Fighting the pirates of Bollywood

BANGALORE, India — "The last time my family and I watched a much-hyped Bollywood movie in the cinema, it cost me 1,200 rupees ($27) for the tickets, popcorn and soda. If I had taken home a pirated DVD for 40 rupees (less than $1), I could have avoided the traffic on the streets and the crowds in the multiplex. Why don’t I save money and watch the movie in the comfort of my home next time?"

So writes a poster called ‘dfjdl’ on, one of India’s most heavily trafficked web sites.

India is among the world's most avid movie markets, for both Bollywood as well as Hollywood films. It is also one of the biggest markets for pirated movie DVDs and music CDs.

Take recent Bollywood blockbuster movies "3 Idiots" and "My Name is Khan." Within hours of the movies’ release, furtive vendors at street corners hawked illegal copies of the movies for as little as 30 or 40 rupees, half the price of a single movie ticket in a Bangalore multiplex.

“For every $100 a movie makes, it is losing $50 to piracy,” said Amitabh Bardhan, CEO of PVR Cinemas, one of India’s largest movie theater chains. “It is a system leakage that we have to plug,” he said.

And piracy isn't confined to Bollywood or even to India. Bollywood films are enjoying an unprecedented burst of popularity overseas and are counterfeited in the United States, just as much as Hollywood films are pirated in India.

So Bollywood and Hollywood executives are trying to put an end to the rampant piracy. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has partnered with seven of the biggest Bollywood production studios including YashRaj Films, UTV Films and Reliance Big Entertainment.

The collaboration will fund efforts to combat movie piracy in India. The MPAA-Bollywood studio coalition is already at work, conducting raids in Mumbai over the past several weeks, and seizing thousands of pirated DVDs.

“Copyright theft jeopardizes a movie’s ability to make money, in turn affecting the level of investment available for movie-making,” said Taran Adarsh, a Bollywood trade expert in Mumbai. This in turn results in fewer films and fewer new jobs in the country, he said.

India’s underground market of pirated movies is a complex web. Within days of release, organized pirate gangs sneak camcorders into movie theaters and flood the corners of this movie-obsessed country with thousands of bootlegged copies. Such illicit recording makes up some three-quarters of all piracy here.

There is plenty to pirate. In India, Bollywood movies — with their mind-boggling storylines, lavish dance sequences and extravagant costumes and melodrama — are the primary source of mass entertainment.

For those earning a couple of dollars a day, affording a movie ticket can be a squeeze. “Why would anybody want to go to the cinema if he can find a hawker selling him a five-movies-in-a-DVD for as little as 100 rupees ($2)?” asked Adarsh, the Bollywood analyst.

Online piracy rates are also very high. Despite low internet penetration and slow broadband connections in India, movies are freely downloaded through file-sharing networks.

When police in Bangalore, Baroda or Bareilly raid pirates’ dens or crack down on the networks, they often find newer formats like mobile chips and memory cards.

“Those who pirate the movies have no stake whatsoever in the Bollywood food chain,” said Bardhan of PVR. Everybody is losing money to piracy — the producers, exhibitors, the industry, the government. Bollywood could have made better movies, and make them more affordable if it can plug piracy, said Bardhan.

Those arrested in the crackdowns are usually small fry in the piracy chain who invariably get out on bail. Bardhan says only stringent laws can bring piracy to a halt.

The stakes are, indeed, huge. India’s entertainment industry is expected to grow at an average of 11 percent over the next five years and reach $14 billion in size, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The U.S.-India Business Council says the media and entertainment industry can expect to grow an extra $5 billion a year if piracy is controlled.

But that won't be easy. Already, a rought cut of a Bollywood film due to release in the cinemas this summer — "Tera Kya Hoga Johnny" (what’s going to happen to you, Johnny?) — has showed up on YouTube, enraging its director Sudhir Misra.

Piracy is so rampant and the efforts so far to curb it have been so feeble that it is an exercise in futility, said Bollywood trade expert Adarsh. “So far, Bollywood and Hollywood have not taken this seriously and the industry is to blame,” he said.

Adarsh has another warning: unless producers in Hollywood and Bollywood come together for a long fight — and stick with it — this will be a battle tilted in favor of the pirates.