Barfi! is about paisa vasool, not an entry for the Oscars

Vivek Kaul
So it’s fashionable to criticise Barfi these days. My wall on Facebook is full of acerbic updates on the movie with a link to this YouTube clip. The movie borrows liberally from a host of other movies without giving them any credit.
Here is a list of few such scenes in the movie.  One of the most hilarious scenes in the movie is the scene where Barfi (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is trying to avoid getting caught by the Inspector (played by Saurabh Shukla) via a sliding door. This scene has been lifted directly from the1917 Charlie Chaplin film The Adventurer. Another scene where Barfi wakes up from under a statue in front of a crowd is a copy from Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 classic City Lights.
The ladder scene where again Barfi is trying to avoid the police is borrowed from the Buster Keaton’s 1922 film Cops 1922. Another scene where Barfi grabs onto a bus to run away from the police is borrowed from the same movie.
There are clear influences from early Jackie Chan movies in the chase scenes in the movie. The overall plot of the movie is said to be inspired from the Hollywood film Benny & Joon (1993) and Korean film Oasis (2002).
The inspiration doesn’t end here. A small scene where Barfi is trying to entertain Jhilmil (played by Priyanka Chopra) with a dummy on a sofa is copied from the hit 1952 Hollywood musical Singin’ in the Rain. (For a more detailed list click here).
But the beauty of Barfi is that all the copy-pasting fits into a coherent whole which is backed by some good performances (I thought Saurabh Shukla was fantastic in the movie), great music with some really soulful lyrics, stunning visuals of Darjeeling and an end which makes women cry (Well, at least when I saw the movie First Day First Show, I saw red eyed women all around me.  The only other explanation I guess could be conjunctivitis). All this made the movie a total paisa vasool experience.
But does that justify the copy-pasting? Hindi cinema has always had a culture of borrowing liberally from other sources without giving them credit. Sholay, the biggest Hindi film hit of all time is a very good example of the same. As Anupama Chopra writes in Sholay – The Making of a Classic “They wanted to create a big action adventure, an epic confrontation between good and evil. The inspiration was the Hollywood western. All three (Salim-Javed, the writers and Ramesh Sippy, the director) had been greatly influenced by films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and of course, the mother of the mercenary movie, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.”
The basic plotline of Sholay was borrowed from The Magnificent Seven which in turn had been inspired by Seven Samurai. A lot of scenes in the movie have been shot like scenes in the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The water tank scene featuring Dharmendra is a straight lift from the 1969 Anthony Quinn movie The Secret of Santa Vittoria.
Mehbooba-Mehbooba  the movie’s most famous song featuring Helen was a copy of Demis Roussos’s ‘Say you love me’. (You can listen to it here). The entire Veeru ki Shaadi scene is copied from a book called The House of Fear written by the grandmaster of Urdu crime fiction Ibn-E-Safi. The book was originally published in Urdu in 1955 as Khaufnak Imarat. (you can read about it in detail here).
And there was more. As Chopra writes “Raj Khosla’s 1971 hit, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, the story of a one-armed man who reforms a petty criminal and uses him to protect their village against dacoits, loomed like a ghost in the background…The Bimal Roy classic, Madhumati, has a scene in which a boastful servant is caught by his master much like what happens with Soorma Bhopali (played by Jagdeep). And the coin motif – Jai (played by Amitabh Bachchan) tosses the coin before making any decision – came from Gary Copper starrer, Garden of Evil.”
As is the case with Barfi these influences fit into a coherent whole which the audience liked. The movie even though it started slow went onto become the biggest hit of all time. I still remember when Doordarshan broadcast the movie sometime in the early 1990s. The city of Ranchi where I grew up was deserted that day. Ranchi Express, the local newspaper, carried pictures of empty roads in the city, the next day. Such was the power that Sholay had on the audience.
Deewar, the other big Bachchan hit of 1975(the other being Sholay) was a clever re-working of Dilip Kumar’s Ganga Jamuna. But that still doesn’t take away the power and intensity of the movie. The scene where Amitabh Bachchan tells Iftikar “main aaj bhi feke hue paise nahi uthata” is simply superb. If there is one scene that summarises the entire Bachchan era of the angry young man this is it.
Raj Kapoor’s 1970 mega dud Mera Naam Joker was inspired from the 1952 Charlie Chaplin film Limelight. Then there also movies like Mahesh Bhat’s 1992 hit Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi. The film is a total copy of the 1934 Hollywood hit It Happened One Night. Even the dialogues (written by the master Hindi writer Sharad Joshi) have been translated as it is from the English original.
The point I am trying to make is that Hindi cinema has always had a culture of borrowing without crediting, from other sources. And it doesn’t really matter to anyone. If the copying is well done (as is the case with Barfi and was with Sholay) the audiences love it. The producer laughs all the way to the bank. The actors move onto other projects and demand more money. And so everybody gains.
All this of course does not justify copying without credit, but as they say in Indian English, we are like this only.
Now that brings me to the main question that I am trying to answer in this piece. Should Barfi have been the Indian entry at the Oscars? The answer is no.
First and foremost the movie does not have original content. But more than that while awarding movies in the foreign movie category what the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, looks at is whether the movie could have been set anywhere else.
Barfi is set in Darjeeling and Kolkata in the seventies and eighties. But it could have been set almost anywhere in the world. Sholay is an excellent example of the same phenomenon. It was set in a fictional Indian village called Ramgarh. But similar movies had been set all over the world. Seven Samurai was set in Japan. The Magnificent Seven was setin Mexico. And Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was partly set in Bolivia.
Three Indian movies have made it to the final nominations for the Best Foreign Film. These are Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. (Of this whether we can call Salaam Bombay an Indian film is doubtful. Mira Nair who directed and co-produced the film has largely lived out of India, all through her adult life.)
The setting of these movies was uniquely Indian. Also, Mother India was not an original script. It was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s 1940 movie Aurat. The Marathi movie Harishchandrachi Factory which was the Indian entry at the Oscars in 2009 was another such uniquely Indian film, even though it did not make it to the final nominations.
From the list of Hindi films made this year Gangs of Wasseypur or Paan Singh Tomar would have been better bets for the Oscars, given that they clearly fit into two genres that Hollywood loves i.e. epics and underdogs. Gangs of Wasseypur is a story set around the coal mafia of Dhanbad which plays across three generations. The movie received a very good reception at the Cannes Film Festival. Paan Singh Tomar on the other hand is an excellent biopic set around an army man turned steeplechase runner turned dacoit. An underdog story that Hollywood would have loved!
I am sure there would be many better movies which fit into the kind of criterion that the Academy looks at made in other Indian languages as well. Given this I’d like to conclude by saying that while Barfi was a total paisa vasool movie but it is just not right for the Oscars.
The article originally appeared on on September 29,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected] )

Why you shouldn’t write off the Tata Nano just yet

Vivek Kaul

A little over three years after it was first introduced Tata Nano is being widely touted as a flop. The car which was supposed to cause traffic jams all over India is not selling as much as it was expected to.
Between January and July this year 55,398 units of the car have been sold. This is 13.3% more than the number of units that were sold during the same period last year. So even though the numbers are looking better this year they are nowhere near the installed capacity that the Nano plant in Sanand in Gujarat has, as an earlier piece pointed out. (You can read the complete piece here).
Numbers of reasons are being pointed out for the Nano flop show. Let me discuss a few here. In the book The Little Black Book of Innovation Scott D Anthony, who is an innovation consultant, points out a conversation he had with a colleague in late 2009. ““Here’s a provocative perspective,” my colleague said in late 2009… “I think the Tata Nano is going to be a disappointment.”… So why was my colleague being so skeptical? “Look at it from a customer’s perspective,” he said. These people could already afford to pay twenty-five-hundred dollars (or around Rs 1 lakh as the Nano was expected to be priced initially) for a perfectly good used car. Instead they consciously chose the scooter.”
Ratan Tata had the idea to build a car like Nano when he saw a family of four struggling on a two-wheeler on a rainy night in Mumbai. But despite the safety hazards people still preferred a two wheeler to a Nano. “Why would consumers choose a scooter? It wasn’t that these people didn’t care about their family. Rather, they didn’t have the space to park a car, or they found scooters that fit into tiny gaps on India’ chaotic streets a much more convenient form of transformation,” writes Anthony.
Another major reason being pointed out for Nano’s failure is it’s positioning. As Rahul Shankar points out in a blog post titled “Why did the Tata Nano fail as a disruptive innovation?” “The Nano was essentially branded as the world’s cheapest car…The truth is that no one wants to own a car that is thought off as cheap. Very few people treat a car as just a machine that takes them from point A to point B. This is basically what the Nano has been reduced to. People want to brag about how awesome their car is and how it kicks their neighbor/friends car’s butt….The advertisements that I have seen for the Nano have unfortunately come off as bland and catering again to the theme of affordability.” (You can read the complete post here)
These are valid points that have been raised. Even Ratan Tata has admitted to mistakes having been made. “We never really got our act together…I don’t think we were adequately ready with an advertising campaign, a dealer network,” Tata remarked earlier this year.
But these reasons notwithstanding, it’s too early to write off the Nano. Nano is what innovation experts call a disruptive innovation. This term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that transforms an existing market or creates a new one by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability,” is how Christensen defined disruptive innovation when I had interviewed him a few years back for the Daily News and Analysis (DNA).
An important thing with disruptive innovations is that they tend to work out over a period of time. As Christensen said “It is initially formed in a narrow foothold market that appears unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents.”
A great example is the Apple personal computer which took around a decade to establish itself. As Christensen put it “A great example is the Apple personal computer. The incumbent companies of the time were those like Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) that made minicomputers, which were big machines that sold for lots of money and could handle very complex tasks. When the personal computer burst on the scene, it sold for significantly less money than the minicomputer did…the PC wasn’t as good as the minicomputer for the market as it existed at that time. Apple made a wise decision and first sold the personal computer as a toy for children. Over time Apple and the other PC companies improved the PC so it could handle more complicated tasks. And ultimately the PC has transformed the market by allowing many people to benefit from its simplicity, affordability, and convenience relative to the minicomputer.”
Given this any disruption does not come as an immediate shift. “Disruption rarely arrives as an abrupt shift in reality,” write Clayton Christensen, Michael B Horn and Curtis W Johnson in Disrupting Class —How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.
This is something that Nirmalya Kumar, a professor at the London Business School (LBS) agrees with. “What I know about is radical versus incremental innovation. The more radical the innovation is the longer the time customers take to adopt it. People think of Nesspresso as being as a great radical innovation, but what they don’t know is that for 20 years it did not sell a whole lot and then the sales went up in a spike,” Nirmalya Kumar had told me in an interview I did for the Economic Times. Nespresso is a cappuccino maker sold by Nestle.
Amazon, which started off as a bookseller is another great example of a disruptive innovation which took time to get settled in. Another great example from the field of cinema is the movie Sholay. The film was massacred by critics when it released on August 15,1975. As Anupama Chopra writes in Sholay: The Making of a Classic “Taking off on the title of the film, K.L.Almadi writing in the India Today called it a ‘dead ember’… Filmfare’s Bikram Singh wrote: ‘The major trouble with the film is the unsuccessful transplantation it attempts – grafting a western on the Indian milieu.”
The Indian audience had never seen anything like this before. And it thus took time to sink in. The film went onto become the biggest box office hit of all time.
What these examples tell us is that it is too early to write off the Nano, despite the fact that the initial planks on which it was sold are largely not true anymore. “A cheap car that’s not really cheap. A safe car whose safety has been questioned. A poor people’s car that poor people aren’t buying. That sounds like a failure, certainly. But really it’s not. It’s par for the course for almost every breakthrough innovation,” writes Matthew J. Eyring the president of Innosight, a strategy innovation consulting and investment firm, on the HBR blog network. (you can read the complete piece here). “In fact, I can think of only one example of a CEO who pre-announced an innovation that was going to change the world and actually delivered it. That’s Steve Jobs of course,” he adds.
Critics point out that a lot of assumptions that Nano’s initial strategy was built on are not turning out to be true. The two wheeler riders aren’t upgrading to the Nano as they were. It’s no longer as cheap as it was initially promised to be. And people are buying it more of as a second car rather than their main mode of transport. But this is again in line with the way breakthrough or disruptive innovations operate.
As Eyring puts it “There’s nothing unusual about a company having to adjust the price, the production process, the marketing, or even the market of a breakthrough offering. The Nano’s price changes, the new maintenance contract Tata is rolling out to assure buyers of quality, the test drives it’s introducing, the new smaller showrooms, and the new commercials — all widely discussed in the press — should not really be news.”
All these things are also happening with the Nano because Tata Motors went in for a full fledged launch of the car rather than a small one. As Nirmalya Kumar put it “When the product development is radical you always do a small launch. They did a huge launch for Nano. They should have done a smaller launch. With radical innovation you need to keep tinkering and figuring out what is it exactly that the customer wants. This is because with radical innovation pre market testing is not really relevant because the consumers are not good at telling you whether they will buy a radical new product because they have no conceptualisation.”
This is something that Godrej & Boyce did with the ChotuKool refrigeratior. “Long before most people had heard of the low-power fridge ChotuKool, Godrej & Boyce spent quite some time investigating people’s refrigeration needs, designing and redesigning the product, and redoing its distribution strategy, carefully, slowly, and quietly,” writes Eyring.
It would have helped if Tata Motors had followed a similar strategy with Nano. As Eyring points out “It might not have been easy, but had Tata piloted the Nano quietly, on a small scale, perhaps through a limited production run in a small city like Durgapur in West Bengal or Ranchi in Jharkand, its engineering, pricing, financing, and marketing might have been adjusted far from the limelight to suit the needs of an optimal target customer… the Nano might have made its debut to the wider world with less hype and greater effect. It might not have been a 1 lakh car or even an alternative to motorscooters. But when it first appeared in the mainstream, it would have been right product for the right price in the right market.”
So now the Nano has entered the tinkering phase. And as this goes along Tata Motors will figure out what works and what does not. And this may be totally different from the assumptions the company started out with.
What still doesn’t change is its low price, despite the fact that it never sold for Rs 1 lakh as it was initially expected to. As Nirmalya Kumar put it “That’s the real startling novelty of the product because there is no car available anywhere in the world for $5000.”
The article originally appeared on on August 24,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Why Fareed Zakaria failed, and Salim-Javed got away

Vivek Kaul

“So you must be shocked?” asked a friend on Facebook chat on Saturday.
Now given the times that we live in it took me a while to figure out that she was talking about Fareed Zakaria and not about yet another train accident, riot or a flash flood.
“Nothing is sacrosanct in the media anymore,” was her far reaching conclusion.
For the uninitiated Fareed Zakaria is a former editor of the Newsweek magazine who has recently admitted to plagiarizing a column he wrote advocating gun control in America. He was stupid enough to borrow portions of the column liberally from a column written by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker magazine. (You can read about the entire controversy here). Till recently Zakaria was Editor-at-Large at the Time magazine and also hosted a programme called GPS on CNN.
As I spoke to my friend on Facebook chat there was a qawali playing on my CD player. Sabri Brothers were singing “ajmer ko jaana hai”. It was one of the random CDs that I had picked up around a couple of years back but had never gotten around to listening.
I had heard the tune before. The tune was exactly similar to that of the super-hit song “ek pyar ka nagma hai, maujon ki rawani hai” sung by Mukesh and Lata Mangeskhar, written by Santosh Anand and set to tune by Laxmikant-Pyarelal (LP).
Soon I logged out of Facebook chat and was trying to figure out who copied whom? Typically some Googling always helps in these cases. (The best website to visit in such cases is The website normally has the original song as well as the copied song).
But it did not help in this case. Various questions cropped up in my mind.
Did LP set to tune their song first? Or were Sabri brothers singing what is a traditional tune? Or did they copy LP? Or for that matter did LP copy the Sabri brothers? I don’t know (Maybe the readers can throw some light on this).
No such problems exist in Zakaria’s case though. It’s an open and shut case. He copied from the New Yorker and has admitted to doing the same.
But such clarity is not always there. Let me give an example to explain. A couple of years back I discovered this Jim Reeves song called “My Lips Are Sealed”. As I heard the song over and over again it sounded very similar to a Hindi film song. But I just couldn’t which one.
It took me an entire day to figure out that the song sounded similar to “ajeeb dastan hai ye” from the movie Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai. The song had some beautiful lyrics written by Shailendra and set to tune by Shankar-Jaikishan.
If I were to use the language of the Hindi film industry the song was inspired and not copied. And the interesting part was that Shailendra had written some amazing lyrics to the tune of My Lips Are Sealed. And Lata Mangeshkar had made the song immortal by lending her melodious voice to it. So something good came out of the copying.
Now here are a few lines to ponder over.
‘So, young man. So now you have also starred frequenting these places?’
‘Yes. I often come by to pay Flush,’ Imran said respectfully.
‘Flush! Oh, so now you play Flush…
”Yes, yes. I feel like it when I am a bit drunk…
”Oh! So you have also started drinking?’
‘What can I say? I swear I’ve never drunk alone. Frequently I find hookers who do not agree to anything without a drink…’

If you were starting to wonder whether these lines are from that movie, which they happen to call the biggest Hindi film hit of all time, well you are not totally wrong.
The lines do sound surreptitiously similar to the ‘Veeru Ki Shaadi‘ proposal scene in the biggest Hindi blockbuster of all time Sholay. But these lines are not from Sholay.
Actually, these are lines from a book called The House of Fear written by the grandmaster of Urdu crime fiction Ibn-E-Safi. The book was originally published in Urdu in 1955 as Khaufnak Imarat. It was first in the series of 120 odd books that Safi wrote featuring the quirky detective Ali Imran MSc, PhD.
Ibn-E-Safi was the pen name of Asrar Narvi, who came from the village Nara in the Allahabad district. Born in 1929, his pen name literally means ‘son of Safi’ (his father’s name was Safiullah). Narvi, who moved to Pakistan after partition, was a poet who started writing detective fiction in 1952, with the Jasoosi Duniya series which had Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed as the main protagonists.
In 1953, Saifi started writing the Imran series in Urdu. The same series of books appeared in Hindi as well with exactly the same story line except for the fact that a character called Vinod replaced Imran.
Sholay was released in 1975, whereas Safi’s Khaufnak Imarat was released two decades earlier in 1955. Given this, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (the writers of Sholay) copied (or should we say “were inspired” in the Bollywood sense of the term) the scene which is regarded by many as one of the greatest comic scenes in the history of Hindi cinema, from Ibn-E-Safi.
This is not surprising given that Javed Akhtar in his growing up years is known to have read Ibn-E-Safi. “He had tremendous flair and sophistication…Safi’s novels created an imaginary city that could have been the San Francisco of the 50s in India. His penchant for villains with striking names like Gerald Shastri and Sang Hi taught me the importance of creating larger-than life characters such as Gabbar and Mogambo as a scriptwriter,” Akhtar told the Hindustan Times a couple of years back.
In the book The Making of Sholay, Anupama Chopra, writes about the inspiration behind the scene. “A disgruntled parent also inspired the classic ‘Veeru Ki Shaadi‘ proposal scene. Javed was in love with actress Honey Irani. They had first met on the sets of Seeta aur Geeta and much of their courtship was conducted there. But Mama Perin Irani kept a strict eye on her daughters. And Javed, still a struggling writer, had little to recommend him. He had presented himself but had failed to make an impression at all. Salim was a little senior. He had also worked in Bachpan, which Irani had produced. Naturally, Javed requested his partner to carry the proposal. He didn’t know that partner didn’t approve either.”
What followed was an interaction between Perin Irani and Salim Khan, which went like this:
‘Ladka kaisa hai?’
‘We are partners and I wouldn’t work with anyone unless I approve of him. Lekin daaru bahut peeta hai’
‘Kya? Daaru bahut peeta hai!’
‘Aaj kal bahut nahi peeta, bas ek do peg. Aur ismein aisi koi kharabi nahin hai. Lekin daaru peene ke baad red light area main bhi jaata hai.’

Chopra further writes in her book that the last line of the dialogue in the movie- ‘khandaan ka pata chalet hi aapko khabar kar denge‘ is fiction.
There are a few issues that arise here. The first of course is that Salim-Javed copied a scene without any attribution. But that has always been the norm with the Hindi film industry. The bigger issue of course is that even though the copied the scene they tried to pass it off as an inspiration from real life, which as I have shown above it clearly is not. Unless of course, Salim Khan had also read the book and repeated the lines when he went to meet Javed Akhtar’s would be mother-in-law. But that still doesn’t mean the scene wasn’t copied.
(On a different note, 20 years back I saw Mahesh Bhat’s Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahi at the Sandhya Cinema in Ranchi and fell in love with the movie and its heroine Pooja Bhat. A few years back I saw It Happened One Night, the Hollywood original. Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahi other than the songs it has is a scene by scene lift of It Happened One Night, even its dialogues are translated from the English original.)
Getting back to the topic at hand, Fareed Zakaria unlike Salim-Javed, is unlucky to be living in an era where copying something, and passing it off as your own creation, is getting more and more difficult. Zakaria is just finding that out. He has been suspended by both the Time magazine as well as CNN.
In some cases all it takes it is a Google search to figure out whether the article has been copied or not. Even those who copy do not copy from a mainstream magazine like the New Yorker. They are more likely to copy it from some obscure journal or research paper. But even there the chances of getting caught remain pretty high. Also if the original creators find out these days that someone else has copied them they tend to sue for damages.
When Salim-Javed copied times were different. People were not as much aware as they are today and it was easy to pass off someone else’s work as your own. In fact, the writer duo even went to the extent of creating a background for how they had been inspired in writing the “Veeru ki Shaadi” proposal scene. They got away with it. Zakaria clearly didn’t.
To conclude all I can say is that clearly “The Times They Are A Changin!” Now before I get accused of plagiarizing. I didn’t write this. We all know who did.
(The article originally appeared on on August 13,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])