The Supreme Court on January 27 declined to pass an order to protect the makers and artists of ‘Tandav’ webseries on Amazon from arrest even as it agreed to examine their plea to club the FIRs registered against them in various States on the charge of hurting Hindu religious sentiments.
A three-judge Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan asked them to approach lower courts concerned for interim relief, including bail. The court also rejected their plea to quash the FIRs.
The court did not appear convinced when the makers and artists explained that the web series was a “political satire”. They urged the court to protect their freedom of artistic speech and expression.
But Justice M.R. Shah, on the Bench, said free speech is not absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions.
One of the actors, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, described to the court that he had enacted a character whose dialogues in the series had no connection whatsoever to his own individual beliefs.
“I was contracted to play a character. What I said or did in the series has nothing to do with me as an individual,” his lawyer argued for him.
“You cannot play the role of a character which hurts the religious sentiments of others,” Justice Shah responded.
Senior advocate Siddharth Luthra, one of the lawyers appearing for the makers, said signing on to an OTT platform to watch a series was unlike public viewing on Doordarshan.
“I have to pay and view. I consent to watch it. I want to see a political satire, so I watch it,” Mr. Luthra submitted.
Senior advocate Fali Nariman, also for the makers, said FIRs have been filed in multiple States merely as a source of harassment. “We have already deleted one or two scenes, still FIRs are being filed,” he submitted.
“Their ego has been hurt... We have already deleted one or two scenes,” he said.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi reminded the court of how it had, several years ago, protected painter M.F. Hussain from arrest after FIRs were filed against him by people across the country, similarly for hurting religious sentiments.
“People get offended with anything and everything these days. People are so sensitive in this country... If this continues there will be a complete destruction of art, films and free speech,” he said.
He said the makers have come directly to the Supreme Court following the precedent of the Arnab Goswami judgment in which multiple FIRs were filed in different States and the court had agreed to club them all.
“How can we go to every State and every court ... Free speech under Article 19(1) (a) is the most jealously guarded right,” Mr. Rohatgi emphasised.
The FIRs were registered on the basis of complaints filed against Ali Abbas Zafar, director of the web series; Amazon Prime India head Aparna Purohit; producer Himanshu Mehra; show’s writer Gaurav Solanki and actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub.
The FIRs have been registered in States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Transit pre-arrest bail
Earlier, the Bombay High Court had granted a transit pre-arrest bail to Zafar, Purohit, Mehra and Solanki against whom a case was registered in Lucknow for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through the web series.
The four have been booked in Lucknow under Sections 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race and so on), 295 (injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class), 501 (1)(B) (public mischief with intent to cause fear or alarm) of the IPC and under relevant Sections of the Information Technology Act.
‘Tandav’, a nine-episode political thriller starring Bollywood A-listers Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia and Ayyub, started streaming recently.