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Retrofit: Taking piracy head-on, seeing some affirmative action at last

Guest Column
Retrofit: Taking piracy head-on, seeing some affirmative action at last

Author | Sandeep Bamzai | Wednesday, Sep 30,2009 6:57 AM

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Guest Column<br>Retrofit:  Taking piracy head-on, seeing some affirmative action at last

The other day, a popular and long running show on Sony Entertainment TV – ‘CID’ – featured an episode on video piracy and roped in the hero of ‘Wanted’, Salman Khan, for the same. Reel life was soon to be replicated in real life, and how. The film industry has been shouting itself hoarse for years now on the burgeoning menace of piracy. But let us rewind and go back in a Wellsian Time Machine to understand the mechanics of this deadly dangerous trade.

Sometime in mid-July this year Yash Chopra, Mahesh Bhatt and Amit Khanna met Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan and got an assurance from him on weeding out film piracy. Soon after the Maharashtra Government unveiled a landmark ordinance to curb audio-video piracy. By including audio-video piracy in the Mahrashtra Prevention of Dangerous Activities Act, which has provisions for preventive detention of errant offenders, it dramatically changed the rules of engagement on what is well known as a festering sore within the film and entertainment industry. Knowledgeable industry denizens will tell you that audio-video piracy results in a loss of approximately a billion dollars annually from the Indian entertainment industry, almost 8 per cent of the total $12 billion pie.

In fact, a 2009 Rand Corporation study, which focused on 14 cases of film piracy, provides an eye opening exposition of how the production of knock-offs can be linked to criminal syndicates and terrorist organisations. The report added that organised crime and terror networks are constantly looking at new avenues to enlarge their financial base and counterfeiting is widely used to generate cash for diverse criminal organisations to widen and deepen their web of nefarious activities. This is known as low risk, high profit piracy.

Anyway, soon after meeting Chavan, the film industry delegation met Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit with a similar request. She asked for a draft of the Maharashtra Ordinance, which she wanted to bring to the Centre’s attention in the war against piracy. Earlier, they also met the Prime Minister and I&B Minister Ambika Soni on this sensitive issue. Both promised them an amendment to the Copyright Act and the Cable TV Network Regulation Act. Would the war on piracy begin or like so many other assurances would this too be forgotten?

Now, let us fast forward to late September and some real action from the Maharashtra Government. Economic Times, like many other newspapers, reported that UTV producers of ‘What’s Your Rashee?’ are taking legal action against Adlabs and UFO Moviez. The headline was – Gowarikar seeks 50 cr in damages from UFO Moviez’, M’bai cops head to Delhi, Ghaziabad for more arrests. Believe me, alarm bells were ringing all across the film and entertainment industry. ET’s story said, “The Mumbai Crime Branch has arrested six people, including a business development manager from Adlabs Films and an associate vice president from UFO Moviez, for pirating 11 films even before they were released. It has also found that the entire racket is being run from Karachi in Pakistan. The latest masterprint to be leaked out was Ashutosh Gowariker’s ‘What’s Your Rashee?’, releasing today.

“A Crime Branch team arrested three people, Afsar Hyder Hussain alias Ashraf, 26, Firoz Irfan Khan alias Salim, 23, and Tanzim Ali Sayed, 26, in Mumbai and recovered pirated CDs of ‘What’s Your Rashee?’ and ‘Dil Bole Hadippa!’. They told police that they had got the copy of the film’s masterprint from business development manager with Adlabs, Durgadas Bhakta, and associate vice president (operations and digital mastering) with UFO Moviez, Rajesh Chaudhary, for Rs 2 lakh. Following this, Crime Branch arrested the two along with Bhakta’s associate Ajay Pal, 27. Adlabs has processed ‘What’s Your Rashee?’, and UFO was to digitise the film and release it in multiplexes. Chaudhary made a copy of the film at UFO.” Key links in the value chain were caught, an unprecedented effort from the Crime Branch.”

The ET story went on to state, “The pirates disclosed that they would send a print to Karachi, where it would further be distributed to countries, including Bangladesh, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Indonesia. Crime Branch teams have left for Delhi and Ghaziabad in search of Jitender Kumar, a major player, who is suspected to have links with the Dawood gang; two top officials of Shemaroo and Reliance Big Cinemas have also been arrested.

“Officials said Kumar also has connections with the two piracy groups now in police custody. Afsar Hyder Hussain alias Ashraf, who was picked up on Tuesday, is the link between Kumar and the groups in Mumbai. Though Afsar deals with Kumar to sell and distribute pirated movies, last year, Kumar tipped off the police that Afsar was carrying pirated material and got him arrested at Mumbai airport, said a senior Mumbai police officer who did not wish to be named. Sources said Kumar is involved in distribution of pirated movies in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Gwalior.”

The story then went on to do its due diligence: An official spokesperson from Adlabs said, “Our security measures make us one of the most protected and safe environments for motion picture handling. The incident regarding ‘What’s Your Rashee?’ is not attributable to us in any manner.” Meanwhile, UFO Moviez has dismissed Chaudhary from service. Top officials of the firm met senior Crime Branch officers in Mumbai and said they would cooperate with the investigation.

What this spectacular breakthrough has achieved is provide conclusive evidence that organised crime is increasingly involved in the piracy of feature films, with syndicates active along the entire value chain from manufacture to street sales of pirated movies. And it doesn’t end there – audio piracy, software piracy – the whole ball of wax is rampant across the country. The recent arrests by Mumbai’s Crime Branch are significant because they have snared people across the value chain, not just peddlers, but high value targets as in reasonably high ranking functionaries. As I write this, I hear that some more people have been arrested in the same connection on Tuesday evening in Mumbai. So, while the dragnet is out, it is clear that many people from various companies are involved. A can of worms has been opened.

The crackdown has been widespread and that is why it is working. Immediately after the ‘What’s Your Rashee?’ capture, in a fresh development in the piracy racket case of Bollywood movies, two officials of popular distribution houses in Mumbai, were arrested for their alleged involvement in smuggling pirated films to Pakistan from where copies of the prints were circulated all over the world.

A deeper malaise was revealed when Neerav Shah (30), manager of overseas distribution with Reliance Big Cinemas and Kalapi Nagda (29), head of overseas distribution with Shemaroo Pictures, were arrested in connection with the piracy racket. JCP Rakesh Maria said, “A DVD print of Bollywood movie ‘Fast Forward’ (scheduled to be released on Friday) has been recovered from the duo.”

The arrests of industry insiders exposed the sinister and deep rooted involvement of various company personnel in this racket. Interestingly, one of the arrested, Ashraf Husain, had earlier worked with an anti-piracy agency, throwing into stark relief the nexus, planning, complicity and strategy. This is not a simple sweatshop piracy venture, but one which has links across the border and the possible involvement of D-Company. Husain had earlier worked with Jai Sri Krishna, an agency dealing with prevention of video piracy. HT reported that Maria said that while working in the agency, Ashraf learnt about the loopholes in the system and began to exploit them after crossing the divide and turning lawbreaker.

Slam dunk. Finally, our lawmakers are taking affirmative action on a dangerous and deep-rooted conspiracy. Kudos to the much maligned cops. And think of big companies whose officials have been picked up for transgressing the law. Makes you think of what lengths the crime syndicates can go to.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.

The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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