Once again, Bollywood has ruined another great song with a comically terrible remake.
Dharma Productions’ latest major release, the film Jugg Jugg Jeeyo recently sparked Twitter outrage due to the remakes of two regional classics: Nach Punjaban by Pakistani singer Abrar-ul-Haq and Dupatta Tera Sat Rang Da by late Punjabi singer Surjit Bindrakhia.
Many on social media expressed their disbelief about how Bollywood is able to steal music from regional communities time and time again.
These examples fit into a long history of Bollywood remaking and plagiarizing regional music to be consumed en masse. The industry has remade folk songs and pop songs for decades from regions across India including Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Telangana among others.
When Bollywood takes a song that is popular within a regional community, especially without the original creator’s consent and remakes it without care and consideration for the cultural significance it holds, it often strips the music of its original intention and artistic value.
When the remakes are modernized to the point that the song is nearly unrecognizable, it gives the impression that the original artist or members of that regional community were not consulted in the song’s adaptation.
5XPress sat down with artist manager, brand strategist, and writer Jashima to unpack the legality and cultural implications of regional appropriation in the Bollywood music industry.
For Jashima, this appropriation feels personal for so many people due to the intentional erasure of regional cultures by Bollywood—both within the music industry and beyond.
“Why have you destroyed the Punjabi language and continue to use themes and tropes from our culture, but not cast us or not commission musicians from Punjab to make that music, or any regional area for that matter?” Jashima said.
The Bollywood film and music industry is notorious for playing into harmful and reductive tropes of the very regional communities that they seek to profit from through their appropriation. Bollywood often portrays the entirety of South India as an educated, elitist monolith, Punjabis as jolly, stupid alcoholics, and Muslims as terrorists through their characters and stories.
There are endless examples of films where we see this, but Chennai Express, Singh is Kinng and the Baaghi franchise are just a few where we see these tropes so obviously at play.
What it comes down to, is that Bollywood is eager to villainize us, to laugh at us and disparage us in their films while simultaneously using our culture for their own profit. They get to pick and choose which parts of our culture works the best for their callous industry, while often failing to portray our communities with any semblance of nuance or humanity.
These multilayered tensions explain why so many communities voice their frustration with distasteful remakes, because it goes deeper than one song.
Jashima also says that it’s obvious why Bollywood would want to co-opt regional music in the first place. Regional music strikes a chord across the world with the communities that Bollywood so desperately wants to profit from.
“It's not lost on them, or anyone, that when you play a Punjabi song, it doesn't matter what community you're from, everyone knows it. It’s because we eat, live and breathe our culture and we're often singing about things that are relatable or really fun, right? Many, many music genres and regional communities take this path,” she said.
However, when it comes to the legality of music ownership in India, locating who actually owns the rights to a song can be complex.
Music Plagiarism in Bollywood
There are plenty of examples where regional artists have had their original work plagiarized by Bollywood with few opportunities for remuneration.
The original artist of Nach Punjaban, Abrar-ul-Haq came forward and claimed that he did not sell the rights to the song to Dharma Productions.
Just a day later, T-Series released a statement claiming that the company has legally acquired the rights to the song and that the original creator will be given due credit.
Pakistani singer Hadiqa Kiani, creator of the song Boohe Baariyan, had a similar incident where she suggested that Bollywood had illegally claimed that they acquired rights to songs, when in reality, that never happened.
In 2019, Punjabi composer and singer Dr Zeus spoke out against the creators of the film Bala for recreating his hit song Don’t Be Shy and Kangna without his permission. Again, the artists involved in the remake, Badshah and Sachin-Jigar, insisted that they acquired the rights required to use the song.
These are just a few instances of many where disputes about artist ownership against Bollywood have gone public. However, Jashima explained that there are many instances where regional artists do legally sell their work to Bollywood.
“It’s wrong in terms of diluting our culture and not including us in the grand scheme of the country’s culture. It’s wrong for every region. But if legally the artists sold [the rights to their song], or they don’t own it, that’s where things get tricky,” she said.
When it comes to cases where the songs are stolen, Jashima said that access to litigation—particularly when it comes to those who are well-versed in music law—is hard to find.
When artists don’t have access to strong representation, it’s easy to get mulled over by media companies who have people who understand the inner workings of music law.
“If you like our language, and if you like the way our community evangelizes behind the arts and music, then please pay us to be the ones to create it or to consult on it, or license or buy our music,” Jashima said.
Moreover, many artists in India regardless of region, do not have the language to engage in conversations about music in their native tongue.
“I can't say this enough times, access to the things we are talking about are abundantly high-barrier to entry and extremely privileged and extremely language and experience contingent,” Jashima said.
Predatory, but legal deals
To understand the remake culture in Bollywood, it’s helpful to understand how Bollywood is able to repurpose regional music in the first place.
Understanding where the ownership to a given song lies from a legal standpoint in India is tricky, Jashima explained.
Folk songs (with a few exceptions), for example, are considered “collectively owned” and cannot be protected by copyright due to the difficulty in tracing its origins. When it is unclear who the first person to sing a given folk song was, it becomes challenging to protect through copyright. Therefore folk songs can often be remade or reimagined in Bollywood without a legal acquisition of the rights to the original song itself.
The rights to original songs, however, can be owned by one or multiple entities.
“Back in the day, people were put into really predatory deals and given cash, or money, or exposure for the rights to their song, which still happens,” Jashima said.
In these cases, Jashima explained, large music conglomerates were able to purchase the rights to large volumes of music through predatory deals with artists who quite frankly, needed the money from those deals.
“While it sounds awful to us and like a stealing and misuse of our culture, which it is, the legal part of it isn’t that straightforward because if artists from that regional community gave their rights away, or were bought out, they no longer have rights to them.”
“I think the biggest injustice is predatory systems in entertainment and lack of infrastructure in the arts, and cultural dilution.”
The other way that regional music might find itself in the hands of Bollywood is through licensing. Licensing is when the artist themselves sells the song to anyone, in this case filmmakers, to make a new version of it—which is what brought the Dupatta Tera Sat Rang Da remake and so many others in the past two decades to fruition.
Here, the artist may or may not have creative input on the final version, depending on the deal made.
Predatory regional music deals in Bollywood happen often for a myriad of reasons. Jashima explained how artists have considerable incentive through money and exposure to take these deals from conglomerates.
Audiences are understandably critical of regional artists “selling out” to the industry. But these deals that smaller artists are able to make with Bollywood, though predatory, are still an opportunity for them to make money from their music.
“Many people don't have the luxury of saying no to money today for the potential of money and ownership tomorrow.”
We can recognize that working with Bollywood gives our favourite artists an opportunity to get a cheque and further professional opportunities from their work, while still being critical of the circumstances that cause them to enter these deals in the first place.
Many artists may not have access to litigation or feel they have any bargaining power in the face of large music conglomerates with ample resources, Jashima explained. Those that do, may have their own reasons for cutting a deal with the industry.
In reality, regional musicians and recording artists have a few main streams of income. These include private performances, streaming, ads, brand partnerships etc. But not all artists have enough of a following to keep their income consistent, or the infrastructure to set themselves up long term.
So while it’s frustrating to see our favourite regional songs being butchered on such a big scale, it’s not uncommon for the original artist to play a part in making this happen.
What can we do?
While power dynamics make it easy to be cynical about the future of music ownership, work is being done to change the landscape of music in India.
Jashima suggests that building artist infrastructure and systems that are in place to protect artists from predatory deals is crucial moving forward. This includes a commitment to documenting regional art, so that it can be safeguarded by regional communities.
“‘Credit culture’ should be a thing. If we don’t know the songwriter and the year we published something, or who directed a music video, in 10 years when someone else uses it, we’re not going to be able to trace it back,” she said.
“If we know that the powers that be will not document us, we better make damn sure we document ourselves and each other.”
There is work currently being done within India to build these systems in real time. The Indian Performing Right Society is an organization that seeks to defend and advocate for copyright use in Indian music. Early last year, A.R. Rahman launched Maajja, an initiative that seeks to equip artists with support resources and opportunities to make money from their work within a safe environment.
Beyond the industry-specific organizations, we as consumers play a huge role in supporting regional artists so they can support themselves throughout the year.
For Jashima, this means paying the money to show up and show out for the regional artists we love. When they’re on tour in your city, pay the money to see them at a smaller concert if you can. This gives artists the tools to advance in their careers and sustain their work.
The unfortunate truth is Bollywood will continue to make shitty remakes of our favourite songs and continue to portray regional communities through a problematic lens.
Well, because it’s clearly working for them. Despite how we might feel about the cultural impact it has, Bollywood will continue to use their power dynamics to make money off of our culture. It has harmful material implications both for our artists and for our people.
It’s easy for us to come for Bollywood because it’s the big bad wolf that we absolutely love to hate. And don’t get me wrong, I’m the last person to ever defend Bollywood.
But this discussion about problematic tropes and harmful co-option begs the question: Are we only calling out problematic trends when Bollywood does it?
What happens when the music that we create within our regional communities inevitably has racist, classist and misogynistic lyrics and videos?
Have we as a community cultivated a space safe enough to be as critical of ourselves as we are of Bollywood?
If you ask me, the answer is no, not just yet.
Until then, if Bollywood wants to use our culture for their profit, all we ask is that you give regional artists a seat at the table and fair compensation for what we do.
We’re really not asking for much.
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