In The Armchair

Indian Films, DVDs, Quality and Piracy

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on July 18, 2009

FellowshipOfTheRing_posterI got an HDTV set a few months ago.  My first reaction was one of disappointment.  All the ordinary 480i definition channels looked quite bad.  They used to look good on my ancient CRT TV set.  It’s because of the fuzzy nature of the older set as well as the size: the HDTV not only makes the jaggies look bigger, its gridwise pixel layout (as opposed to the CRT’s nearly random phosphor dot coating) makes the errors stand out even more.  I prefer watching hi-def channels now.

When I tried to play a DVD for the first time on this new HDTV, I was a little apprehensive.  How would it look?  As it happens, I needn’t have been overly worried.  The movie I tried was The Fellowship of The Ring.  The LotR trilogy extended editions have exceptionally high picture quality, and what was more, my Blu-Ray player is a PS3 — which does a great job of upscaling the DVD to 1080p.  I could hardly notice any difference between the LotR DVD and hi-def TV (though Blu-Ray disc is, of course, at a completely different level).  I tried a couple of other DVDs and was generally pleased with the quality.

mahabharat All that changed when I popped in a DVD of B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharat, produced in India by Moserbaer.  The first disappointment was that it wasn’t widescreen, but that seemed only natural since it was produced for TV more than 15 years ago.  But once it started playing, I realized that something was horrendously wrong.  The picture quality was about the same as VCDs.  Every still has jaggies and pixelation.  There are two versions of the Mahabharat available (in June 2009): a VCD version, for about Rs. 1200 -1300, and this DVD version for about Rs. 3000.  It is amazing that those who produced the DVDs made such a poor transfer from film.

MissammaThis isn’t my first encounter with incredibly poor DVD quality in Indian films.  I have a very expensive (Rs. 500) DVD of the old Telugu film Missamma which is unwatchable, not because of jaggies or pixelation, but because the original print from which the movie was taken itself seems bad.  At first I assumed this was because the film was old, but that’s not a likely theory.  Films are ordinarily projected onto large cinema screens, which means they must have very high analog “resolution”.  I visited a friend’s house, and he had a pirated version of Missamma.  Amazingly, the quality is much better!!  There are other problems.  Some DVDs will say they have subtitles on the cover, but won’t have subtitles.  (Of course, if they do have subtitles these are a source of much amusement because of the quality of English.)  Many have scratches or encoding defects that make them completely unplayable.

To be fair to Moserbaer, I’ve watched other Indian films on their DVDs which had quite high quality.  I’ve heard that Indian studios deliberately produce low-quality versions of some of their films because the DVDs are invariably pirated.  That piracy occurs is indubitably true: nearly every Telugu movie released is immediately available online for free download in VCD (or better) quality.  With Hindi films this is not quite so common, but you can buy pirated Hindi DVDs for $1 in most Indian grocery stores in the US.  Indian movie producers and directors have lashed out against U.S. audiences in interviews.

piracyIt’s interesting to speculate on the reasons for this piracy.  Most of the downloadable piracy seems targeted at the US.  Here in the US, legal copies of Indian DVDs are hard to come by. They are also priced ridiculously high.  A DVD which costs about Rs. 200 in India may simply be outright unavailable, or available for $15 (about Rs. 750).  And then there are the quality issues: even if you paid the high price, you might be buying a dud or have subtitle issues.  Besides, you have to put up with several minutes of un-skippable advertisements and blurbs on DVDs you paid for!

It seems to me Indian movie producers are missing an opportunity here.  They need to work harder to ensure quality, and make sure legitimate versions are easily available for a good price in the US.  That might be enough to stem piracy.

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