Kerala’s row over ‘Higuita’ triggers Tamil authors’ concerns over their rights
The controversy is rare in Kerala, but it has been commonplace in Tamil Nadu. where the film industry has exploited the literary world for years — from picking a scenario of a popular novel to adapting the whole work without acknowledging its writer
The recent controversy in Kerala surrounding the title of upcoming Malayalam film Higuita has reignited the debate over the authors’ rights once their works get published. The film, directed by Hemanth G. Nair, got its name from the title of a Malayalam short story of the same name, penned by notable writer NS Madhavan.
Since Madhavan himself used the name of former Colombian goalkeeper René Higuita, writers are divided over whether it qualifies to be a case of copyright infringement. The Copyright Act, 1957 vests the moral and economic rights of a literary work with its author.
Tamil writers’ lingering concerns
At a time when Tamil Nadu is hosting its first three-day International Book Fair in Chennai, alongside the usual yearly book fair organised by Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI) in January 2023, most Tamil writers are invested in the issue because violations of their rights have been a lingering concern for them as well. Since the Malayalam story was translated into Tamil many years ago, a lot of writers share Madhavan’s angst.
The International Book Fair is first-of-its-kind in the state where publishers from abroad are expected to sign deals with the Tamil publishing industry to take Tamil literature to their readers through translations. Hitherto, the translation in Tamil industry is mostly Western imported, meaning translating the other-language works through English and often without providing any rights to the original author.
Although a handful of publishers in Tamil manage to secure rights from the original publishers and authors, a vast majority is still not paying the writers and translators, and hence the issue remains in the ethical grey area. The International Book Fair is expected to change this scenario.
In Tamil Nadu, a large number of publishers, barring a few, lack the awareness about the ways to approach a foreign language author (both inside and outside the country) in order to acquire the rights of their work to translate them into Tamil. They remain oblivious to ‘literary agents’.
The International Book Fair has a separate section called ‘Rights Table’, where the Tamil publishers and writers would be introduced to foreign publications, literary agents and briefed about how they can enter into a contract. This will expose Tamil publishers to international practices.
Secondly, most budding and somewhat established writers have been deprived of royalty till now. For popular writers, the royalty has always been paltry. The International Book Fair is expected to reward Tamil writers if their works are selected by a foreign publisher for translation into their language. It is set to open new floodgates for writers in terms of commerce and the possibilities to explore in new geographical territories.
‘Tamil writers too bore the brunt’
While writers and translators usually do not ask for royalty from publishers since bringing out their work in print is itself seen as a great service, the film industry exploiting their work comes as a bigger blow to them.
The association between the Malayalam literary world and the film industry is well-known. Given the literacy rate and readership in Kerala, the respect garnered by the writers in the public sphere is different from Tamil and other languages. While the Higuita controversy could be a rare occurrence there, it has been commonplace in the Tamil land.
“For many years, the Tamil film industry has exploited the literary world in different forms, like picking a scenario from a popular novel or adapting the whole novel without any kind of acknowledgement or stealing the titles etc,” writer Perumal Murugan told The Federal.
There are many examples such as Sivaji Ganesan-starring Mudhal Mariyaadhai (1985), where the director Bharathiraja took a scenario from late writer Ki Rajanarayanan’s work. After the writer expressed his displeasure, the director convinced him and the matter settled down. Films like Kuruthipunal (1995), starring Kamal Haasan; Jay Jay (2003), starring Madhavan; and Unnaipol Oruvan (2009), again by Haasan, have taken their titles from popular novels of the same name by Indira Parthasarathy, Sundara Ramaswamy and Jayakanthan, respectively.
Why has the writing community not registered its opposition to the use of book titles being used for films without any acknowledgement? They continuously opposed it, but the media overlooked the issue, Murugan said.
“Though we have the right to claim the credits when our stories are adapted wholly or partly by the film industry, we lack the rights to save our book titles from this kind of exploitation. Legally, the film industry has the right to choose the titles, but morally they should put a word with the writer to the least. Nadunisi Naaygal is a popular poetry collection of Sundara Ramaswamy. But it was used for a film in 2011. No one can think and come out with such words just like that. So, it shows the uniqueness of the writer. That must be respected,” said Murugan, who also contributed to the film Sethumaan (2022).
Benefitting by reminding
Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu Publications, which published the works of Sundara Ramasamy like JJ Sila Kurippugal and Nadunisi Naaygal, said there are no laws to protect the books titles from being used by the film industry. “If we start opposing, it would ultimately garner publicity for the film. So, when these titles were used, we didn’t react. But it is an utter copy and there is no doubt about it,” he said.
Talking to The Federal, Pazha Athiyaman, a radio broadcaster and writer said that it is not just literary writers, screenwriters in the film industry, too, are being exploited. “For example, take the film Manichitrathazhu (1993). The story was written by Madhu Muttam. It is said that he sold the script for just Rs 35,000. At least for literary writers, they are being paid royalty whenever there is a new edition of the book. But for screenwriters it is a one-time payment,” he said.
He also added that the film industry uses the titles of the popular books because by using them they remind an incident or a personality and thereby they benefit.
“The words Nadunisi Naaygal is popular to the extent that when you utter these words, you immediately remember about Sundara Ramaswamy, the poet-writer and his poetry collection. When you choose these words as a title for your film, it evokes an interest among the people who have read the book and may get an interest to watch the film. You could have kept the title as Nalliravu Naaigal or Naduiravu Naaigal, but instead you choose Nadunisi Naaygal because it is already popular and you try to exploit its popularity for your film. When this is the case, the film industry has a moral duty to acknowledge the writer,” Athiyaman added.
‘Films help popularise the books’
Filmmaker Thangar Bachan, who himself is a writer, has adapted the novel Thalaikeezh Vikithangal by Nanjil Nadan, as Solla Marantha Kathai (2002). “I properly bought the rights of the book from the writer by paying him Rs 1 lakh. In those days, that amount was huge. If the writer wanted to earn such an amount by selling his particular work, it would take years. But films help popularise the books. It’s an advantage for the writers, so they should be generous on this issue. Similarly, the filmmakers should get permission from the writers beforehand,” he said.
Interestingly, when the film was released in theatres, it carried the name of the writer. But when it was televised, the name was taken away. The writer raised objections with the filmmaker. “I convinced him by saying that I didn’t have any say on the issue once the film was sold to the television. The television rights are given for about 99 years. While entering into agreement, they put a lot of conditions and even the director of the film can’t do much in this matter. The television can do anything with the film like removing a song or a scene or names, etc.,” added Bachan.
Row over Higuita
The Higuita issue arose during the FIFA World Cup 2022, and created a larger interest in Kerala because it involved a popular footballer. The contention was the film has used the title of a short story of the same name by Madhavan.
Nair claimed the film has nothing to do with Madhavan’s story. It only borrows the title of Madhavan’s work; its storyline is different. Madhavan’s story revolves around a Christian priest in Delhi who saves a girl from a cruel and evil criminal. The writer draws parallels between the protagonist of the story and the goalkeeper. The film is the story of a police officer who follows the profession of his deceased father to save his family from financial distress.
Madhavan, however, has alleged that it was he who first introduced the name to Kerala’s culture. Following the intervention of the Kerala Film Chamber, the writer was informed that the name would not be used as the title.
Higuita, the goalkeeper, is known for introducing ‘scorpion or scissor kick’. He helped Carlos Molina, the competitor of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, by saving his daughter from the clutches of Escobar. This inspired Madhavan to write the story in which the father of a church helps a woman from being trafficked by using a “scissor kick”.