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Can you ‘steal’ a song?

The number of ‘copied’ tunes is not limited to a few or even a few score, it runs into hundreds. Practically every music director is guilty of this ‘plagiarism’, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Mar 25, 2007 01:34 IST

That may sound like an eccentric Sunday morning question, but it’s one I cannot resist. I ask it in the context of the growing popularity of Hindi film music. I wonder how many of you realise the dismal truth behind the foot-tapping melodies we sing and hum? Many of them — including some of the best — are lifted from other people’s work. Is that ‘stealing’? Judge for yourself.

An enterprising young man called Karthik S. has set up a website that tracks this particular from of ‘theft’. Called ItwoFS, a tongue-in-cheek short form for Inspiration in Indian Film Songs, its findings are amazing. Let me give you a sense of their range and enormity.

To begin with, the number of ‘copied’ tunes is not limited to a few or even a few score. It runs into hundreds. Worse, practically every music director is guilty of this ‘plagiarism’. From what I can tell, the tally of the top 6 is as follows: Anu Malik 62, RD Burman 42, Rajesh Roshan 39, Nadeem-Shravan 36, Pritam Chakraborty 23, Jatin-Lalit 21, Shankar Jaikishan 21. Even AR Rahman figures on the list though, to be honest, his tally of 10 is only partly inspired rather than outright copies and at least three are doubtful.

The problem, it seems, has been with us for over half a century. Amongst the earliest ‘borrowings’ was O. P. Nayyar in C.I.D. His ‘Aye dil hai nushkil’ is ‘My darling Clementine’. The latest is Hat Trick. Pritam has ‘stolen’ Harry Belafonte’s ‘The woman is smarter’ hoping, I presume, no one would realise. Alas, Ronnie Screwvala, the producer, knew the original and dropped Pritam’s copy from the film. But it’s still playing as a promo on NDTV!

Often the ‘borrowing’ habit seems to be genetic. Both SD and RD Burman were practitioners of it. So too Nadeem-Sharavan and Shravan’s sons Sanjeev Darshan. Occasionally the same tune is ‘lifted’ more than once. ‘Come September’ has been used by both Anu Malik and Nadeem Shravan, ‘Tamma tamma’ by Laxmikant Pyarelal and Bappi Lahri. And in Mann, Sanjeev Darshan’s debut, 5 out of 9 numbers are attributable to earlier composers. I believe that’s a record of sorts.

Interestingly, the range of ‘borrowed’ music is truly cosmopolitan. Nadeem-Shravan have a ear for international tunes. For Damini they ‘borrowed’ the Swahili folk song ‘Malaika’. For Aatish they ‘took’ the Algerian ‘Ya Mustapha’. RD Burman ‘purloined’ ABBA’s ‘Mama Mia’ for Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahin and ‘I have a dream’ for Kaisa Tera Pyar. Shankar-Jaikishan ‘lifted’ ‘Ciao ciao bambino’ for ‘Aa ab laut chalen’ (Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai), Jatin-Lalit ‘took’ ‘Day by day’ from Godspell for ‘Yeh vaada hai’ (Raju Chacha), and Anu Malik ‘El condor pasa’ for ‘Teri chaahat ke siva’ (Jaanam).

Even Beethoven and Mozart have not been spared (Anu Malik and Salil Chaudhary). So too Christmas carols (‘The First Noel’ – RD Burman), Pepsi commercials (Pritam) and the Airtel tune (Anu Malik, again).

Now, when you discover that Hindi film music is catching on in London and Berlin or LA and Santiago, are you really surprised? We in India may not recognise the original but I’m sure they do.

However what do our music directors say of themselves? Of course, the question is not asked as often or as forcefully as it needs to be. But when it is their answers can be astonishing. Unfortunately, few, if any, acknowledge theft. Aadesh Srivastava, who ‘lifted’ Musicology from Prince, says “it’s a software problem… I picked up the tune from this software… may be Prince used the same software”! Nadeem-Shravan are reported to have said they were influenced by background music in a hotel which lingered in their memory. Pritam, with a touch of youthful defiance, claims “a good song isn’t just about composing … what matters is how you design and present it”.

So let me return to the question I began with: is this ‘theft’? I can’t help think it is. Even if actual copyright doesn’t exist, or has lapsed, to pass off someone else’s tune as your own creation can’t be morally right, regardless of whether it’s legally permissible. What’s worse is that in doing so Indian music directors are attempting to fool their fans. They think we are too ignorant to know and too stupid to find out. Thanks to Karthik, that’s no longer the case.