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February 16, 2000
Priya Ganapati in Bombay
For Bombay's starstruck, used to doing the rounds of Film City or Filmistan to catch a glimpse of their favourite actresses, the road to the Esplanade Court in downtown Bombay is a novelty.
But at 3 pm today, Esplanade Court 28 was packed with curious onlookers, lawyers and journalists, all waiting for some of Bollywood's top actresses -- Pooja Bhatt, Madhuri Dixit, Mamta Kulkarni, Karisma Kapoor, Tabassum Hashmi, Raveena Tandon and Juhi Chawla.
Nah! It wasn't another big-budget multi-star-cast movie being shot on location. The actresses were to appear in court as accused in an obscenity case filed by the Nari Shakti Jagruti Abhiyan (Campaign to Awaken Woman Power).
Hordes of cameramen and TV crews kept a vigil on the steps of the court, waiting for the actresses to turn up. But only Pooja Bhatt showed up.
"Court mein aayee hai to kitna decently dress kiya hai. Dekh kar nahi lagta hai ki there is a obscenity case against her ( Since she's come in court, see how decently she's dressed. You won't believe there's an obscenity case against her)," one lawyer whispered to another.
The case against the seven actresses was filed four years ago in the court of the judicial magistrate, first class, in Baroda under Section 293/ 294 of the Indian Penal Code. It was recently transferred to the Esplanade court in Bombay to expedite the case.
The summons case being heard today required that the 'accused' be present in court so that charges could be framed against them.
R C Singh, counsel for Karishma Kapoor, Tabassum Hashmi, Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit pleaded with the court that the actresses could not appear personally due to prior commitments.
His reasons why the actresses should be granted personal exemption had the court in titters.
Singh said that primary accused, Karishma Kapoor, could not come because she was shooting for a film in Pune with 100 artists, including Amrish Puri and Anupam Kher. He even volunteered to present before the court a letter from Shyam Benegal apologising for Karishma's absence in court.
Accused No 3, Juhi Chawla, could not make it because she was Australia shooting for a film, the dates for which were decided six months ago. Singh presented before the court a letter by her father asking for exemption on her behalf.
Singh told the court that Madhuri Dixit, No 5, could not come because she has settled in America with her husband. Madhuri had faxed over a letter pleading that the court exempt her since she has settled finally into her "matrimonial home".
As the court laughed, Singh continued with the excuse of accused No 6, Raveena Tandon, who could not come because she was in Dubai on a show, the dates for which were fixed last October.
"My Lord, even though they could not be physically present before the court, mentally they are here, for the simple reason that they are also thinking about this. They may not be here physically but, mentally, they are before the court," Singh told the displeased judge.
Judge Mohan Puranik who was presiding over the case reprimanded Singh for his clients' absence. Then attention shifted to the complainant in the case, Archana Chavan, head of the Baroda-based Nari Shakti Sanghatna.
Chavan later told rediff.com that she had filed the case because TV channels and movies project vulgarity.
"These mediums show things against Indian culture. The world over our culture is respected because it is so pure. But these people are corrupting it," she said.
Explaining that she did not intend to harass the actresses through these suits, Chavan said, "We are doing this so that awareness is built up in public minds. In the name of entertainment, the public is given anything, which it laps up. We want to prevent this."
Sadly for Chavan, the judge appeared to disagree with her. Dismissing the case, Justice Puranik said, "If actors and actresses are subjected to criminal proceedings throughout India at the whims and fancies of people, it will be difficult for them to exercise their rights as per the Constitution."
Justice Puranik added that the lower courts had no jurisdiction to entertain grievances that could be termed public interest litigations.
The judge acquitted the actresses, saying that the allegations of obscenity against them were vague.
"The songs, which the complainant has referred to in her petition may be vulgar but they cannot be termed obscene. The songs, which are in bad taste, cannot always be considered obscene."
Vinod Sharma, lawyer for Chavan told rediff.com that she would challenge the judgement in the sessions court.
"The court cannot pass a judgement without considering the evidence. The hearing today was to frame charges but we could not even present the evidence. The accused had not even said whether they were guilty or not when the court discharged the case. The court cannot pass a judgement suo moto," fumed Sharma.
Chavan's husband, who was also present, said that the Nari Shakti Jagruti Abhiyan would now seek help from others organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh before deciding on its next course of action.
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