Priyanka Chopra Jonas in The White Tiger
On January 21, hours before Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao-starrer The White Tiger was to drop online, producers Sonia Mudbhatkal and John Hart had filed a copyright infringement suit in the Delhi High Court against the film’s producer Mukul Deora, his chartered accountant Sharad Seksaria and Netflix. They claimed they held the adaptation rights to Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Now, the producer duo have gone to the Enforcement Directorate, alleging that Deora used a cheque from a now-defunct Swiss bank, BSI, for “suspicious transactions for the project”.
In their email to the ED, Hart and Mudbhatkal lodged a formal request for an investigation into the transactions. They also alleged that Netflix was in the know of Deora’s “various shell companies.” Deora told mid-day there was no wrongdoing.
For the uninitiated, Hart — who has previously produced Revolutionary Road (2008) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999) — had bought the adaptation rights of the award-winning book on March 4, 2009, from Adiga. In July 2010, Mudbhatkal joined him to produce its screen adaptation and brought Deora on board as a passive financier in October 2010. According to Hart and Mudbhatkal suit, Deora and she were to set up Smiling Tree Media Ventures on 50-50 equity deal terms. However, in the years that followed, they claim in their suit that Deora set up a web of companies — from Continuum Media in India to Transatlantic Media and Particle Media in Ireland — to subvert the rights of the original copyright owners.
According to their complaint to the ED, Deora, in 2013, used the now-defunct Swiss bank in around transaction wherein he wired $1.199 million from BSI bank in Hong Kong to his New York law firm Pryor Cashman’s escrow on behalf of Particle Media. In their complaint to the ED, they also referred to the Delhi High Court injunction judgment where Deora’s lawyer Sandeep Sethi is said to have admitted that Particle Media — which on paper belongs to Hong Kong resident Raj Lakhani — is, in fact, linked to Deora. Mudbhatkal also claimed possession of documentary evidence to prove the same, including the BSI bank account cheque used for the transaction from Hong Kong.
In a separate mail drafted to Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, the producer duo claimed that as per the US copyright registration, the film rights have been registered in the name of Hart’s entity, Smuggler LLC. They also noted that Netflix tried to register the “dramatic work based on the book by Adiga” in October 2019 after Hart and Mudbhatkal had sent the streaming giant a legal notice, objecting to Deora’s representation that he is the sole owner of rights and producer of The White Tiger.
Hart told mid-day, “What matters is the truth: protecting people from having their life’s work stolen away from them, and equally important, holding content financiers and distributors accountable for following IP. Particularly, when the ownership of the IP has been challenged as it was in this case. Without proper due diligence, no artist is safe from their work being stolen and violated”.
Deora told mid-day, “I have full faith in the judiciary of India. On January 21, the Delhi HC rejected the demand by the plaintiffs and refused to stay the release of The White Tiger. I understand that the court observed that it was not possible, based on the material on record before it, to come to any prima facie conclusion that, by producing or releasing the film, the defendants indulge in illegal copyright infringement or transgressed the right of the plaintiff. The matter is currently subjudice.”
The next hearing at the Delhi HC is scheduled on March 22.