On May 5, the Delhi High Court refused to grant an interim injunction on a case filed against Netflix for a monologue in the TV show Hasmukh where the show’s protagonist rails against lawyers in a stand-up act after murdering one. The suit, filed by lawyer Ashutosh Dubey, accused Netflix and Hasmukh’s creators of defaming lawyers at large. Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva said in his order that Dubey “has not been able to even show any personal injury or violation of any right entitling him to grant of any injunction”.

Netflix declined to comment; the main case is still ongoing even as the judge refuses to block access to the show without hearing the case further. “We file appeal against the order [sic], such statements especially kanoon ke thekedar [guardians of law] and Rapist are blot on the noble profession,” Dubey told MediaNama.

Lawyers not a class of persons that can be defamed

Justice Sachdeva said in his order, “Given the vast diversity in the class, the words used to describe a class would not reasonably lead persons acquainted with the Plaintiff to believe that he was the person referred to.” Netflix’s legal team, which included Amit Sibal and a team from Saikrishna & Associates, argued that there was a lot of precedent of courts throwing out cases defaming lawyers as a group. In fact, Shah Rukh Khan himself was involved in such a case. In 1998, a criminal case was filed against Khan because of a line in his film Ram Jaane: “This lawyer well knows that I have killed the three persons, yet he tries to save me. Why? For the sake of money, no? For the sake of money, he sells his morals. He sells the laws. By selling the laws, you people have turned life into a misery.”

The Rajasthan High Court had thrown that case out and quashed the complaint of the Additional Magistrate who filed it. Netflix cited other rulings, going back to the colonial era, where lawyers as a class couldn’t be defamed unless certain individuals were clearly identifiable. “The basic principle for grant of an ad interim injunction [which would order Netflix to take the show down temporarily] under order 39 rule 1 and 2 Code of Civil Procedure is to prevent an injury to the plaintiff or to restrain the defendant from committing inter alia injury of any kind to the plaintiff,” Justice Sachdeva pointed out.

Creative liberty is ‘very essence of democracy’

Justice Sachdeva further added, “The very essence of democracy is that a creative artist is given the liberty to project the picture of the society in a manner he perceives. One of the prime forms of exposing the ills of the society is by portraying a satirical picture of the same. Stand-up comedians perform that very purpose. In their portrayal they use satire and exaggerate the ills to an extent that it becomes a ridicule. In the humorous portrayal of the ills of the society the stand-up comedians use satire.”

This ruling comes as temporary relief for Netflix in India, which has not yet been required to censor anything directly in the country. However, it has voluntarily advised Hasan Minhaj against depicting the Kashmir map with borders disputed by the Indian government; abandoned plans to buy the film Sexy Durga; and temporarily released the film Angry Indian Goddesses censored in India while it remained uncut elsewhere. However, the company’s freedom might be on borrowed time; a small group of streaming services push for the creation of the Digital Content Complaints Committee, a body that would have jurisdiction over streaming services’ catalogues in India. Partly due to the pandemic, those discussions are on hold right now, and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which is spearheading the talks, told members it would seek wider consensus before moving forward on the plan.