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Right to privacy cannot be inherited after death: Madras High Court dismisses plea against release of Jayalalitha biopic's, Thalaivi and Queen

Right to privacy Thalaivi Queen Jayalalitha
J Deepa filed the application, claiming that she has the right to protect her late aunt J Jayalalitha's "posthumous right to privacy" as well as her integrity and legacy.

The Madras High Court ruled on Friday that a deceased person's right to privacy cannot be inherited, dismissing a plea opposing the release of biopics on late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, including Ramya Krishnan's ‘Queen’ and Kangana Ranaut's "Thalaivi." AL Vijay and others v. Deepa Jayakumar)

The Bench of Justices R Subbiah and Sathi Kumar Sukumara Kurup was dealing with an appeal moved by Jayalalitha's niece, J Deepa, who claimed that her rights to privacy may also be infringed if a biopic is made without her consent. 

In December 2019, a single Judge had dismissed Deepa's plea, prompting her to move the Division Bench in appeal. Deepa contended that the single judge had erred in not appreciating that she was a ‘Class 1 legal heir’ of Jayalalithaa. As such, she is entitled to institute a suit to safeguard the "posthumous right of privacy" and the dignity and legacy of her late aunt J Jayalalitha, Deepa argued.

The Bench, however, disagreed with Deepa's stance. Relying on Managing Director, Makkal Tholai Thodarpu Kuzhumam Limited vs. Mrs V.Muthulakshmi and Melepurath Sankunni Ezhuthassan vs. Thekittil Geopalankutty Nair, it was observed,

The above decision explicitly reveals that an individual's "right to privacy" cannot be inherited by his or her legitimate descendants following his or her death. ...it is obvious that a person's privacy or prestige gained over his or her lifetime vanishes with his or her death. After a person's passing, his or her legal heirs cannot inherit his or her legacy as if it were movable or immovable property. ... "posthumous right" is not a "alienable right," and the appellant/plaintiff is not entitled to an injunction on the basis that the respondents/defendants are attempting to sully her aunt's "posthumous right" by releasing the film titled

The cases of Rangarajan vs. Jagjivan Ram, Ramesh Pimple vs. CBFC - Bombay and FA Picture International vs. CBFC were also referred to by the Court to point out that artists cannot be compelled to depict events in a particular manner.

"The right of freedom of speech and expression enshrined under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India is not conditioned/restricted on the premise that a film maker must only portray one particular version of facts ... Artists, film makers and play rights are affirmatively entitled to allude to incidents which have taken place and to present a version of those incidents, which according to them represents a balanced portrayal of social reality. The Constitutional protection under Article 19(1)(a) that a film maker enjoys is not conditional on the premise that he must depict something which is not true to life. The choice is entirely his", reads the judgment.

Based on these decisions, the Court concluded that people in powerful positions "must have shoulders wide enough to tolerate a criticism of themselves with grace." The Court said in referring the FA International Picture case that objective appraisal is the foundation of democracy, and the strength of film as a means of speech lies in its capacity to contribute to that appraisal. As a result, "the film maker cannot be forced to present just one interpretation of the truth in a web-series or video," according to the Bench.

Advocates Arun C Mohan and P Saikumaran had appeared for Deepa. Senior Advocate PS Raman and Advocate Vijaya Subramanian appeared for the makers of "Thalaivi", whereas Senior Advocate Satish Parasaran and Advocate AK Raghavulu appeared for director of "Queen."

Deepa had argued that a biopic on Jayalalithaa should not be made without her (Deepa's) life being included as well. As a result, if the biopic is made without Deepa's permission, it would infringe on her right to privacy, the Court was told. It was also said that when Jayalalithaa was alive, she was extremely vigilant in safeguarding her reputation. Deepa went on to say that biopic producers can narrate their film/series in a way that degrades Jayalalitha's integrity and credibility for commercial gain. The biopic makers have exaggerated and sensationalised the story to portray Jayalalitha in a poor light and a grossly disrespectful manner in "Queen", Deepa argued. All of this is causing her mental strain and may embolden others to trample on Jayalalitha's legacy, it was asserted. 

AL Vijay (director) and Vishnu Vardhan Induri (producer) for the films "Thailaivi" (Tamil release) and "Jaya" (Hindi release), as well as Gowtham Vasudev Menon, who directed the webseries "Queen," were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The creators of "Thalaivi" found out that the biopic was based on a novel written earlier, and that despite the fact that the book, "Thalaivi" by Ajayan Bala, has been in the public domain since 2018, Deepa has taken no legal action against it.

The web series, on the other hand, was described to the Court as a fictional reconstruction of true events with a disclaimer that it was not a biography. The Court eventually agreed with the biopic creators' argument that an individual's "right to secrecy" vanishes with the passing of time. In the case of the "Thalaivi" film, the Court noted that it is yet to be released and that Deepa will pursue sufficient damages after the film's publication.

The Court acknowledged that the web series "Queen" had already been launched on an OTT website and was being watched by a large number of people. As a result, it was noted that an injunction against the broadcast of web series could not be granted at this time.


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