The upcoming Netflix docuseries Bad Boy Billionaires investigating four Indian businessmen with fraud allegations, namely Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Subrata Roy, and Ramalinga Raju, was stalled after two separate court orders in India.
On September 2, the date the series was slated to release, a local court in the southern Indian state of Hyderabad restrained Netflix from releasing the film.
This was after Ramalinga Raju, the founder of India’s Satyam Computers, who was accused in a $1 billion fraud case in 2009, filed a petition saying that the series was filled with “half-truths” and would invade his “privacy” in an unlawful manner.
Raju’s legal representative argued that since his case was at the appeal stage at the sessions court, any content that made defamatory remarks or suggested he was guilty would influence court proceedings in the ongoing matter.
A court in the east Indian state of Bihar also ordered Netflix to put the docuseries on hold on September 3, following a petition filed by Subrata Roy, the chairman of India’s Sahara group, alleging that it would “malign” his reputation.
While Netflix filed an appeal with India’s Supreme Court, it refused to give the streaming giant relief and suggested that it approach a lower court.
“I deplore this attempt to muzzle the release of this Netflix docuseries,” Samanth Subramanian, a journalist based in London, who is one of the talking heads in Bad Boy Billionaires, told VICE News. “The documentaries are based on material that emerged in the public domain through the trial process,” he said. He added that if the courts favoured Roy or Raju after an extended legal battle to release the docuseries, it would be a blow to press freedom in India.
“It feels like a matter of forced censorship, and sets a bad precedent,” Ayesha Sood, an Indian documentary filmmaker who co-founded the production house The Jamun Collective, told VICE News.
Dylan Mohan Gray, the docuseries filmmaker had expressed his outrage in a series of tweets that have now been deleted. “Every single assertion in #badboybillionaires has been verified & fact-checked to a degree utterly unheard of in Indian media,” Gray tweeted.
Indian filmmakers Hansal Mehta and Anubhav Sinha also tweeted in support of the Netflix docuseries.
“Netflix has produced shows like The Crown, and the British monarchy did not oppose it, but will India ever be able to make such shows?,” Indian filmmaker Hansal Mehta told VICE News. Mehta is concerned that the recent controversy discourages corporate bodies from telling important stories.
The controversy surrounding the release of Bad Boy Billionaires has raised concerns over the regulation of OTT platforms in India. There is no governmental body that oversees pre-censorship of content airing on streaming platforms in India. Platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and AltBalaji have been asked to self-regulate. However, a petition can be filed to remove content found to be obscene, offensive, defamatory or hurting community sentiments and reputation as per India’s IT Act.
“This case has likely been filed under India’s Right to Privacy, which allows a person to challenge [content] that uses their name, story, or anything about them without their permission,” Hiren Kamod, a counsel with the Bombay High Court told VICE News.
Kamod explained that details in this case boil down to the fundamental question of what constitutes public domain. “Newspapers don’t count as public domain. Only documents that are published or registered by a government ministry, like a birth certificate, are considered public records by the court in such cases,” he said.
A special Central Bureau of Investigation court had sentenced Raju to seven years in prison in April 2015. The Sahara group’s Roy was accused of money laundering and scamming investors of USD $4 billion. He was sentenced to prison in 2014 by the Supreme Court, after he failed to pay dues to Indian market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in relation to the case, despite the court’s order.
The non-fiction show’s other characters include disgraced liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya, who owes Indian banks an estimated INR 90 billion or about USD $1.2 billion, and jeweller Nirav Modi, accused in a more than USD $1 billion fraud case of Punjab National Bank. Mallya and Modi are prohibited from challenging the release of the documentary since they were declared fugitive by the Economic Offenders (FEOs) in 2019 after both escaped to the U.K.
Nirav Modi’s uncle, Mehul Choksi, was the first to file a petition last week, demanding a screening before the documentary was released. However, the Delhi High Court dismissed the petition.
VICE News reached out to Netflix India for a statement, but the U.S. streaming giant said they did not have a statement to give at the time of writing.
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Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included several quotes that said Sahara group Chairman Subrata Roy was convicted of his misdeeds. Roy’s case is ongoing and has yet to be convicted. VICE World News regrets the error.