The Delhi High Court dismissed a plea filed by real-estate tycoon Sushil Ansal, Chairman of the Ansal APi Group, to stay the release of Netflix web series “Trial by Fire" based on a book titled "Trial by Fire- The Tragic tale of the Uphaar Tragedy” which was set to release on January 13, 2023.

The Bench of Justice Yashwant Varma observed that the unimaginable tragedy made the nation bow its head in shame and held that “the work on which the web series is based has been penned by parents who had lost teenaged children in the unfortunate incident. It is a story which alleges a systemic failure, manifests a cry of anguish against the manner in which the incident was prosecuted and tried. It essentially represents their perspective and opinion. A fictional rendition of their trials and tribulations cannot, prima facie, be presumed to be defamatory.”

The Bench further said that “This Court is thus of the prima facie opinion that the right of defendant Nos. 4 and 5 to narrate their tragic journey through police precincts and court halls far outweighs the asserted and yet unsubstantiated loss of reputation of the plaintiff.”

In this case, the suit had been instituted for a decree of mandatory and permanent injunction restraining defendant No. 3 from exhibiting, broadcasting, telecasting and releasing on its digital/OTT platforms, the series titled ‘Trial by Fire'. The plaintiff had also sought a decree of mandatory and permanent injunction against the defendants/authors from publishing the book- “Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of Uphaar Fire Tragedy”. The book was authored by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, who lost their two children in the massive fire which had broken out at the Uphaar cinema during the screening of the Hindi film ‘Border’ on June 13, 1997 and had claimed 59 lives.

Senior Advocate Siddharth Agarwal appeared for the petitioner and contended that the petitioner had been punished both legally and socially and the release of the series based on the book written by the couple would cause irreparable harm to his reputation and would breach his right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution and that the reference to a ―”25 year long battle” clearly demonstrated that the web series was likely to negatively impact and prejudice the trial of the evidence tampering case also. Therefore, an immediate and a pre-broadcast injunction was clearly warranted.

Senior Advocate Sandeep Sethi appeared for the defendant no. 1 and submitted that the role attributed to the plaintiff and the facts which ultimately led to their conviction constituted material which had always remained and existed in the public domain and therefore, the prayer for grant of ad interim reliefs was misconceived.

Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa appearing for the defendant no. 4 and 5- the authors, submitted that the book was not about Ansals but it was about the whole trial that took place in the case.

The Court said that the courts had deliberately formulated the “high pedestal” test when it came to the grant of a pre-publication or broadcast injunction because the injunction would essentially be sought at a stage when the offending material was either not available to be evaluated and examined or where it was impracticable to arrive at even a prima facie conclusion whether the content was defamatory or libellous.

The Court noted that the web series was yet to be aired and it had no occasion to view the same in its entirety and said that it would be wholly inappropriate to grant injunction reliefs at the ad interim stage even before the fictional work had been viewed and properly examined.

The Court further took into consideration the 'Disclaimer' which was proposed to preface the web series and which merely claimed to be “inspired” by the Book authored by defendants 4 and 5 and observed that the narrative of the authors was available in the public sphere right from 2016. "The plaintiff chose, for reasons best known to him, not to initiate any injunctive action in respect of the said work when it came to be originally published on 19 September 2016. A slothful or sluggish plaintiff seeking an injunction of the nature which is sought in these proceedings cannot be allowed to claim such reliefs."

The Court also rejected the submission of the plaintiff that since a web series was likely to have a wider circulation and a greater impact than a written work, the grant of an injunction should be considered at this stage and observed that “This since the plaintiff chose to remain indolent and took no pre-emptive steps in respect of the said work at the first available opportunity. The Court consequently finds that there exists no justification to grant ad interim relief to the plaintiff even after he failed to take appropriate steps for injunctive reliefs in respect of the Book authored and published in 2016.”

Accordingly, the Court dismissed the application seeking ad-interim injunction.

Cause Title- Sushil Ansal v. Endemol India Pvt Ltd. & Ors.

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