A toast to `bootleg rentals'
A MONTH ago, the video library I frequent was raided. Library members returned home puzzled and disappointed when they found it shut. My heart sank. We had all come to depend on these pirated movies (which I had affectionately taken to calling, ``bootleg rentals'') to get us through our evenings and weekends.
It seemed sad and somehow wrong that we, who had benefited so much from this well stocked library (half the city would come here to do their borrowing), had got away scot-free while the owner had to face the consequences alone. And so we were all glad, I think, to see the library and its owners bounce back in a week's time. But I couldn't understand how. Their (mostly) pirated stock had gone for good what would they have for us to rent? To my surprise and delight, I found the library stocked with original VCDs. At least three hundred of them or more.
They were all movies that we had seen, of course, but mostly in camera prints or in theatres over the years. Now, finally, we could look forward to seeing them on master prints with digital sound. Best of all: they can be bought at the very affordable price of Rs. 200 and rented at Rs. 20. (They now need to do the same with DVDs, before that too is taken over by the pirates).
What this means is that there are now original VCDs to buy or rent. We can at last afford to begin our own personal movie collection. In fact, they have flooded the market in the last one year. These movies are mostly Hollywood blockbusters action, comedy and romantic drama.
The really fine films the great theatrical pieces are few. But it's a start. Some of the nice surprises: "Rosemary's Baby", "Chinatown", "Vertigo", "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "The Tailor of Panama", "A Passage to India", "Almost Famous", "Born Romantic", "Falling in Love", "Notorious" and other early Hitchcocks.
All this leads us to ask why we've never had originals in the market and why piracy hadtaken over in such a big way? And whether the two are linked? They are. But before I look at that, there's something even more fundamental that is the root cause for piracy taking hold: the delay in Hollywood movies coming to our theatres. At least now Hollywood movies reach our theatres within a couple of month's time up until the 1980s, movies came in as late as six months to a year. (I remember reading with excitement about Spielberg's "Close Encounters" in Time magazine and having to wait for a whole year for it to come to our theatres).
In Singapore, Hollywood and foreign films are released the same week (and sometimes the same day) as they are released in America. Think if only we had the top ten box office Hollywood hits release in India the same month they are released in America, would there have been a need for us to rent out those absurd, murky camera prints? Wouldn't we have just queued up in our theatres to see "The Two Towers" on the big screen with surround sound the way it was meant to be seen? It's because we've had to wait forever for these movies to hit our screens that we succumbed to camera prints. These pirated prints reach us within a month sometimes as little as a week after a movie's world premier.
You could ask why then do we watch camera prints of Indian movies that release in all our cities the same day. Well, I think I'll have to blame that squarely on the quality of our movies, particularly Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. I mean, who would like to take the trouble of going all the way to a theatre to see the same mediocre, predictable stuff dished out month after month?
Besides, it's like packing for a picnic to go see one of our movies in a theatre: long queues, huge crowds, disappointments from `Houseful' boards, and finally, after you've got in, you're stuck with the same formulaic claptrap for three to four hours. It's enough to want to make anyone reach for a camera print: apart from watching it in the comfort of your home, you can always fast forward. Or rewind, as the case may be. I think you'll agree when I point out that when a fairly decent Indian movie turns up, people feel they must see it in a theatre. Hmmm, on the other hand, I'll have to admit that camera prints have made us lazy.
The second and the more significant reason for the triumph of camera prints is the absence of original/master prints of movies in the market either to buy or rent.
If only we had had originals in the market two decades ago, there wouldn't have been a need for pirated stuff. Up until five years ago all you could get at your local video library were camera prints and pirated VCDs. Even if you wanted to rent out an original it wasn't there. (Sure, there were videotapes from `Fox', `Warner' and `Paramount', but they would trickle into the market in ones and twos over months and they were priced at Rs. 450!)
Also, the movies that were released as master prints, at this price, were exactly the movies showing on STAR and HBO. So it was a question of stock. How would you satisfy the entertainment needs of anyone with 50 originals and all of them stale titles?
Singapore, Bangkok, Colombo, Manila all our Asian neighbours had amply stocked chain stores like `Blockbusters' to rent from as far back as the 1980s. But we were stuck with these hole-in-the-wall libraries.
Things should change now with the presence of original VCDs. New titles are being released each week. At this rate, if every video library can stock up on originals, the pirates themselves would turn to legally manufacturing, distributing and selling VCDs/DVDs.
Well, in case we are seeing the end of a certain kind of piracy, I'd like to raise a toast to pirates, piracy and those hole-in-the-wall libraries for having provided all of us at the risk of being jailed and their loot seized countless hours of entertainment that took care of our collective boredom and slow evenings. Not to forget those torpid, drowsy Sunday afternoons.
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