The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Not everybody is as clever as Sheherazade — and so the heads roll sometimes. The latest entertainer in trouble seems to be Sahara Media Entertainment. A bolt quite from the blue has struck one of Sahara’s opulent new serials, in the shape of an American pulp-fiction writer. This lady has suddenly arrived in the city from Manhattan. She has officially objected to the alleged filching by the channel of the plot and characters from her hugely successful novel-turned-mini-series. Commercial entertainment — for its various creators, sponsors and producers — is a mix of juggling and gambling, with stories, tunes, celebrities and viewers. Entertainers have to be prolific and canny. They must have a sharp eye for those mythologies of everyday life which their audiences would like to have reflected back to them. These myths would then have to be matched with the right stories, told in the right ways, using the right faces. If, say, single mothers or mafia dons somehow touch the nerve of a particular society at a particular time, then it would be a good bet to exploit such a trend for creating a new and lucrative viewership.

Originality or creativity (in the high-brow sense of the word) is not very important in this process of manufacturing the right pleasures for the eye and the ear. Hence, traditional notions of plagiarism — born out of Romantic ideas of authorship and individualism — become very much more difficult to keep up in such a market of shifting appetites. There are, after all, only that many stories in the bits of human life which interest most people. And between Shakespeare, Jane Austen, The Mahabharata, The Bold and the Beautiful and Dallas, these stories have all been told rather memorably. So dressing old plots new becomes an irrepressible activity in the global and local entertainment businesses. Indian films, plays and serials do this often and sometimes well — be they high, middle or low of brow. Picking up stories from another society in order to transform them to suit indigenous realities and fantasies has become an accepted form of cultural translation. This is legitimized, if not by the international law of intellectual property rights, then by the frequency and inventiveness with which it is done here — and everywhere else and in all times, for that matter. The competitiveness of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre made Shakespeare one of the greatest snappers-up of other people’s literary trifles.

What the globalization of entertainment has created today is a narrative free-for-all — like the immense Sea of Stories revealed to Salman Rushdie’s Haroun by Iff, the Water-Genie. In this shimmering ocean, stories exist in fluid form, retaining the “ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and to become yet other stories”. Rushdie has forged here a beautiful image for a phenomenon which is as ancient as the Silk Route and the Crusades, and as contemporary as Hollywood and satellite television. Copyright law will be as helpless in the face of this indomitable resourcefulness as censorship laws have been in policing the boundless liberties of the internet.

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