‘Can’t erase legal history’: Netflix to HC against stay on ‘Maharaj’ release | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

‘Can’t erase legal history’: Netflix to HC against stay on ‘Maharaj’ release

Jun 19, 2024 03:23 PM IST

The film, Maharaj is based on a landmark libel case of 1862 filed by a leading Vaishnavite figure, Jadunathji, against social reformer Karsandas Mulji

Depicting court judgments, even those made by British judges during colonial rule, is an essential part of legal history that cannot be censored or erased, Netflix told the Gujarat high court on Tuesday as the streaming platform asked the bench to dismiss petitions against the release of the film ‘Maharaj’.

*A poster of Netflix film 'Maharaj', starring Aamir Khan's son Junaid Khan. (PTI)
*A poster of Netflix film 'Maharaj', starring Aamir Khan's son Junaid Khan. (PTI)

“Whether we like that judgment or not, we cannot eradicate legal history,” senior lawyer Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Netflix, told a bench of justice Sangeet Vishen, underlining that the portrayal of the Bombay Supreme Court’s 1862 verdict could not be prohibited only because the petitioners considered them to be scandalous and defamatory to the Pustimargi sect.

The film, Maharaj, is based on a landmark libel case of 1862 filed by a leading Vaishnavite figure, Jadunathji, against journalist and social reformer Karsandas Mulji who had written against sexual exploitation by the all-powerful Maharaj. Mulji’s expose in his magazine The Satyaprakash of the exploitative practice led to a libel case which became the celebrated Maharaj Libel Case.

The high court on June 13 stayed the movie’s release on Netflix on a bunch of petitions filed by members of the Pustimargi sect, leading the streaming giant and the film-makers, Yash Raj Films (YRF), to approach the high court on June 15.

The petitioners including the Pustimargi sect asked the high court to put on hold its release on the assumption that it showed the Vaishnav sect in a bad light, was likely to “incite feelings of hatred and violence” against the sect and that it may “hurt public sentiments at large with its reportedly controversial depiction of certain characters and practices”.

Rohatgi, who argued that the petition should have been filed as a suit and not a writ petition, said the petitioners had not objected to a book by Saurabh Shah on the case or any online content on the same topic. It was also pointed out how the Supreme Court cleared the movie Padmaavat in 2018 holding that cinemas were an inseparable part of the right to free speech and expression though the portrayal of the legendary Queen Padmavati was perceived as negative by the Rajput community.

Shalin Mehta, who appeared for Yash Raj Films, said the film had also received certification from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on May 29, 2023, which remained unchallenged.

Mehta sought to assure the petitioners that the film did not report on the judgment, but the trial. “The movie is based on the fact that there was an expose by a journalist about certain immoral practices of a Maharaj. The trial is depicted in the film, not the judgment. The petitioners have a problem with the judgement of the Maharaj Libel case of 1862, they have a concern that the language in the judgement is defamatory. But the judgement is not read out in the film. The only part of the judgement that is even mentioned in the film is that the case has been dismissed,” he said.

Mehta also stressed that the trial accounts for just 20 minutes of the 132-minute-long movie.

Mihir Joshi, appearing for the petitioners, said they were opposing the movie because it had a much wider reach than any book on the topic. Joshi contended that the movie differed significantly from the 2013 publication of the book on the same subject. He argued that the book and the film constitute “completely different libels,” with the potential for damage being far greater with the film due to its wider reach.

Joshi also contested Netflix’s argument that the judgement was a historical fact and that making a movie about it could not be prohibited. “It is wrong in principle. A judgment, by common law convention, is itself immune from defamation. Court proceedings, including what a judge says in court, what a witness says in court, what a lawyer says in court, what is pleaded in court, and consequently the judgment, have been immune from defamation, libel, and slander,” said Joshi.

The bench will continue hearing on Wednesday

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