but still just a part. I wish Basu had acknowledged this at the beginning – maybe with a note that said “This is my homage to the silent comedies that gave me such joy” – but that’s a different issue. The fact that a filmmaker slips up cannot and should not be held against his film, provided my thumb rule is adhered to.

And I understand that your mileage may vary. There are those who feel that, when it comes to the copying-versus-inspiration debate, a drop of ink stains the whole bucket of water. They feel that Salil Chowdhury’s Itna na mujhse tu pyaar badhaa is a “copy” of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and that RD Burman’s Chura liya hai is, as the lyric suggests, “stolen” from the title song of the film If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium. But the way I look at it – and going back to my thumb rule – I sense, in these songs, the composers’ vision, their fingerprints, and the familiar-sounding melody lines are outnumbered by the other lines.

It also comes down to the quality of the movie, its capacity to engage us, amaze us, affect us. Karan Johar legally obtained the remake rights of Stepmom, but that doesn’t make We Are Family very watchable. Sergio Leone coolly “stole” Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – though, in an ensuing lawsuit, he claimed he was inspired by other sources – but while we may have to admit that Leone did something unethical (or even illegal), we also have to admit that Fistful of Dollars is a bloody entertaining film. (Interestingly, no one is credited for story or screenplay in the opening credits. The sole writing credit is the one for dialogue, by Mark Lowell. There’s also a “Script Girl” listed – Tilde Watson – but whose script was she supervising?)

Why does this issue crop up so often in the creative arts? I think it’s because everything a creator reads, sees, hears is stored away in the subconscious, and can pop up when he least expects it. From their side, creators must learn to acknowledge this. And from our side, unless the evidence is incontrovertible, we must learn to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.