Hollywood is in the throes of remake fever. So far this year, we’ve seen the release of Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, The Karate Kid, and Robin Hood. Other remakes on deck or rumored to be in the works include Red Dawn, Footloose, Private Benjamin, Conan the Barbarian, Police Academy, Romancing the Stone, Slap Shot, Arthur, The Birds, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Total Recall.
The American film industry is slated to release about 75 remakes in 2010, and while that number is unusually high, remakes are nothing new in Hollywood. Some are outstanding films-Cape Fear (1991), for example. And some are painfully bad-such as Planet of the Apes (2001).
Moviegoers love to bemoan remakes-never as good as the original, they say-but they still turn out in droves to see them. Take Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds-the Tom Cruise-starrer earned $592 million worldwide. The 2007 Will Smith film I Am Legend-a remake of the 1971 Charlton Heston-starrer The Omega Man-took in $583 million. Tim Burton’s 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp-a remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder film-made $475 million.
We’ve seen many other remakes in recent years-King Kong (2005), Bewitched (2005), Miami Vice (2006), The Pink Panther (2006)-the list goes on and on.
So why does Bollywood get such a bad rap for remaking Hollywood films when Hollywood is guilty of the same thing? Is it because Bollywood is raiding another country’s cinema for story ideas? Stop right there, because Hollywood has a long tradition of pilfering European cinema, particularly French, and no one raises any eyebrows about it.
Hollywood remakes of French films include Three Men and a Baby (Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin), 12 Monkeys (La Jetée), True Lies (La Totale), The Birdcage (La Cage Aux Folles), and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Boudu Saved from Drowning). The 2001 film Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise, is a remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos. The 2009 film Brothers, with Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, is a remake of a Danish film by the same name. The 1960 film The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1954 Japanese film The Seven Samurai (and some people have the gall to call the 1975 Bollywood classic Sholay a rip-off of The Magnificent Seven when it’s a rip-off itself!).
Hollywood doesn’t stop at borrowing from its own and others’ films. It helps itself to Broadway musicals-West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Chicago (2002), Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Producers (2005)-as well as books-from Gone with the Wind (1939) to the James Bond series to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, more than 1,250 novels, short stories, and plays have been made into feature films in the U.S. since 1980 alone. Other notables include Out of Africa (1985), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Age of Innocence (1993), Great Expectations (1998), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Beowulf (2007), and Alice in Wonderland (2010).
So why then is Bollywood castigated for turning Hollywood’s Hitch (2005) into Partner (2007), Memento (2000) into Ghajini (2005), and Bruce Almighty (2003) into God Tussi Great Ho (2008)? Western critics and journalists hurl insults like “copycat” and “knock-off” at the Hindi film industry when no sees anything wrong with Hollywood doing it.
The biggest problem with the argument that Bollywood rips off Hollywood is that Hollywood movies don’t do well in India. American films capture as small a market share in India as foreign films do in the U.S.-a fact Hollywood would love to change, given the size of the Indian market, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to do it. Even Avatar (2009), which broke box-office records for an American film in India, still grossed much less in India than the Bollywood film 3 Idiots (2009), which released around the same time. So why would Bollywood filmmakers even want to remake films that Indian audiences don’t want to see? The truth is, they don’t.
So-called Hindi remakes of Hollywood films aren’t really remakes. They diverge vastly from the original in order to appeal to Indian audiences that weren’t interested in the original in the first place. The end result is often a barely recognizable Indian version. More often than not, Hindi filmmakers merely borrow bits and pieces from Hollywood films-a loose premise, a powerful scene, a memorable character, a witty line of dialogue-and that’s it. And it’s not uncommon for Hindi filmmakers to include elements from multiple Hollywood films in one movie. Koi Mil Gaya (2003) is said to be inspired by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Rain Man (1988), and Forrest Gump (1994). Dhoom (2004) has been criticized for copying The Fast and the Furious (2001) and Point Break (1991), and the ending is similar to that of Thelma and Louise (1991). Kites (2010) was also criticized for its Thelma and Louise ending, while others found it to be more reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.
You can’t really say that Thelma and Louise had an original ending, though, and therefore, it can’t be copied per se. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) ends the same way. There’s nothing novel about the idea that criminals would rather die by their own hand than get caught. It happens all the time in real life. Therefore, it’s a natural conclusion for stories about criminals on the run.
And what exactly constitutes a remake anyway? The Hindi film Jism (2003) has been called a remake of Body Heat (1981), which is a remake of Double Indemnity (1944), which is based on a true story. So, is Jism really a remake or is it based on the true story, too?
Let’s face it, on a basic level, stories are almost always retellings of other stories. The Western tradition has long held that there are only three essential stories-man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself-and all stories are variations of those three. That’s a very Western viewpoint, though. Western stories tend to focus on an individual hero-usually male-and his lone quest. Indian stories, on the other hand, take a broader view and include sprawling casts of characters (men and women figure prominently) that span generations; heroes are not isolated but defined by their relationships to others. Additionally, Indian story archetypes aren’t just vague concepts-they come in the form of two vibrant, ancient epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both are sacred Hindu texts, and even though they are thousands of years old, they are a central to Indian consciousness to this day.
The Mahabharata is the longest composition in the history of the world-it is eight times longer than The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. (The Bhagavad Gita, which many Westerners are familiar with, is merely one section of the Mahabharata.) It is the story of two related clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and the power struggle within their family, which culminates in a cataclysmic battle. The Ramayana is the story of Lord Rama and his wife Sita, who is kidnapped by a demon king. There is much, much more to both stories, but those are the central conflicts. Both are gripping and challenging, unflinchingly honest about human nature, and neither have happy endings. You don’t have to be Hindu to appreciate these amazing narratives.
The Mahabharata states: “What is found here may be found elsewhere. What is not found here will not be found elsewhere.” I can’t disagree. When reading it, it’s impossible not to see the ambiguous characters in your own life and in the world at large, and their self-created drama rings painfully true to experience on every level. It’s like holding up a mirror to humanity-and mirrors don’t miss a thing.
(For those looking for English translations, I recommend R.K. Narayan’s shortened prose versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and Stephen Mitchell’s beautiful translation of the Bhagavad Gita.)
Naturally, both stories strongly influence Indian cinema and traces of them can be found in nearly every Hindi film-there’s certainly an endless amount of material to draw from-while the vast majority of Hindi films contain no Hollywood references whatsoever. If Bollywood is “copying” anything, it’s not Hollywood.
Two recent Bollywood releases, Raavan (2010) and Raajneeti (2010), are full-blown modern adaptations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata respectively. Raajneeti also borrows one character and certain scenes from the American film classic The Godfather (1972), and they fit so neatly into the film’s Mahabharata plot line, it eerily reinforces the epic’s claim of all-inclusiveness.
In all fairness, one of the biggest reasons Bollywood catches flak about its Hollywood remakes is because Hindi filmmakers, in the past, didn’t purchase the rights to them. And Hollywood has started cracking down. In 2008, 20th Century Fox accepted a settlement from the producer of the forthcoming Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai, which Fox accused of copying the 1992 Oscar-winning comedy My Cousin Vinny. In 2009, Warner Bros. took out public notices in The Times of India warning Bollywood against plans to remake The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). A notice was also issued by Warner Bros. regarding The Departed (2006).
So Bollywood is now paying for authorized remakes, as it should. A Bollywood production company recently obtained the rights from Paramount to remake The Italian Job (2003). And Indian filmmaker Karan Johar, head of Dharma Productions, is set to release an authorized remake of Sony’s Stepmom (1998), titled We Are Family and starring Kajol, Kareena Kapoor, and Arjun Rampal, this fall.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood started remaking Bollywood films as well. In May, Indian entertainment conglomerate Reliance sold remake rights to the 2007 Bollywood hit Johnny Gaddaar to a U.S. producer.
To borrow a line from the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes-a line famously borrowed by Shakespeare-there’s nothing new under the sun.