Last week Sridevi-starrer Mom, though appreciated by critics, did not get required support from audience as similar storyline was seen in Raveena Tandon-starrer Maatr, released a few months earlier. In Tamil, director Vijay-Jayam Ravi’s Vanamagan was compared for its storyline and presentation with Arya’s Kadamban by critics and audience.
However, this is not new to Tamil cinema and as early in 1936, storyline similarities took place. SS Vasan-Ellis R Dungan’s Sathi Leelavathi (1936) in which MK Radhaand MGR made their acting debut and KP Kesavan-Kali N Rathnam starrer Pathi Bhakthi (1936) had similar storylines. In a court battle, it was proved that both films borrowed their storyline from popular novel Mrs. Henry Wood’s Danbury House and hence both films got released. While the first released Sathi Leelavathi succeeded, Pathi Bhakthi failed, as the novelty value was gone.
William Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew storyline has been adapted several times in Tamil cinema, beginning with P eriya Idathu Penn (1963), Pattikada Pat tanama (1972) and Sakalakalaval lavan (1982). All of them succeeded due to novelty in treatment, though the basic storyline was same.
K Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sivappu and Bharathirajaa’s Nizhalgal had a similar storyline of unemployment problems of youth and both released, coincidentally, on the same day (November 6, 1980). In 1985, three top filmmakers came out with films with the similar theme of bigamy. K Balachander with Sindhu Bhairavi, Bharathirajaa with Mudhal Mariyadhai and K Bhagyaraj with Chinna Veedu and all succeeded due to different treatments. Also, director Vasanth-Suriya’s Poovel lam Kettupaar (1999) had a similar storyline with Pravin Kanth’s Jodi , that released a month later.
Gone are the days when films releasing successively with similar storyline and different treatment were liked by audience. They expect novelty in every film and if there are similarities, they have limited interest in the latter film. There are ways of preventing this from happening.
Story idea is not copyright protected
Scriptwriters must remember that copyright protection is only for screenplay or scenes developed and not for story idea, since there are only seven stories in the world, using which screenplays are developed, as per popular writers. Eminent screenplay writers say that there are only thirty-six dramatic situations, using which, screenplays are written. Hence, most story ideas would be repetitive and none can avoid the same. Only scenes can be originally developed and differentiated from such common story ideas. Under such circumstances, it is better for story writers to reveal officially, the storyline they are working on in the beginning of a film, so that other filmmakers cautiously avoid the same storyline. Secrecy must be there only for the unique scenes developed around the storyline. When total secrecy is maintained even on storyline, the similarities are unavoidable.
Script registration process
Despite each Indian language film industry having a Film Writer’s Association, these similarities in storyline continue to occur and few get into court battles due to the current script registration process. The Film Writer’s Association must publish the theme briefly for each story registered with them (with date of registration) so that other writers avoid such themes. Though some adventurous writers may copy the theme and develop new scenes, that may be rare and hence the benefits of revealing is higher for the entire industry.
Rewrite or reshoot when similar storylines appear
Ideally, filmmakers must avoid bringing out films with any similarity to a film released. Due to any reason, if a film releases having identical theme of another film under production, the filmmaker of such an under production film, must go back to the drawing board, re-write sufficient scenes and ensure the film appears fresh in some way to impress the audience. If one ignores this and releases a film with some similarity, assuming audience will overlook it, the audience are certainly not going to celebrate such films.
— The writer is Founder-Dean, BOFTA Film Institute in Chennai