Raj Kundra case: All that has happened

Published on Aug 22, 2021 01:10 AM IST
A five-month long investigation leading up to his arrest revealed that alleged pornographic content — such as that being shot in the Madh village bungalow — was distributed over subscription-based mobile apps as well as websites
On July 19, businessman Ripu Sudan Kundra, better known as Raj Kundra, actor Shilpa Shetty’s husband, was arrested. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)
On July 19, businessman Ripu Sudan Kundra, better known as Raj Kundra, actor Shilpa Shetty’s husband, was arrested. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)
ByAbhishek Sharan, Mumbai

When policemen arrived at Green Park bungalow in Madh village on February 4, the languid noontime air of the partly-rural Mumbai suburb belied the frenetic activity taking place inside.

A team of police officers from Mumbai Crime Branch (CB)’s Property Cell found light diffusers, LED halogen lights, illuminators, a tripod camera stand, a laptop, and a high definition video camera pointed towards a bed. On it laid a young couple in their mid-20s in a state of partial undress. They were enacting an intimate scene. It appeared to be a shoot till the 25-year-old woman spoke up. Her revelation blew the lid off what the police claimed is a pornography racket.

On February 5, the Malwani police station lodged a First Information Report against five persons present at the shoot: producer Yasmin Khan aka Rowa (40), actors Bhanu Thakur (26) and Mohamamad Saifi (24), light man Monu Joshi (28), and graphic designer Pratibha Nalawade (33). They were booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code including 420 (cheating), 292 and 293 (related to obscene and indecent advertisements and displays), as well as the Information Technology Act, including 67 (publishing/transmitting obscene material in electronic form), 67A (publication/ transmission of sexually explicit act in electronic form) and the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. Over the following weeks, the CB, which took over the probe, would arrest more people: actor Vandana Tiwari (aka Gehana Vasisth), director Tanvir Hashmi, and Umesh Kamat, a representative with UK-based production company Kenrin Limited, which owns HotShots app.

And then, on July 19, businessman Ripu Sudan Kundra, better known as Raj Kundra, actor Shilpa Shetty’s husband was arrested.

A five-month long investigation leading up to his arrest revealed that alleged pornographic content — such as that being shot in the Madh village bungalow — was distributed over subscription-based mobile apps like HotHit Movies and Hotshots, as well as websites like Hothitmovies, Nuefliks, and Escapenow. Accounts of witnesses and complainants revealed that the accused threatened actors, who hoped for a big break in films or web series, to get them to comply.

“There was a case registered with the Crime Branch Mumbai in February 2021 about the creation of pornographic films and publishing them through some apps. We’ve arrested Mr Raj Kundra in this case on July 19 as he appears to be the key conspirator. We have sufficient evidence,” the Mumbai Police Commissioner Hemant Nagrale said in a statement after Kundra’s arrest.

According to the police, the Hotshots app was developed by Armsprime Media Private Limited, a firm founded by Kundra in 2019. Armsprime later sold Hotshots to Kenrin Limited, a UK-based firm, owned by Kundra’s brother-in-law Pradeep Bakshi. “Though the company [Kenrin] was registered in London, content creation, operation of the app and accounting was done through Kundra’s Viaan Industries,” Joint Commissioner of Mumbai Police (Crime Branch) Milind Bharambe said. Kundra and Shetty are promoters of Viaan Industries. While Kundra is no longer associated with Armsprime, the police did find email messages between Kundra and Bakshi allegedly about the Hotshots.

The making of obscene content and its distribution are both punishable under various sections of the Indian law, including the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO). Its illegality hinges on the creation and distribution of that which is considered lascivious and prurient. Section 292 of the IPC states: “Whoever takes part in or receives profits from any business in the course of which he knows or has reason to believe that any such obscene objects are for any of the purposes aforesaid, made, produced, purchased, kept, imported, exported, conveyed, publicly exhibited or in any manner put into circulation shall be punished.” Section 293 makes it illegal to distribute obscene content to anyone below 20 years of age in particular.

And, in pre-internet era, the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act sought to prohibit indecent representation of women through advertisements or in publications, writings, paintings, figures or in any other manner.

Thus, while shooting for adult content and viewing porn is illegal – several websites are periodically blocked by the government -- watching adult content is not an illegal act. [It is however, illegal to watch pornography involving children as per the IT Act.]

The actor who was present at Green Park bungalow on February 4 turned case witness and told the cops that Yasmin (the producer) and other associates allegedly promised her a break in a web-series, but it was only when she arrived at the shoot that she realised she was to perform “obscene scenes”.

“The woman protested that there was no information given in advance about the need to shoot scenes that were allegedly shot in the nude and were pornographic,” an investigator with the Crime Branch (property cell), who is part of the team investigating the case, said. “The accused persons present at the spot allegedly threatened and pressured the woman to perform the scenes,” the officer, who did not wish to be named, said.

The young woman’s statement prompted others to come out. Three more women came forward with similar complaints against some of the accused. The Malwani police registered two complaints, the Lonavala police registered one. In all, 12 persons have been arrested in the cases so far and it is likely that the Crime Branch will take over all pornography-related cases.

In February, the police verified that payments for HotHit used the gateway paykun.com. They have frozen a bank account, with a balance of 36.5 lakh, purportedly amassed from subscriptions to mobile apps and websites where adult films made by the accused arrested in February were uploaded.

On August 13, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was set up. “The SIT will conduct further investigation into the case that was being handled by the Property Cell and two other cases that the Malwani police had registered based on complaints,” Assistant Commissioner of Police Shashank Sandbhor, who leads the SIT, said.

The police have reportedly found evidence linking Kenrin with Viaan Industries including Whatsapp messages, email exchanges, and accounting details after a search of Kundra’s office. “As incriminating evidence was gathered in this case, the CB arrested Raj Kundra and his IT head Ryan Thorpe while further probe continues,” a CB official familiar with the probe said.

“The content creation and operations of Hotshots app was carried out through a company named Viaan. While raiding the premises of the company we found evidence, on the basis of which we arrested Raj Kundra,” Bharambe said.

The police said that Kundra was allegedly administrator of two mobile apps that disseminated obscene videos — Hotshots and Bollyfame — that are currently under the scanner of investigators.

In the course of its probe, the police made incriminating seizures including a memory card containing video clips and script. According to CB officials, 68 pornographic films were allegedly found on a hard disk of a laptop seized during a search of Kundra’s premises. The police found a PowerPoint Presentation allegedly with details related to the Hotshots app including financial projections and market strategies. They claim to have made allegedly incriminating recoveries from Kundra’s personal laptop and said that have seized 51 allegedly obscene films with Hotshots and Bollyfame logos. The police suspect that some content in Kundra’s private cloud was also deleted.

Among evidence seized – this from accused Gehena Vasisth -- was a script outline of a film titled Virginity on Auction, which ran to 147 pages. Investigators who went through seized short movies said they depicted actors portraying roles of “teachers, housemaids and nurses” in erotic sketches. Scripts titled “Bartanwali”, “Treatment” and “Chahat”.

A short movie, whose trailer was available on a social media platform before it was removed this week Monday, showed a woman in undergarments lying on a bed with her hands and feet tied, as a man stands a few feet away. “Do you remember now?” the man asks the woman. The teaser ends by informing the viewers that they can access the “fully uncensored” content of the movie if they visit the website or download the app.

The short movies were advertised on key social media platforms while the mobile app was available for download on Google Play. According to the police, the videos, usually 20 to 30 minutes long, were sexually explicit and the storyline was weak. This here was content that was obscene, produced and disseminated online, and was in clear violation of laws, according to the police.

Police inspector Kedari Pawar, who headed CB’s Property Cell when it blew the lid off the racket in February, said: “The racket targeted female actors from poor, vulnerable families by promising them a role in a web series, movie or a television serial. The shooting would begin with a skeletal dialogue script and 10 minutes later, suddenly, the story would give way to obscene, pornographic content much to the shock and revulsion of the female actor. They would then be pressured into finishing the shoot and the content would be uploaded on illegal mobile apps and websites to earn lucrative revenue from subscriptions.” According to the police, the actors got a pittance. Pawar who was transferred out of Mumbai in May is no longer associated with the investigation.

“Yes, the videos were pornographic and there is evidence to show that. The courts have turned down bail applications of the key accused, Raj Kundra. Why? Because there is evidence,” Pawar said.

Both Kundra and Thorpe filed petitions in the Bombay high court (HC) challenging their arrests. Their pleas claimed that the mandatory provision of issuing a notice under section 41A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) was not followed, but the police had claimed that a notice under the section had been served, which Kundra refused to accept.

A member of Kundra’s legal team, Subhash Jadhav, said, “The argument that the petitioner was arrested because after the petitioner was served with a Section 41A CrPC notice, he refused to accept, and it was found that the petitioner was deleting data in the office after the search, is completely false.”

Senior advocate Aabad Ponda appearing for Kundra argued that even if Kundra had refused to accept the 41A notice as alleged by the police, the prosecution was expected to seek the court’s permission before arresting him. Ponda said that while Kundra’s arrest and seizure of his phone and other electronic devices took place on July 19, the police belatedly added a charge that pertained to destruction of evidence.

However, taking note of the allegation regarding destruction of evidence, Justice AS Gadkari who heard the matter on August 7 said the petitioners did not deserve relief at this point and upheld their remand.

Last week, the sessions court deferred the hearing on Kundra’s bail plea to August 20.

Kundra’s lawyers challenged his arrest stating that the videos might be described as “lascivious” but do not show “explicit sexual acts”. However, the police opposed bail stating that the offence is of a “serious nature” and that Kundra might help his relative, Bakshi, an absconding accused, to evade the probe. Kundra’s lawyers however said that there is no material showing his involvement in the alleged offences. Other accused have also denied all wrongdoing.

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