Herald View: The Story of 'The Kerala Story'
The Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to entertain a plea by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind seeking a direction to the Centre and others not to allow the screening of 'The Kerala Story'
The makers of The Kerala Story were most likely counting on the social media hubbub over the film’s trailer. Controlled disruption is good for publicity, after all, and the ongoing commotion could very well translate into commercial success. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP may find it harder, though, to publicly support the film—by means such as announcing tax breaks and exhorting people to watch it—in the way they had done for The Kashmir Files. It might be harder to fly in the face of outspoken criticism in Kerala, where chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the ruling LDF and the opposition UDF have together panned the film for peddling lies and spewing hatred. ‘This may be your Kerala story but [it’s] not mine’, tweeted MP Shashi Tharoor and there has been a clamour in Kerala to stop the screening of the film.
The trailer claims 32,000 women in Kerala had been deceitfully converted, brainwashed, trained to become terrorists and fight for the Islamic State in West Asia. Many of these women, it claims, are languishing in prisons in Afghanistan. Director Sudipto Sen (whose name also appears in the film’s scriptwriting credits) had earlier insisted that the film was backed by seven years of research. In interviews, he named two former Kerala chief ministers as having backed the figure, which is a false claim. These misquotes have since been exposed. Called out by fact-checks and facing the heat of the state police and lawmakers, the producer this week acknowledged that the film tells the story of just three women from Kerala—not 32,000. Addressing a press conference, Sudipto Sen later said the 32,000 figure used in the movie was an “arbitrary number but backed with some facts”. Figure that out! How does the story of three women become the story of a state? Who decides the propitious release dates? (It’s hard to ignore that the film’s scheduled release on Friday, May 5, was the weekend before Karnataka goes to polls May 10). The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), known to be fairly alert about what is kosher and what can “hurt sentiments”, saw no reason to flag anything either in its review process. Just the deliberate misquotes, attributed to former chief ministers, could have been seen as reasonable grounds to book the producer and director; people have gone to jail for much less in the last nine years or so.
Note that The Kerala Story is a Hindi film, which should also tell us something about its intended audience. Neither the producer nor the director is from Kerala, and apparently neither of them is conversant with Malayalam. The filmmakers have strenuously denied any political agenda, but the narrative bears tell-tale signs. Even as a work of fiction or a fictionalised account, the underpinning of ‘facts’ would have been objectionable—any argument that pleads the absence of a political motive in this story is simply not tenable, given our current everyday reality. And The Kerala Story makes the claim of being a ‘true story’ of women from Kerala. Even the Union government, which cynically soft-pedals a polarising Hindu-Muslim narrative, had informed Parliament that it estimates 155 ‘Indians’ to have gone out of the country to join the Islamic State. (The US State Department estimates that number to be 66.) At the peak of its power and popularity in 2016-17, the Islamic State was estimated to have drawn some 40,000 followers from 110 countries. The suggestion that 32,000 women from Kerala alone—even with their husbands or boyfriends in tow—joined the Islamic State is simply ludicrous. As recently as in 2021, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is reported to have interrogated just four Indian women languishing in the prisons of Afghanistan. Two of them were Christians from Kerala before they chose to convert to Islam and join the Islamic State.
If you are not in denial, it’s hard to miss the political design of these trumpedup narratives. Hindi cinema is inarguably one of the most powerful ways to shape popular sentiment in this country. It has been used in the past to fight hatred; it can just as easily be manipulated to fan it. A succession of recent Hindi films—Samrat Prithviraj, Manikarnika, Uri, Tanhaji and The Kashmir Files, among others—bear testimony. Sadly, though, the genie has been let out of the bottle—and the fact-checks won’t undo the damage.
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