At the end of the niche optical pirate

In this blog post, Siddharth Chaddha goes enquiring into the modus operandi of a video pirate / film lover / businessman in Bangalore's famed National Market.

Getting to the National Market

Wading through Majestic Bus Stand, Flea Markets, Private Bus Stops and vehicles going around in circles, you could almost miss this board outside one of the shopping plazas. NATIONAL MARKET, the famed "pirate market" at the heart of the city. Most of the business here is illegal and the local police raid the thirty odd shops selling goods, which within the purview of any multilateral agreement under WIPO or TRIPS regime would be an infringement of copyright, at least once a month. The shops run shutter to shutter, each one five by four feet. Crowded with sellers and customers, all pirate markets typically smell the same. Pirated DVDs, DVD players, Chinese mobile phones and PDAs, even VHS players of the yore, smuggled MP3 music systems, fake Ray-Bans and Police sunglasses, gaming consoles. You name it, and National Market has it.

Meet the Pirate

Tall and sporting a stubble, Sooraj (name changed) is a Malayali who has been in the trade for over 8 years. "Earlier, I used to have the best English Movie collection ever. But now, its all going away. Most people have shifted from DVD's to Digital Storage and Bit Torrents", says Sooraj. A family comes across the counter. A middle aged man accompanied by two women in a burqua, one of them carrying a young baby boy in their hand. "Tom and Jerry!", says the man and Sooraj's helper brings out a carton full of animated Hollywood films. Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Madagascar, its all there. "No Tom and Jerry. This doesn't have Tom and Jerry", growls the stout customer. Sooraj jumps into the action, hunts out a DVD from a stack and puts it on the table. "Tom and Jerry Tales - 13 episodes", reads the the outside with a classic Tom chasing Jerry picture on the cover. Satisfied, the family puts it aside and goes on to explore other popular cartoon series. In the end, the man calls for Maharathi, a recent Bollywood flick. He looks at the cover intriguingly and I decide to butt in, "Amazing movie. Just saw it last week. Great plot." The deal is seized and after a bout of bargaining over the price. As the family dissolves into the market, Sooraj turns back and says to me, "A lot of customers bargain. I get a headache. And my shop is the first one in the market, inside people operate on margins of 5-10 rupees. That just ruins everything for us. They don't think of the amount of the risk involved."

The Business of Piracy

Sooraj explains to me how Chennai is the biggest market of the South. "Chennai is a sea. You will get everything there. Once you take a dive in that ocean, it's all there." When I ask him of the chain of distribution, he says, "No one will say that I print the covers of fake DVDs or I copy prints. For me, I just call my distributor and everything comes from Chennai. I don't ask beyond that. The stock comes in the price range of 25-35-40 Rupees. Now, there is only one quality of stock. The market is dying. No one has good stock. Earlier, we used to sell DVDs for Rs.70-80. Now, there is no demand. Even the wholesale business is at a low.'' I ask him, "So what are you going to do, now that soon DVDs will be gone?" Sooraj is not flustered. "We will shut this and start a new business," he says. I quietly step back, as another customer comes asking for audio CDs. He doesn't deal in those.

Enforcement Threat

When the customer is gone, I ask him, "How often does the police raid this market?" He smiles and replies, "Not often anymore. The business is almost dead. But yes, they come sometimes. Then you are taken away and a case ensues." I decide to ask him candidly, "How many times have you been booked?" He smiles again. "5-7 times. I have a few cases pending, dates that I have to go and visit the court. They arrest you for a day but that's all they can do. After all this is not a big crime." He continues dealing with customers who have various demands for music and films. Some he sells to, he guides others to the inside shops. "I sell about a 1000 DVDs everyday. Earlier, the figure used to be much higher. Mostly English. Hindi, Tamil and Telugu too. No Kannada," he volunteers. I probe further, "Why no Kannada?" He says that that he supports protection for their own industry. "And the market price for Kannada films is appropriate. Some are Rupees 60, 90, 110. That's reasonable. We do not need to pirate it."

I ask him for Tamil titles. He asked if I wanted Ghajani. “I saw it when it released. Give me something that's worth watching.” He picks out two. Saroja and Subramaniya Puram. He doesn't make a profit in this deal but something tells me that he is happy to spread the love of good films. "Can I click a picture?" He refuses, saying it would not be a good idea. I shake his hand. Until next time.

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