Is it okay for music composers to be inspired by other compositions? When does an inspiration become a plagiarised work?

A still from Saarathu Vandila song in the film Kaatru Veliyidai showing Karthi and Aditi Rao Hydari in a dance poseFacebook/ Saarattu Vandiyila - Kaatru Veliyidai
Flix Kollywood Friday, March 05, 2021 - 19:31

A few days ago, music composer Santhosh Narayanan was accused of plagiarism for ‘Kanda Vara Sollunga’, a moving oppari (Tamil folk lament style) number in the voice of Kidakuzhi Mariyammal, in Dhanush’s upcoming film Karnan. However, the makers had clearly credited popular folk singer Thekkampatti S Sundarrajan for the tune at the beginning of the video. His version is a devotional song sung in praise of Ayappan, and it goes ‘Kanda Vara Sollunga, Ayappanai".

While the accusation in this case is perhaps unfair since due credit was given, there have been several instances in the past when fans have pointed out similarities between songs. For example, Anirudh’s ‘Chumma Kizhi’ composed for Rajinikanth’s Darbar which was released in 2020, closely resembles a devotional song.

Even if credit is given, folk artists are seldom paid for their contribution. Quite often, when it comes to Tamil cinema songs, composers have taken “inspiration” or even whole portions from other songs to be used in theirs. Some admit it, perhaps during a live show or in an interview or maybe a line at the back of the EP (Extended Play). But, such acts also go by without any acknowledgement.

In India, the concept of plagiarism is somewhat vaguely defined and the rights of the creator are only protected by the Copyright Act. “In foreign countries, even if a small portion of the song is used, the accused can be asked to pay in millions, whereas in India, anyone can use anyone’s content. Original content can definitely not be used in full but if one were to modify the original, nothing major can be done. It is difficult to bring it to justice according to the current law,” explains advocate Pradeep.

“However, the government is coming out with strict policies on copyright laws and they have begun taking opinions from experts. Soon we may be able to see how the new amendments will give more protection to the creators,” he adds.

The legal aspect aside, how do fans view such "inspiration"? TNM spoke to a few Tamil cinema song lovers to know their opinions. Is it okay for music composers to be inspired by other compositions? When does an inspiration become a plagiarised work? Should they at all credit the original song/composer or is it okay for them not to?

“The level of inspiration in the song decides if it is a copy or just an inspiration,” says Jaisri Nandhini, who is awaiting her post graduate law counselling in Coimbatore. “Take AR Rahman’s ‘Saaratu Vandiyila' from Kaatru Veliyidai for instance. This song is ditto the same as a Malayalam song ‘Thannakkum tharo’. Many pointed this out and made fun too. But there was another group that pointed to yet another song, composed by Ilaiyaraaja, called ‘Oorukku’ from the film Kummi Paatu. Inspiration of an inspiration?” she chuckles.

Chennai based photographer and writer Prabhu Kalidas offers an explanation. “If you look at it, most folk numbers have a similar thread. Most of them might sound the same. You can also find similarities between Santhosh Narayanan’s ‘Kanda Vara Sollunga’ and this popular folk song called ‘Kolusu kada orathile’,” he says.

Jaisri’s reasoning on the 'level' of inspiration is not unlike Chennai-based VUX designer Sivaraman Ganesan’s thoughts on the topic. He says, “We have to ask where a copy or an inspiration differs. Have they just lifted an entire portion and used it in their composition or have they taken just a thread and woven an entirely different tapestry? There’s a Hindi song called ‘Khoya Khoya Chand Khula Aasman’ from the 1960 film Kala Bazar. This is a male solo and Ilaiyaraaja has used the same anupallavi (first para) from this song in his composition ‘Ohoho Kalai Kuyilgale’ in the film Unnai Vaazhthi Paadugiren (1992). This is a heroine introduction song with chorus. Just see how different the two songs are.”

We’re reminded of another Ilaiyaraaja song where he took inspiration from an English song ‘Kites’ by British band Simon Dupree and the Big Sound (1967). The lead portion of this song is the same tune we hear in ‘Akkarai Seemai Azhaginile’ sung by KJ Yesudas for the 1978 film Priya. The rest of the song bears no resemblance to the original.

There is another popular song that was indeed inspired but the similarity is hardly noticeable. In one of his interviews, Kamal Haasan talked about how Ilaiyaraaja came up with ‘Inji Idupazhaga’ for his Thevar Magan (1992). “I wanted a song that sounded flat, possible for any singer to sing. I told him, I wanted a song that sounded like ‘Yeh Dil Diwana Hai, Diwana Dil Hai Yeh’ (Ishq Par Zor Nahin, 1970) by SD Burman. I sang the song because I knew he is a fan of SD, he respects him. So he said okay…" said Kamal, going on to sing and explain how the song came about.

“Inspiration is good, and is inevitable,” Sivaraman says and adds, “Then there are those who have completely copied songs and styles, this includes composer Deva. But we have accepted him as a composer and we all love his songs, there is no denying that.”

It's not that a composer is always inclined to 'lift' music. Sometimes, the makers of the film come with specific requests similar to that of what happened with ‘Inji Idupazhagi’. “In one of his interviews, Deva said, 'Earlier people used to come with empty cassettes, now they come with an MTV cassette.' Those were the kind of requests he got,” Sivaraman says.

Jaisri gives another example. “We all know just how famous Yuvan’s Mankatha background music is. But this is inspired from a popular English band song and he has given credits at the back of the album’s CD. Venkat Prabhu, the film’s director, has said in interviews that he specifically requested the BGM to sound the same and Yuvan did so, with credits,” she says.

This opinion was echoed by many others TNM spoke to, and for most of them, it does not diminish the value of the composer at all. “Yuvan’s ‘Kadhal Kadhal’ song in the film Kadhal Konden is entirely inspired from an English band’s song that came out in 1994. I’ve heard the original, and I know that 'Kadhal Kadhal' has been enhanced and made to sound different by the composer. It is a copy done well,” says Jaisri, a self-confessed Yuvan Shankar Raja fan. The original she’s referring to is called 'Ravens', and is by a Swedish-Finnish band called Hedningarna (The Heathens).

When it comes to folk songs, Prabhu contends that such compositions bring to light songs that are popular but are restricted to a community. “If you take gaana, there are different genres like attu gaana, marana gaana, etc. Attu gaana has a lot of swearing and it’s usually sung when having fun. Marana gaana is in praise of the dead. ‘Irandhidava Nee Pirandhai’ from Pa Ranjith’s Madras is an excellent example. Many of us may never get the chance to listen to an artist perform it live at a mourning house. So when we hear it in a film, it opens it up to a bigger audience. Music is common to all, isn’t it?” he asks.

And the same goes for classical, ragam-based compositions. Sandhya, a music teacher in Chennai, says, “MS Viswanathan used a lot of Hindustani ragas in his compositions. It was also the generation that listened to a lot of Hindi songs. Ilaiyaraaja has also used Carnatic ragas in his compositions. If you take the Keeravani ragam, there are hundreds of cinema songs that will sound similar."

Should creators always credit their original inspirations or reveal how the song was made? Jaisri says, “In the Hindi film Ram Leela, they posed behind-the-scenes videos where they discuss how they’ve tuned a particular Gujarati folk number for the film. We got to see how they’ve done it. But, neither Mani Ratnam nor AR Rahman addressed the ‘Sarathu Vandiyila’ controversy. There is a huge gap, yes.”

“However, there is no right or wrong here. Fans will continue to enjoy his (AR Rahman’s) songs be it ‘Kadhal Rojave' or ‘Simtangaran’. Such discussions are only momentary,” she adds. In some cases, figuring out the origins of a song is like deciphering a puzzle for fans. “It took me so many years to realise that Yuvan’s 'Vazhaikaiya Yosingada’ is in fact ‘Senthamizh thenmozhiyal’,” Sandhya laughs. “I didn't know it for long. It all depends on how you present it differently. It’s interesting to see how each composer makes the song his own."

“But,” Prabhu Kalidas warns, “Creators should not underestimate the audience. That attitude should change. Some day, with the technology we have, we will eventually get to know. Ilaiyaraaja’s opening of ‘Endha Poovilum Vasam Undu’ is inspired from a Spanish composer Ruiz-Pipó’s piece called ‘Cancion y Danza’. His ‘Veetuku Veetukum Vasapadi Venum’ is based on a Mozart symphony. While he has spoken about the latter in public, he has not spoken about the other."

So is giving credits enough? “Ilaiyaraaja has used inspiration in his songs, and if he has given credit now, it’s only because he missed doing so back in the day. But today, it should not stop with just giving credits. One needs to do what is ethical, especially in the case of folk singers where monetary benefits would go a long way in helping them,” Sivaraman says. 

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