By Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC News, London
The Tamil film industry is losing millions of dollars in revenue each year because of piracy, yet it is unable to do anything to combat it.
Pirated DVDs sometimes appear on the same day as the original
Everyone has heard of Bollywood but southern India's Tamil film industry is also prolific. About 130 films were released over the last year.
Ticket sales coupled with the sale of overseas rights for Tamil films bring in most of the revenue. Estimates vary as to how much money is generated, but it is thought to be about $250m a year.
But this income is being severely dented because of the rampant sale of pirated DVDs and VCDs.
They usually hit the black market within a few days of the release of a new film. Sometimes pirated DVDs are put out on the day of the release itself.
Karan, an official with Ayngaran International which owns the overseas distribution rights of a large number of Tamil films, believes the majority of pirated DVDs originate from India or Malaysia.
"People make unauthorised copies from original prints that are given to the cinema halls, convert them into DVDs and sell them," he says.
"Some even use cameras to record the film while it is being played in the cinema hall."
"If the film has top stars and is critically acclaimed we will get it within a week," says Gopi, a regular buyer of pirated Tamil movies on DVD.
Many Tamils living in London go to areas like Wembley, East Ham and Croydon - where there are a number of shops which cater to the needs of the Tamil community - to buy DVDs.
The quality of both the video and the audio is usually poor in pirated DVDs. A pirated DVD can be bought for as little as £1 (80 rupees; $2), whereas the original may cost as much as £8.50.
"It is not just the cost, people want to see the film as soon as it gets released, so they buy a pirated DVD and watch it at home," says one dealer in East Ham.
Tamil Film Producers' Council president Ramanarayanan admits that some parts of the piracy trade have their roots in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu.
But he says there are a considerable number of foreign bootleggers.
"When Tamil producers sell their overseas rights they sell them with the video rights. The buyer may release the DVDs a few days after the release of the film. These DVDs are in turn copied and find their way to various markets including India," he says.
"Overseas revenues constitute 15-20% of the total revenue of the Tamil film industry."
There is a large Tamil-speaking population in Western Europe, North America, South East Asia and the Middle East.
Tamil film stars are much loved and much copied
The Tamil film industry has yet to formulate a strategy to combat such piracy abroad, but at home in Tamil Nadu, it uses its clout over the political class to fight the problem.
The Tamil Nadu government has set up special units to tackle video and DVD pirates, and has warned offenders they face severe punishments. But observers say these measures are yet to yield tangible results.
"Piracy kills a small budget film fast, because people will not come to the cinema to see it if they can watch it in their home," says film distributor Abirami Ramanathan.
The original DVDs of many Tamil movies are usually released a month or so after they are released in overseas markets.
But it takes much longer to get the original DVDs in India.
Some feel releasing the copyrighted DVDs at the same time as the movie is released will help to reduce piracy and improve revenues.
But some cinema hall owners are apprehensive about this suggestion. They fear it may adversely affect their profits.
The Tamil Film Producers' Council has yet to take a firm decision in this regard.
It believes tough action by the government will yield results in the long run. At the same time, Ramanarayanan wants overseas rights owners to fight piracy in their respective areas.
But that could prove a tall order if the London experience is anything to go by. Police in the city say that so far they have not received any complaints regarding the sale of pirated Tamil films.