An imaginary surgical strike on piracy

The Hindi film, Uri: The Surgical Strike, released on January 11, 2019.

On Tuesday, the subsequent week (January 15, 2019), someone named Arin Mandal, from Kolkata, shared a video on his Facebook timeline. In the video he says that he tried downloading a 3.8GB pirated version of the film via torrents and got this.

One of the many comments he got was, “Learn to use torrent first noob”, understandably.

The same day, a popular Facebook page called SarcasmOPedia took the story to the world. From there, it went massively viral.

The headlines screamed:

  1. Everyone Who Downloaded ‘Uri’ On Torrent Websites Got A Surgical Strike Of Their Own
  2. Here’s What Happens When You Try To Download ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ Illegally Off The Internet
  3. A Guy Downloads Pirated Version Of Uri, Gets Caught By Vicky Kaushal-Yami Gautam And This Happens Next! – Vicky Kaushal and Yami Gautam have a savage answer to all those who are trying to download and watch the pirated version of Uri
  4. A Guy Downloaded URI From Torrents, Got Served With A Savage Message! URI has got a genius marketing team
  5. This Is How The Makers Of ‘Uri’ Are ‘Striking’ Down Piracy & Illegal Download Of The Film
  6. Uri makers conduct surgical strike on film piracy, director lauds marketing team
  7. ‘URI’ Makers Know How to Prevent Illegal Leak on Torrents

Now, here are the problematic parts of this story.

1. Let me get this clear first thing first: the full film is available all over torrents. Many different versions, from multiple sources. The sizes range from 700MB, to 1.4GB to 2GB.

2. One user from Kolkata shared his experience of downloading a 3.8GB file. That was turned into “Everyone Who Downloaded Uri” or “Makers Of Uri Are ‘Striking’ Down Piracy”, or “Uri makers conduct surgical strike on film piracy”, or “URI Makers Know How to Prevent Illegal Leak”.

No. I’m sorry – this is a PR spin. A sham. There is no larger surgical strike or combat on piracy. The simple truth is that the makers and the marketing team floated just one fake torrent file online. One person got fooled and shared the small clip online. That turned into a ‘nation demands to know’ level virality. This is standard operating procedure of the new media hype cycle.

Another unrelated example of how this hype cycle operates (see the full thread on Twitter – click on the date ‘Jan 15, 2019’):

3. At a fundamental level, the campaign approach is flawed. Here’s why. I’m saying this since I have done extensive research on how the Indian torrents scene works for 2 different clients in the past.

The first pirated version of a film is usually a CAM (camera) print, released within 1-3 days of the film’s theatrical release. This is never 3.8GB, because it is of poor quality and is primarily meant for mobile screens. So, it is usually 400MB or at best 700MB.

If people see a 3.8GB file close to the release of the film in theaters, they (with prior experience of downloading via torrents) know better not to download it. Also, most torrent communities have a vibrant comments system, where a first downloader offers views on the quality of the print. Just like we read comments and reviews of restaurants on Zomato and make our decision, pirate downloaders read these comments and decide what to download.

And spurious/fake prints on pirate sites are the norm close to the film’s theatrical release – they are quickly tried and banned from pirate sites which are close-knit online communities.

By days 4-7, we get PreDVD or DVDscr rips online on torrents. These are also graded on the quality of print, but are better than cam prints. These are also usually 700MB, 1.4GB or at best 2GB. Never 3.8GB so close to theatrical release.

3.8GB type releases appear almost after 2-3 weeks or at the end of the first month when a pirate hits jackpot from a source, or they get the source copy from a streaming platform if it is already on it. These are usually 1080p rips or Bluray/DVD rips.

So, releasing a 3GB print close to the theatrical release of the film is calling for attention that it is fake almost instantly. In a post-Jio world, all people would do is download the 3.8GB fake, find it to be a fake, and download another 400-700MB file that is an actual pirated version of the film.

4. Ironically, this campaign reminds me of the clamor when the real surgical strikes were announced (after they were completed) – a section of the media wondered if the strikes were real, because the earlier Governments carried surgical strikes too (see: Four times Indian commandos crossed the LoC for surgical strikes & 2016 Surgical Strike Was Not India’s First, Here Are The Previous Ones), but did not chest-thump about them after they had been completed (they were seen as business-as-usual). One could argue that the times are different and different times demand newer strategies of framing such strikes vs. earlier times.

That the previous Government was not smart enough to use the surgical strikes as a way for PR and did not communicate that as Indian army’s prowess, but the current regime realizes the value in using the strikes as a powerful way to galvanize the sentiments of people. I’ve always said that the Modi Government is stupendously good in PR and communication (See: Is the Narendra Modi Government’s use of social media really transformational? and The Mann Ki Baat marvel). The communication around surgical strikes is yet another communication and perception-building masterstroke by the same machinery.

5. A minor problem is about the agency that is getting credit for the campaign. Campaign India credits Dentsu Webchutney, while the film’s own director credits Trigger Happy. I’m not sure who came up with this PR spin of an idea.

UPDATE: January 23, 2019:
6. In an interview and report on AdGully on January 23, 2019, the film’s agency (Dentsu Webchutney) is alluded to be saying that over 20,000 people downloaded the fake file and were left red-faced. And, the same paragraph says, “When social media and news outlets got a whiff of what had happened, the entire activity went viral. Dozens of news articles…”.

Uh-oh! Could I please call BS on this?

ALL the news articles spoke about one Arin Mandal. Please check a snapshot of them above. There is no report about 20,000 people getting fooled.

And worse, by the end of the 2nd week, media reports were singing a different tune. This!

Vicky Kaushal’s Uri The Surgical Strike leaked online by TamilRockers, despite attempts to curb piracy

TamilRockers Leak ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike On Torrent, Setback For Film Producers Who Tried A Surgical Strike On Piracy

Vicky Kaushal’s Surgical Strike on piracy goes in vain; ‘URI’ leaked online by TamilRockers

In spite of unique anti-piracy campaign, ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ falls prey to Tamilrockers, details inside

This is the 2nd round of media coverage, after the first one that the film’s team milked during the Tuesday/Wednesday period.

As for the 20,000… it’s very simple. As I had mentioned earlier, in a post-Jio-world, it goes, “Download one file via torrent. Check if it’s working. Not working? Ok, download another one!’. There are many versions of the film online – take a look (this is from just one of the many torrent website that even you could search and land on!). Even in one site there are 12 versions to choose from and none of them are 3.8GB 🙂

A more important way to call BS on 20,000 is the other point I mentioned. Torrent communities are close-knit. They do not tolerate bad reputation (hard as it may sound) of being a site where downloaders got conned (honor among thieves, and all that). They remove fake movie plants and ban those uploaders instantly. They don’t wait till it reaches 20,000 downloads 🙂

The broader problem is that while this is a clever gimmick, it is also simply that – a gimmick. It makes me smile for the ingenuity of the agency behind it, since it did fool at least one Indian citizen. It really looks like the film’s team fell madly in love with their catchphrase, “Yeh naya Hindustan hai, yeh Hindustan ghar mein ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi“, and thought it’d be cool to use it on a torrent downloader too, regardless of whether it is true or not.

But, that’s about it. It did not end piracy, deter piracy, combat piracy or even touch piracy in any way. It is a tiny pebble in the larger ocean called piracy tat is actually being combated far more effectively through OTT platforms.

I’ve heard very good things about the film and I’m keenly waiting for it to hit either Netflix or Amazon Prime. The latter has been really good with Hindi and regional language titles in India, usually getting them on its library within 25-30 days of the film’s theatrical release. When I know for certain that I could watch it at the comfort of my home, with home-made popcorn, with subtitles (if needed), with pause/stop/continue whenever I need, I’d choose that option instead of going to a theater in our crowded cities.