'I won't be bullied or silenced', says Radha Bharadwaj over Mission Mangal copyright claims
Mission Mangal went on floors in Mumbai on November 23, two days after reports of Radha's lawsuit surfaced in the media
Last week, US-based filmmaker Radha Bharadwaj moved Bombay High Court with a copyright infringement case against the producers of the Akshay Kumar-Vidya Balan-starrer Mission Mangal, alleging that the project — which is based on the life of women engineers behind the 2014 ISRO Mars Orb1iter Mission — is copied from her script, Space MOMs, which she has already finished filming.
Co-produced by Fox Star Studios and A Cape Of Good Films and directed by Jagan Shakti, Mission Mangal also stars Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen, Kirti Kulhari and Sharman Joshi. The film went on floors in Mumbai on November 23, two days after reports of Radha's lawsuit surfaced in the media. In her complaint, Radha has claimed she had given the script of Space MOMs to producer Atul Kasbekar's company Ellipsis Entertainment in 2016 to seek potential financiers for her film. The firm, she claims, had signed a non-disclosure agreement to not reveal the contents of her script to anyone without her written consent. However, the complaint cites an e-mail from Atul Kasbekar’s team admitting they had shared the script with Vidya Balan (whom Atul was managing at the time) and that she had read it. The lawsuit mentions that the script of Space MOMs was registered under the US Copyright Office for US and Indian markets — and that Radha had received official permission from ISRO to interview the women scientists behind the Mars Mission.
In an exclusive interview, Radha talks to us about her film, Space MOMs, accuses the makers of Mission Mangal of trying to derail her film by rushing into production ahead of schedule, and urges all screenwriters in her situation to not take “injustice lying down”.
When did you first conceive this script and how did you go about researching the subject?
The idea occurred to me in 2014. Living in the West, but still with very strong ties to India, I yearned to do a film that would present a much-needed positive portrayal of my country and people to the West--and to Indians themselves.
I'd been following ISRO's ambitious Mangalyaan project. When it succeeded--against formidable odds, on September 24, 2014--the idea crystallised. There were many aspects to the Mars Mission, but I decided to centre my film around women engineers because as an Indian woman, I was sick and tired of the degrading depictions, so prevalent in international media and entertainment, of Indian women. I wanted to show the world another portrayal of Indian womanhood: ordinary on the surface, but fiercely independent, ambitious and brilliant.
I read up everything I could about the Mission. I worked hard to find people who could introduce me to ISRO. That happened, ISRO reacted very positively to both my idea and its expression and introduced me to their engineers. I interviewed these brilliant women and men and fleshed out my script.
You have said that Atul Kasbekar's Ellipsis Entertainment had signed an agreement to not reveal your script to anyone. When did you find out about the breach?
I’m sorry, but my lawyer has asked me to not to comment on the specific facts of the allegations. I can, however, refer you to the plaint. The factual basis for our case is covered there.
(We reviewed the complaint, which includes copies of e-mails exchanged between executives at Ellipsis Entertainment and Radha and her husband, David Cohen. One of the e-mails, dated February 22, 2017, reads, “In keeping with David’s perspective, we utilized our relationship with Vidya Balan, a hugely renowned and credible star/actor (who was also on our casting wish list for this film) by requesting her to read the script, as a dipstick. She replied yesterday and agreed with us on the premise and its inherent promise. However, she found the story linear and felt that it needed more depth to keep the audience absorbed.”)
R Balki, in response to your lawsuit against Mission Mangal, told the media that he'd like you to read their script — which he promises to be an original work. He also said that films based on the same real-life event often draw copyright claimants. How do you respond to his statement?
He can make his case in court and so will I.
Have you been contacted by Fox Star Studios or A Cape of Good Films — or any individual involved at a producer's capacity to Mission Mangal — for a possible settlement or truce?
I haven't been contacted by anyone.
Do you think, legally speaking, you have an airtight case against the makers of Mission Mangal?
All lawyers I consulted, including those I eventually hired, advised me that I have a strong legal case. I look forward to making that case in court. Let me just say that even the fact that they rushed their film into production is acknowledgement that it is the same as mine. Why rush a film into production when their earlier press reports said they still hadn't finalised their script and still hadn’t interviewed the women engineers and were intending to shoot in early 2019? Why take full page ads for a film that's supposed to be released in August 2019--ten months away? To drive my film off the road, to hamper its sale in India. But I won't be bullied and I won't be silenced.
If the verdict of your lawsuit is not in your favour, will you still go ahead with Space MOMs, considering Mission Mangal will be getting the earlier release?
I have already shot my film, and will finish it soon. Even if their film is allowed to go forward, my film will be out before theirs unless these powerful Bollywood players engage in behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Space MOMs is a compelling, powerful story that the public will want to see, that Indians everywhere need to see, and shame on anyone who would try to stop them from seeing it.
I embarked on this project for the right reasons. I chose to not have stars in my film. I wanted the story of the Mission, its everyday women and men, to be the star. I chose respected artists--like Sahitya Akademi winning playwright and director Mahesh Dattani, Padma Shri-winning dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant, well-regarded theatre artists like Bhavna Pani, Swati Das, Pallavi Arun--to play the characters in my film. My entire cast and crew are Indians based in India. This is truly a Made in India film.
I mortgaged my house and spent my savings to pony up cash for the film. I've put my life on hold to bring my vision to screen. I believe my film will triumph--and other writers will be inspired to not take injustice lying down, but to fight back.
In your opinion, what are the challenges facing intellectual property rights (as it concerns filmmakers and screenwriters) in India? Do you feel let down by the Bollywood film industry?
Having spent many months prepping and filming in India, I will say that the Indian film industry has many decent people. A few bad apples who run rough-shod over writers and other content creators have, unfortunately, given the whole country a terrible reputation. India is unfairly known as one of the worst IP offenders in the world because of these few; but it’s a problem that exists everywhere, including the US.
I’d like to encourage writers everywhere, not just Indian writers, to stand up for their rights. I want to start a WeToo hashtag, with ‘WE’ being an acronym for Writers’ Empowerment, where we can share our horror stories and figure out better ways to safeguard our ideas. I’m fortunate to be a member of the Writers Guild of America, which works to protect writers from exploitation.
What is the present status of the lawsuit?
We’re trying to set a hearing at the earliest possible date. The court will first rule on whether to grant an injunction, and then we will proceed on to litigate the case.
Radha Bharadwaj moved to USA in her teens to pursue a career in filmmaking. She directed the 1991 film, Closet Land, starring the late Alan Rickman. In 1998, she directed the Victorian-era mystery film, Basil, starring Jared Leto, Christian Slater and Claire Forlani.
(We reached out to Ellipsis Entertainment, Fox Star Studios and A Cape of Good Films for comment, but have received no response as of this writing.)