Copy, Paste: The India Today plagiarism case

The India Today plagiarism case makes me think of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika library system, also known as Shaktida.

Shakti Roy was the unacknowledged genius who ran the group’s archives for years, long before the Internets made it easy to Google everything under the sun. He had the mind of a superior search engine; if two people, one working on the Society pages and one working on the Stockmarket pages, asked for information on, say, Ratan Tata, they’d get superbly filtered results. And his memory was phenomenal. Any young journalist foolish enough to attempt to “recycle” copy, recycling being the euphemism for plagiarism in those days, would receive a package from Shakti da containing a printout of his story, and the stories he or she had been “inspired” from. No other comment was necessary.

Here’s what happened with India Today. Aroon Purie, who writes the note from the Editor-in-Chief, was faced with a split edition; India Today was covering Rajnikanth in the South, Omar Abdullah in the North. His piece on Rajnikanth more or less reproduced the first two paragraphs of this much-discussed Slate article on the film star verbatim:

“Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he’s earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn’t make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, “SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!”

If you haven’t heard of Rajinikanth before, you will on Oct. 1, when his movie Enthiran (The Robot) opens around the world. It’s the most expensive Indian movie of all time. It’s getting the widest global opening of any Indian film ever made, with 2,000 prints exploding onto screens simultaneously. Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix) did the action, Stan Winston Studios (Jurassic Park) did creature designs, George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic did the effects, and Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) wrote the music. It’s a massive investment, but the producers fully expect to recoup that, because this isn’t just some film they’re releasing; this is a Rajinikanth film.”

Aroon Purie claimed jetlag as an excuse, in an ungracious apology that didn’t mention either Slate or Grady Hendrix, the author of the Rajnikanth piece.

The apology is… illuminating. We have a senior editor explaining that he doesn’t write his own editorials, and skating lightly over the tiny detail of how those “inputs” found their way into the main copy. We also have a situation where one of the country’s best-known magazines apparently doesn’t have a copy desk, or at least not a desk that could either recognise the lift (the Slate piece was widely discussed on the Net), or red-flag lines that explain who Rajnikanth is and speak of the “Indian state of Tamil Nadu”–in an edition that goes out to South India.

But most of all, that apology and India Today’s reaction lacks grace. Slate got ripped off, without acknowledgement; Grady Hendrix, who wrote those lines, must have been surprised to see them under a different byline. Journalism is often written at high speed, to unrealistic deadlines, and anyone who researches their 600-word pieces will have, at some stage, made use of the files. But plagiarism in India isn’t seen as a major crime–as a major embarrassment, yes, but there is little understanding of how the person who’s been ripped off might feel. (I remember a journalist from a major newspaper complaining that I’d complained when he stole all but one paragraph of one of my columns. He felt it was unfair that he got yelled at by his editor for “paying tribute”. It was only when I explained that I’d prefer to replace the term “paying tribute” with “stole my work” that he backed down.)

Grady Hendrix reacted with amusement: “I’ve just emailed India Today offering my services. Instead of having to do all this tedious cutting and pasting themselves, I suggested that I could just write for them directly. I’ve promised them to charge a reasonable rate, and assured them that I will never steal copy from Mr. Purie and print it under my own name in revenge.”

Now that’s grace.

And a little more from Mr Hendrix here (scroll down in the comments section):
“I’m the guy who wrote the Slate article, and someone forwarded me a link here to check out the preview of the apology. India Today has refused to respond to emails from myself and Slate, but I’m glad they’re going to apologize. It must be very difficult for the staff of India Today that when Mr. Purie gets “jet-lagged” he steals things. I would imagine that whenever they see their boss yawning, or looking sleepy, all of his employees must frantically lock up their laptops and hide their wallets lest he lifts them.”





6 responses to “Copy, Paste: The India Today plagiarism case”

  1. Shrabonti Avatar

    How lovely to read about Shaktida. I remember being positively terrified of him as a raw recruit at TT the few times I had to ask him to send me some clips. The Internet was yet to become the archival force it is today, at least in ABP where one slow IBM machine with a Net connection was shared by some 20 people. Must ask the Graphiti guys what he's up to these days. He was such a legend.

  2. Sunil Deepak Avatar

    Really nice blog and interesting story about Shaktida.However, please change the layout of your blog to make it easier to read, all these dots are distracting! 🙂

  3. Anand Kumar Pandey Avatar

    Yeah, this is what is happening in Indian academics too. I have seen many dissertations of copy cat sort. Unfortunate!

  4. Niranjana Avatar

    Thanks for linking to my blog; appreciate it.

  5. Pritha Avatar

    Nilanjana, what a lovely tribute to Shakti da. In fact, he taught me how to to do journalistic research

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Very well written.

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