'How dare you?': Bruce McArthur's victims' photos used in Indian action film to portray criminals

Family members of five of the eight men murdered by Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur are shocked and upset after learning their loved ones are being portrayed as criminals in a newly-released movie.

The photos of the five victims are visible in a short scene in the Indian Tamil-language action film Mafia: Chapter 1.

"I was just flabbergasted," Haran Vijayanathan said.

Vijayanathan, the executive director at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, has been supporting and speaking on behalf of the victims' families.

"Why are these people putting [the families] through hell again? It's completely disrespectful."

The film was released on Feb. 21 and features Indian film star Arun Vijay, who plays a narcotics police officer trying to take down a drug kingpin in Tamil Nadu, India.

Nearly 40 minutes into the movie, the photos are seen, among others, plastered onto a police investigation board while two men discuss the operation. The scene portrays those in the photos as being connected to a drug boss. They're visible for about 15 seconds.

Toronto Police Service/CBC

Photos of Skandaraj Navaratnam, Selim Esen, Abdulbasir Faizi, Kirushna Kanagaratnam and Soroush Mahmudi are used. They appear to be the same photos that have been widely published in the media and released by Toronto police.

Photos of McArthur's other victims, Andrew Kinsman, Dean Lisowick and Majeed Kayhan are not seen in the film.

McArthur pleaded guilty in January of 2019 to charges of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of all eight men. He committed the killings between 2010 and 2017.

Vijayanathan pointed out that Navaratnam and Kanagaratnam were Sri Lankan Tamils and the rest of the men pictured were of Middle Eastern descent.

"How irresponsible is it of someone in the Tamil community, putting out a Tamil movie, that highlighted these two individiduals, plus three other people, who died in such a tragic way?" he said. 

"How dare you? How dare anyone do that to someone?"

Victim's family in Sri Lanka 'very, very sad'

A cousin of Kanagaratnam said a friend recently saw the movie and told him about the photos.

"I was very, very upset and I was very, very sad," Haran Thanigasalam told CBC Toronto in an interview from his home in Sri Lanka.

"They didn't get our permission," he said.

Lyca Productions

Although Kanagaratnam wasThanigasalan's cousin, he refers to him as a brother. He said the family has gone through enough and learning about the photo has made the grieving worse.

"They created this sadness again and again," he said.

Vijayanathan said he spoke with family members of some of the other victims and said some had seen the film, others heard about the photos being used, and some weren't aware.

"The family members are just frustrated, livid and really sad that this is happening to them all over again," he said.

Production company apologizes, says images will be blurred

Mafia: Chapter 1 was much-anticipated. There were 4.7 million views of the trailer on YouTube within six months.

It's produced by Lyca Productions, a subsidiary of Lyca Group, a British multinational corporation.

A spokesperson for Lyca Productions told CBC Toronto in a written statement the company is sorry for using the photos.

Lyca Productions

"We wish to place on record and tender our unconditional apology to the families of the people for the inadvertent distress caused to them."

The company said it will be blurring the images of the people on the police investigation board once the company resumes work after the COVID-19 lockdown in India.

The statement also said the photos were available in "public forums" and  "downloaded randomly from the internet," only to be used for "creative narration."

"The movie is a work of fiction purely meant for entertainment purposes and not intended or directed to hurt the sentiments or feelings of any person alive or dead," the statement reads.

The company also mentioned the photos are only seen for a few seconds and no specific references were made to the people in the photos.

Film no longer on Amazon Prime

The movie was released in movie theatres worldwide, including in Canada. It was also available to stream on Amazon Prime, but has now been taken down.

"We were concerned to learn that the movie uses pictures of the victims of the Toronto serial homicides and immediately took action," Amazon Prime Video told CBC News in a written statement Tuesday evening.

The movie no longer appears in searches of the streaming service's platform. It can be found linked to Amazon Prime by searching online, but it isn't available to watch. A note from Amazon reads, "Our agreements with the content provider don't allow purchases of this title at this time."

Amazon Prime

Lyca Productions said it will provide Amazon Prime with a new version of the movie after it blurs the photos.

Legal issues

Toronto entertainment lawyer Cheryl Grossman said the situation is rare, complex and could potentially involve a number of legal arguments over multiple geographical jurisdictions.

She said the use of photos in a film downloaded from the internet typically requires written consent from the owner to avoid copyright infringement. 

"You can't just take a photo in most cases and use it," she said. 

Grossman noted there are some exceptions, but they would have to be discussed with a lawyer.

Submitted/Gil Tamin Photography

The right to privacy could be infringed on in this case, but that typically only applies to people who are still alive, "although that law is constantly evolving," she noted.

Grossman said the right to publicity could be argued for the use of one's photo after death. She also pointed to a law, which is relatively new in Ontario, that allows people to sue for severe emotional distress caused by another person who acted intentionally or recklessly.

She said the main issue is not legal, but ethical.

"This is clearly a case where you have to look at what are the interests of the family," she said.

"These people are still in mourning."