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The Deep Dark Underbelly of the Star Wars Myth, or Ramayana Remembered

by Oliver Green

1999-05-29 23:55:24

It's a fact: Star Wars is a blatant plagiarism of an ancient Asian legend, and the long lines of devout Star Wars freaks are really unscrupulous Asian copyright busters. From Indonesia to Thailand to Nepal, videos are available for sale or rent before they're even released in the US and UK due to this nerdy camcorder-clutching bunch.

Video salesmen in neat neon-lit video shops, in fish-gut wretched markets, from cities like Bangkok to teeny provincial towns out in bandit country, sell or rent videos with either, "not for sale or rent" constantly running on the bottom of the screens, or the silhouettes of a cinema audience and the sounds of giggles and gasps over the soundtrack. Their agents get into press shows in the US and Europe and furtively record the screen, selling their copies at insane profit when they get back to Asia. According to the Guardian, there is but one copy of The Phantom Menace in Hong Kong, and it's being copied and distributed in mainland China complete with audience silhouettes and crappy sound. That one must turn a pretty penny.

Asia missed out on the first Star Wars movies because not many people had tellies then. The second lot are bound to get popular when people realize they are plagiarized from an ancient legend that has had a profound influence on Asian cultures.

Just like Star Wars, there are two epics with the same families, and one preceding the other. The Ramayana is the most famous legend, carved on kilometers of temple walls from Angkor Wat to Borobudur, and it closely resembles the first Star Wars films. The prequel to the Ramayana is the Mahabharata, and I deeply suspect The Phantom Menace and its parts will closely resemble it.

All of Star Wars is steeped in Eastern mythology anyway. Luke's a Jedi, right? Balinese go worship at the local Chedi. Coincidence? I rather think not. The legend itself is so startlingly similar to Star Wars, both in plot and presentation.

The plot's the same; you can go check that out for yourself: Princess gets kidnapped by the forces of evil, goodie and his swashbuckling mates go and rescue her, and destroy the forces of evil too. The only difference is that while Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi Knight, Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, blossoms as the human incarnation of Vishnu.

The original Star Wars was the most expensive movie ever made, and inspired filmmakers to concentrate on mega-impressive "blockbusters." The Ramayana has inspired thousands of temples to be built, from Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world -- a snip at 886 years old -- to the dinkiest backyard spirit house in Thailand. The temples built in honor of Rama and his chums, and their heroic deeds, are the biggest and most ambitious in the world. Kilometers of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat show Rama battling the forces of evil. If you walk clockwise around the ninth century temple of Borobudur in Java, the story unfolds in a comic-book series of carvings. The scale of these carvings, and the intricacy and care and love shown by the craftsmen, were the special effects of the day.

The Ramayana has been called the epic to end all epics. The story is so popular that once upon a time the Indian elections had to be rescheduled so they didn't conflict with the serialization on the telly. Millions of Asian mums try to get their kids to respect and follow the Way of Rama, as spelt out in the story. Every child from Nepal to Indonesia to Southern Viet Nam has heard the story and cannot fail to recognize it in the Star Wars films.

Yet the original Star Wars pretty much passed Asia by. But that was in the '70s, when television sets were still rare and electricity sporadic. Now that people watch more telly, the movies are set to make a killing. The Handycam toting copyright busters have already got there: The Phantom Menace is available on video in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, Panthip Plaza in Bangkok, and just about everywhere in Hong Kong.

Your faithful correspondent, Oliver Green, Freaking Speally

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