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The Indian Film industry is rarely covered by Middle Eastern media. The 2022 film “Ram Setu” became one of the exceptions due to a case filed against it by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is after the politician Subramanian Swamy tweeted on 29 July, announcing his intention to sue Akshay Kumar, the movie’s lead actor, because of the aftermath caused by the falsification of the Ram Setu bridge case in the film. The film is scheduled for release in October.
“Ram Setu” recounts the story of an archaeologist studying the nature and history of the famous bridge also known as “Adam's Bridge.” Abhishek Sharma directed the film, starring Akshay Kumar, Jacqueline Fernandez, and Nushrrat Bharucha. The film is co-produced by Amazon Prime Video, Bondante Entertainment, and Cape of Good Films.
The Ram Setu Bridge remains a geological mystery to this day. The history of the bridge’s origins and methods of its construction are steeped in legend. While some studies claim that it is a natural phenomenon, others say it is human made. According to the Ramayana myth, the bridge was built by Rama's army in his quest to rescue his wife Sita from King Ravana.
Swamy highlighted the potential security risks that Kumar might face along with the compensation the BJP member would receive if he won the case against the Indian actor. In a tweet, the politician stated that if Kumar had been a foreigner, he would have been arrested and deported.
As far as entertainment lawsuits go, Ram Setu's case is not an exception. There have been many similar cases in recent years, in which the law has been used to resolve situations such as forgery, distortion, or abuse of reality in a work of art especially if the characters are inspired by real people or if the plot is based on real events.
Lawsuits like the one filed against Kumar are meant to protect the rights of public figures whose life stories are adapted for entertainment purposes. To name a few similar cases, a recent example is the lawsuit filed by Mossack Fonseca & Co. Legal actions were taken against the Netflix series “The Laundromat,” which explores the scandal over the leak of classified Panama documents. A lawsuit was also brought by former New York City attorney general Linda Feuerstein against the Netflix popular 2019 series “When They See Us,” in addition to Olivia de Havilland's lawsuit against FX for her portrayal in the 2017 documentary series “Feud.”
Defamation lawsuits were not the first means of self-defense against falsification in artworks, due to various legal and social reasons, but today they are hitting an unprecedented increase on a global scale. Statistics conducted by the British Supreme Court indicate that the number of defamation lawsuits in London rose by 70% in 2018.
Nowadays, defamation cases are being handled quite smoothly in court. Most countries have clear and explicit laws to limit the harm caused by the falsification of the truth through artworks. Apart from adapting and developing laws suitable to today's world, civil rights awareness is also increasing constantly, and attention is given to minorities and marginalized groups, which were frequently targeted or misrepresented by some artworks. As the American legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky points out, economic and political factors also contributed to the skyrocketing number of defamation lawsuits. According to Chemerinsky, the increase in defamation lawsuits is a direct result of Donald Trump's discourse. The increase also reflects the huge growth of the media, which allows a lot of defamatory statements to be made.
Some defamation lawsuits are reasonable, some are retaliatory, and others are promotional in nature. Regardless of the motives and reasons behind a defamation lawsuit, all of them are under scrutiny when it comes to their role in setting artistic standards. It is believed that art does not have to depict the world faithfully, nor does it have to present information or tell facts. Hence, artistic productions can be regarded as a subjective interpretation of the world and events. Unlike facts and information, art cannot be assessed by criteria of “right and wrong.” Art blurs the fine line between fantasy and reality and tends to present an exaggerated rendering of reality rather than present facts as they are. Therefore, artistic productions must have a legal immunity that protects the artwork from false allegations and different subjective interpretations.
Exaggeration is widely used in many fields of art to depict reality honestly, but in a brutal and extreme manner. Ancient Greek theatre actors, for example, wore high heels, padded clothes to enlarge their bodies, and wide masks to enhance their voices. Exaggeration was also used as a literary tool by poets and playwrights to evoke and intensify feelings or to make people laugh. Comedians and cartoonists also found it to be an important element in their work.
There is a wide debate, which is unlikely to be resolved soon, about the advantages and disadvantages of resorting to the law in such cases. This is problematic especially since some people use it as a way of making money. The feature of exaggeration, that has characterized the arts, is threatened by the popularity of defamation lawsuits. Many people see these legal procedures as a way to protect their professional and personal lives, but others see them as a guillotine for free speech and expression, as well as a temple to sanctify public figures and turn them into untouchable figures. The biographer of Frank Sinatra, Kitty Kelly, is a famous advocate of freedom of expression and believes that public figures' lives are the property of the public in some way.
Delineating lines between reality and artistic interpretation is not always easy. There is no doubt that this issue represents one of the most important topics discussed in the circles of contemporary art and art criticism these days. As the number of defamation lawsuits grows, the issue becomes ever more complicated. To allude to the eternal dilemma of the relationship between individuals, society, and law, as well as between law and arts, one is forced to ask: What role does the law play in the art spaces? How can law regulate the various artistic practices without restricting freedom of expression?
Translated by Jehan Batrawi