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How Great Grand Masti beat Sultan on the Mumbai local

Even as filmmakers and the CBFC grapple over the issue of rampant piracy online, commuters on the Mumbai local continue to choose pirated copies of films over a visit to the theatre. 

Shriram Iyengar

The average Mumbaikar spends about 1 hour on his commute to and from work. More often than not, their commute involves taking a crowded local train from the suburbs into the city. Once upon a time, these train compartments would be filled with the gossips and banter of regular passengers who would create new friendships during their commute. The arrival of the smartphone has changed that. Now, most passengers use this crowded hour to enjoy pirated copies of films on their mobile phones. 

On 17 July, the makers of Great Grand Masti came together at a press conference to rail against the havoc online piracy has wreaked on their film's earnings. The risque comedy starring Riteish Deshmukh, Aftab Shivdasani, Vivek Oberoi and Urvashi Rautela bombed at the box office earning a paltry Rs2.50 crore on its first day. Though the film was widely panned for its content, its earning is far below the predicted mark of even critics and trade analysts. The filmmakers marked this down to the leak of the film's 'censor copy' 3 weeks before its intended release date. The makers added that the prevention of the leak might have enabled a better return of interest for the filmmakers. 

Is the public aware of this growing concern? Pramod Vishwakarma, 28, a digital media professional believes so. We caught Pramod watching a pirated copy of Great Grand Masti on the train, and asked him as to why he chooses a pirated version over watching the film in the theatre, he answered, "I wouldn't want to spend money on films like these. Moreover, I can't watch these films with my family," while quickly adding, "It would be a waste of money to watch it in the theatre anyway." This is another factor that plays into the hands of movie pirates.

Few people on the train were willing to go and watch these films in the theatre, given the option. The mobile phone offers the individual the privacy of watching these risque comedies, in the absence of any judgement. Neeraj Shah, 35, entrepreneur, said, "It would be embarassing for some people to be caught in the theatre watching these films. In the train, they can sit quietly and watch without any worry." Aren't there other people looking over their shoulders? "Is hamam me sabhi nange hain (We are all naked in this bathroom)," he laughs. The train compartment offers people the ease and comfort of a boys' dorm room. It allows them to share these guilty pleasures with strangers they would not be comfortable sharing with their family. This is not just limited to Indian films. Game of Thrones, the television phenomenon, remains a popular choice among the youth. Considering the highly censored content of the series, it is understandable that many prefer to download the full versions and watch it on their phones, rather than with their family at home.

This does not imply that it is only risque films that fall prey to the rampant piracy. Apparently, Pramod downloaded Sultan a few days after its release, even though he had already watched it in the theatre. "There was no way I would miss that film if it is available online," says Vishal Nair, a sales manager at a Thane firm. I asked Vishal if he realised the illegality of it. "Of course, I do," he added, "but it is available for free online." With illegal downloads, the audience has the additional option of watching, or not watching, their favourite movies at the theatre and then watching them on their phone. But don't such copies affect the complete movie watching experience, like the cinematography and music? "People usually watch films for its story and the acting, the rest of the details are for professionals," says Dilip Jain, 27, social media professional. His latest playlist included Nawazuddin Siddiqui starrer Raman Raghav 2.0 and Sultan. "I wasn't able to catch Raman Raghav in the theatre, so I decided to download it...saves me money, plus I can do it at my convenience." Time is a precious commodity for people in Mumbai, and many choose to opt for the convenience of an illegal download over trudging to the nearest multiplex. With ticket prices on the rise, and the additional VAT in place, it seems to be an economical decision.

Most people indulging in the downloads are aware of the activity being illegal. Almost no one was willing to be photographed on the train for the same reason. Most of them agreed that the availability of these films online was one of the main reasons for its flourishing business. Pramod said "If there were no illegal copies available on Torrentz, I would have to pick and choose from films I want to watch by spending my money." Neeraj Shah added, "If filmmakers stop the uploading of these torrentz, the public will automatically stop downloading it." 

Anurag Kashyap, director of Raman Raghav 2.0, recently put up a Facebook post speaking about the public's tendency to download films illegally. In the post, Kashyap requested people to not download Udta Punjab to help support their fight against the CBFC. Strangely, Kashyap did not condemn the practice of illegal downloads, but said 'that piracy happens because of a lack of access.' Ironically, Kashyap's Raman Raghav 2.0 suffered heavy losses at the box office owing to a leak of its print before release. 

The public, however, has no reason to side with the filmmaker. Siraj Khan, 42, a manager in a private company, believes that filmmakers earn enough money to stop worrying about piracy. "They make crores and crores with each film. For us to spend Rs250 - 300 on a multiplex for a bad film is a huge loss." When I point out that there are others, employees of production houses who might also get affected by the piracy, he says, "It does not make that much of a difference to them. How bad would it be?" The truth remains that Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce have allotted online movie piracy responsible for damaging 40% of the entire annual revenue of Indian films. When approximated to a billion dollar and growing industry, the numbers are phenomenal. Yet, there remains the belief that the film industry is an elite business, and well financed to sail through the minor issue of piracy. 

So, which are the films that are doing well on the Mumbai local? By first glance, it is not the blockbuster Sultan, but Great Grand Masti. However, as Pramod adds, "It depends on the availability. If the latest film is leaked, I would prefer to watch that. It will change again next week." This is not just limited to men. Women are increasingly showing an interest in the film. "I know that the jokes are really crude, and sometimes bad, but I got it from a friend. Its timepass," says Sheetal Mishra, college student. 

The trains are the lifeline of the metropolis of Mumbai. For railway commuters, it is a second home. With the arrival of the smartphone, these crowded cabins are turning into temporary multiplexes, with multiple screens playing multiple films. Either way, cinema remains a popular source of entertainment. It is just that the medium has changed. As to the issue of pirated copies, filmmakers and the government can take the moral stand. But for the public in the street, the reason to download is simple, as it was for George Mallory when he decided to climb Mt. Everest - because it's there.