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Phoolan Devi v. Shekhar Kapoor and Ors.

Phoolan Devi v. Shekhar Kapoor and Ors.

57 (1995) DLT 154, 1995 (32) DRJ 142


  • Plaintiff entered into a Contract with Defendant No. 5 to grant Defendant No. 5 sole and exclusive right to make a cinematograph film on her writings (based on Indian banditry and on her life).
  • It was also agreed that Defendant No. 5 could cut or alter and adapt the Writings and use them alone or with other material and/or accompanied by narration and/or editorial comment.
  • Defendant No. 5 assigned its rights to Defendant No. 3. Defendant No. 4 was the author of India’s Bandit Queen, a book on Plaintiff, which was the basis of the production of the film ‘Bandit Queen’. Defendant No. 1 was the Direcotr of the film.
  • However, the film had certain scenes which were not acceptable to the Plaintiff. Plaintiff filed the present suit seeking an injunction against the Defendants for exhibiting the film. The present order is on the adjudication of application for interim relief in the said suit.


(Image Credits: Dignidad Rebelde)

(Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dignidadrebelde/29661884074 )

(Link to license: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phoolan_Devi.jpg)


  • As per the agreement Defendants wanted to make a documentary on the Chambal Valley and banditry.
  • Though the Defendants had the right to cut, alter or adapt from the original writings of the Plaintiff but it does not give them a right to distort or virtually depict on the screen which was not written or admitted by the Plaintiff.
  • There are several instances in the film that are not based upon the writings of the Plaintiff, nor find mention by Defendant No. 4 in her book ‘India’s Bandit Queen’.
  • The first in the sequence is ‘Behmai Massacre’ in which, according to the Plaintiff she was not present at the place of occurrence.
  • In the film, Plaintiff as a child has been shown as being raped by her husband. However, the Plaintiff has never stated so in her writing nor anywhere in the book. Similarly, in the film it has been shown that the police has raped her but even in the book which is the basis of production of the film such an incident has not been mentioned.
  • A graphic detail of sexual intercourse with the Plaintiff has been shown in the film. Plaintiff never admitted that she was raped, nor in the whole book anything to that effect has been stated to have been said by the Plaintiff. The whole scene in the film is based on fiction.
  • The incident of Plaintiff being gang raped and paraded naked was not on account of the writings of the Plaintiff but on account of a report by an American Journalist.
  • Similarly, in the film the situation wherein ‘Vikram Mallah’ and the Plaintiff indulged in sexual intercourse does not find mention in the book written by Defendant No. 4.
  • Defendant has no right to show the Plaintiff being raped as it would be inconsistent with the true story of the Plaintiff.
  • In any event, the portrayal of Plaintiff in such scenes would offend her right to privacy.


  • There is no right to privacy as far as a public figure is concerned.
  • In relation to the scenes depicting child rape of Plaintiff after her marriage or making love with ‘Vikram Mallah’ and ‘Behmai killing’ have been shown on the basis of public record available in innumerable number of press cuttings, press interviews etc.
  • Plaintiff cannot prevent the Defendant from writing her life story.
  • In German documentary ‘Phooleri devi – Rebellion Einer Banditin’, Plaintiff has admitted to being raped.
  • What was intended between the parties was that the Defendants will be entitled to use the writings of the Plaintiff and would make a documentary or film and it was for the Defendants to use such writings or not to use the same and if it was to be used they had the option to modify, alter, add or cut from the writings and it was the desire of the Defendants to make the film after carefully collecting the material and entering into research from various sources and the whole endeavor has been bona fide and without any malice or ill-will against the Plaintiff.
  • This Court has no jurisdiction as far as exhibiting of the film outside India is concerned. In United Kingdom there is no law regarding privacy and if any injunction is granted in India the same cannot be effectively implemented in United Kingdom.


  • Every public figure may be well known but every well known person cannot be a public figure.
  • According to the arguments advanced by the learned counsel for the Defendants. Plaintiff is a criminal responsible for dacoity and murders therefore Plaintiff cannot be termed a ‘public figure’. Plaintiff is neither a ‘public official’ nor she is a ‘public figure’ and in any event no person has the right to write about or make a film about the private life event of the ‘public official’ or ‘public figure’.
  • Inference be drawn against the Defendant as Defendant till date in spite of application moved by the Plaintiff has not shown her the film.
  • The court has got power and jurisdiction to grant injunction against the Defendants who are before this Court and admittedly Defendant No. 3 is before the Court.


The Hon’ble Court formulated the following issues in the matter for the purposes of adjudication:

Issue No. 1: Whether prima facie the Plaintiff is a ‘public figure’?

Issue No. 2: If Plaintiff is a public figure,  whether the Defendants or any one has got the absolute right to depict in any manner the private life of such public figure?


On what is a ‘public figure’

  • The term ‘public figure’ as per Black’s Law Dictionary includes anyone who is famous or infamous because of who he is or what he has done.
  • Public figures, for libel purposes, are those who have assumed roles of special prominence in society; commonly, those classed as public figures have thrust themselves to forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence resolution of issues involved[1].
  • For right of privacy action purposes, includes anyone who has arrived at position where public attention is focussed upon him as a person.[2]

On whether Plaintiff is a ‘public figure’

  • In the present case, present action is neither for defamation nor for libel. It is more based on right to privacy and for that purpose the argument of the learned counsel for the Plaintiff that she is not a public figure is not what has been contemplated by the Black’s Law Dictionary.

Thus, Issue No. 1 was answered in affirmative.

On what is ‘Right to Privacy’ and what is the scope of its protection

  • Individuals need a place of sanctuary where they can be free from societal control. The importance of such a sanctuary is that individuals can drop the mask, desist for a while from projecting on the world the image they want to be accepted as themselves, an image that may reflect the values of their peers rather than the realities of their natures and that is the content and meaning of privacy and right to privacy must encompass and protect the personal intimacies of the home, the family, marriage, motherhood, procreation and child rearing.
  • Privacy may be the privacy of a single individual, it may be the privacy of two individuals, or it may be the privacy of three or numerous individuals. But it is always the privacy of those persons, single or plural, vis-a-vis other persons.[3]
  • It is implicit in the right to privacy as to what extent Plaintiff’s thoughts, sentiments, emotions shall be communicated to others in India.
  • Explicit display, graphic detail of being paraded nude, rape and gang rape does not only hurt the feelings, mutilate the soul, denigrate the person but reduce the victim to a situation of emotional abandonment which is very essence of personal freedom and dignity.
  • The Supreme Court has observed that: “right to privacy is implicit in the right to life and liberty guaranteed to the citizens of this country by Article 21. It is a ‘right to be let alone’. A citizen has a right to safeguard the privacy of his own, his family, marriage, procreation, motherhood, child bearing and education among other matters. None can publish anything concerning the above matters without his consent – whether truthful or otherwise and whether laudatory or critical. If he does so, he would be violating the right to privacy of the person concerned and would be liable in an action for damages. Position may, however, be different if a person voluntarily thrusts himself into controversy or voluntarily invites or raises a controversy.”[4]
  • The explanation concerning the aforesaid aspect becomes unobjectionable if such publication is based upon public record including court records.

On public records available in the present case

  • A perusal of Voluminous newspapers, periodicals, magazines which have been filed in the Court t do not demonstrate that at any stage the Plaintiff had admitted in unequivocal terms that she was raped or gang raped or had sexual intercourse or was paraded nude.

Thus, Issue No. 2 was answered in negative as the depiction of the Plaintiff by the Defendant was not based on public records.


Issue No. 3: Whether there is consent by Plaintiff to the manner in which she is depicted in the film?

Issue No. 4: Can injunction be granted against Defendant No. 3 a T.V. operator in U.K.?


  • A reading of the agreements involved demonstrates that the Defendants had the sole right to use and reproduce the writings with certain additions and alterations. Certainly there was no license to the Defendants to make a film in total disregard to Plaintiff’s right of privacy.
  • The Plaintiff has stated time and again that neither sketch nor the story nor the actual film as made and produced was ever shown to her. From the agreement it cannot be inferred that the Plaintiff had the knowledge as to what is shown in the film. She believed in good faith after receiving money that whatever has been shown or whatever the film was, same was based upon her writings which Defendants derived from the book written by Defendant No. 4.
  • Defendant No. 3 is also bound by the orders passed by this Court as for T.V. operator in U.K. there is a Code of Conduct which prohibits screening of material which adversely affect privacy.

Thus, Issue No. 3 was answered in negative and Issue No. 4 was answered in affirmative. 

It was held that Defendants, have no right to exhibit the film as produced as it is violating the privacy of Plaintiff’s body and person and no amount of money can compensate the indignities, torture, feeling of guilt and shame which has been ascribed to the Plaintiff in the film.

[1] Widener v. Pacific Gas & Elec. Co., 75 C.A.3d 415, 142 Cal.Rptr. 304, 313

[2] Dietemann v. Time, lnc.,D.C.Cal., 284 F.Supp. 925, 930

[3] Edward Shils, “Privacy: Its Constitution and Vicissitudes” 31 Law and Contemporary-Problems (1966) 282

[4] R Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu; AIR 1995 SC 264

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