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Film studios seek legal counsel as controversies hit projects

Akshay Kumar’s Prithviraj was forced to change its title to Samrat Prithiviraj by a Rajasthan-based group.Premium
Akshay Kumar’s Prithviraj was forced to change its title to Samrat Prithiviraj by a Rajasthan-based group.

  • Legal experts hired by studios said they’re advising clients to stick to authentic sources, getting content vetted, having clean contracts for book rights, signing agreements with families of the film subject and contest cases if any disputes arose before the release

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Already reeling from the pandemic, film studios are now seeking legal advice to ensure safe release of films often targeted by fringe groups and others threatening to disrupt screening.

Akshay Kumar’s Prithviraj was forced to change its title to Samrat Prithiviraj by a Rajasthan-based group. There was a dispute around the misrepresentation of the protagonist in Gangubai Kathiawadi and objections to the character of a freedom fighter in SS Rajamouli’s RRR wearing a skull cap.

To avoid such conflicts, legal experts hired by studios said they’re advising clients to stick to authentic sources, getting content vetted, having clean contracts for book rights, signing agreements with families of the film subject and contest cases if any disputes arose before the release.

“In terms of making movies on historical events or characters, it is seen that creators have to tread a very thin line as space for creative freedom is shrinking. Even historians have more than one interpretation or view of a character or an event, hence any content showcasing a different point of view has the potential to get entangled in controversy or legal," said Siddharth Mahajan, partner at Athena Legal.

Film producers said they need to be pragmatic as the business has just resumed after the pandemic. “In case of Samrat Prithviraj, they couldn’t afford to lose out on Rajasthan, where the Karni Sena had demanded a change in title," said a producer, declining to be named.

Trade website Box Office India reported that the Akshay Kumar-starrer emerged as the highest opener for the Rajasthan market, so far this year, among original Hindi films. Earlier too, films like Padmaavat were forced to change titles. Ranveer Singh-starrer Jayeshbhai Jordaar inserted a disclaimer concerning the illegality of sex determination tests. However, the aid of legal counsel has helped films like Gangubai Kathiawadi escape stay on release.

Period films have always drawn significant scrutiny and criticism from the public, political or religious organisations, said Ranjana Adhikari, partner, media, entertainment and gaming with the TMT Practice group of IndusLaw. “However, with the omnipresent internet these days, there is a lot more vigilance by scholars, fringe groups, religious or political groups. This is further fanned by social media platforms which provide an easy way for critics - no matter their minority status – to amplify their voice of dissent," Adhikari said.

The role of legal counsel includes reviewing the script, screenplay, dialogues, and lyrics to look for legal issues such as use of third-party IP, use or reference to national symbols or insignia, diligence on rights or permissions required from any existing individuals or descendants of such individuals proposed to be portrayed in the film. “We also carry out a review from the point of view of potential claims of obscenity or hurting religious, national or community sentiments. The same review is also carried out at the post-production stage once the scenes, songs, dance sequences, have been performed," she said.

Getting legal clearances for films has become a lot more common now given the frequency of controversies and variety of objections to films. “There is a very real threat of having to stall the release or lose out on revenues in certain regions or make changes to the film after production has been completed, which the studios want to avoid," Adhikari said.

Unlike documentaries, historicals are not made or watched by viewers for information, said Tanu Banerjee, partner at legal firm Khaitan & Co. “They are narratives of the past, created in a way that makes the public imagine history. In a country like ours, with diverse cultures, value systems and beliefs – there is bound to be an interpretational gap – which drives controversy around historical movies. But while such controversies and litigation battles that follow, are a disadvantage – often they are also one of the reasons for success of such movies at the box office," Banerjee pointed out.

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