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Can the film industry put a rupee value on life stories?

Can the film industry put a rupee value on life stories?

By Kiran Galani 

The critically acclaimed Bollywood movie ‘Neerja’ may soon be entangled in a legal suit with the family of Neerja Bhanot, the heroic flight purser whose real life acts of bravery inspired the film. This comes amid wide fluctuations in sums paid to people featured in biopics due to a lack of legislation. 

The Bhanots’ dispute with Bling

Bling Entertainment Solutions Ltd., the producers of the movie, had apparently promised to share 10% of the final profits of the film with the Bhanots. The Bhanots were intending to use this money to further support the Neerja Bhanot Panam Trust, which awards women who have suffered social injustice or been unfairly treated.

While the movie grossed an estimated Rs 125 Crore, the Bhanots received a sum much lower than what they claim was promised to them. Bling justified this disparity by explaining that they had further entered into a contract with Fox Star Studios to co-produce the film. As a result, Bling only received 20% of the profits, 10% of which they had offered to the Bhanots.

Despite this explanation, the Bhanots claim that they had been promised 10% of the net profit and have refused to accept the sum offered to them. They have moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court in this regard, and a legal notice has already been served to the filmmakers.

Isolated incident or shocking trend?

With the steady rise of biopics in the mainstream media, the lack of remuneration given to the person or family of the person might easily become an exasperating trend. Another recent example into consideration is the 2016 film ‘Dangal’ was based on the six sisters of the Phogat family, who have garnered international attention for their wrestling accomplishments. Ultimately, they received only Rs 80 Lakhs from a movie that grossed well above the Rs 300 Crore mark. While they had absolutely no problem with the sum they received, the disparity in the figures compels one to ask if they deserved more.

Indian cricketer M. S. Dhoni, reportedly charged film producers Rs 60 Crore for rights to make a biopic on his life. It would seem that he had every right to do so; after all, it was his story. On the flip side of, Milkha Singh, the legendary Indian sprinter, charged absolutely nothing for the rights to make a movie about his life. Once again, he had every legal right to do so.

A lack of legal basis

This wide variance in the amounts paid to individuals featured in biopics comes from the simple fact that there isn’t a set standard or a law that governs it. Under Indian law, it usually it isn’t even necessary to obtain film rights while telling the story of a public figure. As long as the film sticks to the facts and doesn’t intentionally tell the story in a way that defames the celebrity in question, it is very unlikely that producers would get in trouble or face any legal action. 

Obtaining ‘life story rights’ from the subject does give producers a series of benefits, such as the ability to use more personal aspects of the celebrity’s life that aren’t considered to be in the public domain. The laws governing individuals who aren’t public figures are slightly stricter, and allow them to more easily sue the producers for an invasion of privacy. However, even in these cases, there aren’t any exact rules setting standards for what constitutes an invasion of privacy or appropriate reparations.

So where should the morals lie?

How much money a producer must pay someone to obtain life story rights for a biopic is proving to be a rather grey area. On one hand, it’s a person’s life the film producers are using, so it seems quite reasonable that they deserve a fair share of the profits in compensation. On the other hand, more often than not the person featured in the biopic plays little to no part in the film production process. On this side, there really isn’t a compelling reason to pay them huge sums.

In the end, life stories in this context could be compared to film scripts. Like scriptwriters with their writing, individuals have every right to put a value on their story and share it as they please. All that really matters is that the producers and directors ensure that the subject’s sentiments and wishes are taken into consideration during the making of the film. After all, our story is one of the most personal and precious things we have.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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