Director: Sudipto Sen
Writers: Suryapal Singh, Sudipto Sen, Vipul Amrutlal Shah
Cast: Adah Sharma, Yogita Bihani, Sonia Balani, Siddhi Idnani
At one point in The Kerala Story, a young woman who has been raised by Communism-loving parents berates them for not having prepared her for the real world. This ideology borrowed from the West didn’t teach us about Indian culture, about Indian religion, she says. As a result, unmoored young things like her don’t know any better than to wear hijab (thinking it will protect them from sexual harassment) and send nudes to the boyfriend (who despite having gone dancing and shared Amul chocolate with her, belongs to a terrorist sleeper cell). Had she been empowered by Hindu pride, then this young woman would have attended lectures at nursing college and seen through the young men who have been tasked by ISIS with converting India (and its billion-plus population) to an Islamic state by impregnating one young, non-Muslim woman at a time.
After hearing this tirade, the young woman’s father has one reaction: A sad-duck face.
In the cinema where this writer watched A Kerala Story, the response to this scene was divided. One group of people burst out in laughter. Another responded with questions — “What’s so funny?” “It’s true only. Why are they laughing?” It’s easy to feel superior to The Kerala Story, but despite the glaring ineptitude of its directorial vision and the ham-handed storytelling, this is a cultural product that we have to engage with as critics because it’s dealing with subjects that are part of a public discourse. Whether or not anyone watches The Kerala Story in cinemas or elsewhere, the fact that it demonises Kerala’s Muslims and suggests radicalisation is limited to one religion, makes it dangerous. This is a film begging to be treated as a political campaign. “Please save God’s Own Country,” says one character tearfully in the film, after rattling off a volley of Islamophobic opinions (which even The Kerala Story has to admit are at best circumstantial evidence, and not facts). The film would like you to believe that even if the evidence is lacking, the experiences are there for anyone who wants to listen. For a country in which so many feel unheard and unseen, these are potent and persuasive messages, even when they’re packaged in hilariously bad writing and direction.
Director Sudipto Sen has chosen as his starting point a topic that is complex and worth examining — the allure of extremist organisations to young people — but within a few minutes, it becomes clear that The Kerala Story is only interested in pushing propaganda. It doesn’t care about real issues, like the sense of alienation felt by young adults; or the complicated tangle of everyday sexism, desire and youthful rebellion that make the three women protagonists act against the wishes of their families.
Instead, Sen’s film exploits the trauma of a few real victims and survivors with the ruthlessness of a predator. Actual incidents are twisted and manipulated — it’s “cinematic liberty”, according to Sen — to put forward a blatantly sexist and Islamophobic agenda. The film ends with footage from one self-identified survivor and the parents of a victim who was driven to suicide. They’re supposed to remind the audience that the outlandish film they’ve just watched is rooted in truth. This is the ultimate predatory act on The Kerala Story’s part: It preys upon the grief and sadness of real people to give the film a veneer of credibility. (It’s worth keeping in mind that despite having agreed to being interviewed by The Kerala Story team, the mother of one survivor — whose experiences make up the role of the lead character Shalini — refused to let any footage of hers be used in the film.)
If The Kerala Story felt any responsibility towards the real women who have inspired the characters in the film, then one assumes the writers would have made some effort to grant them intelligence, if not agency. However, at every turn, Shalini (Adah Sharma), Geetanjali (Siddhi Idnani) and Nimah (Yogita Bihani) are impressionable to the point of being ridiculous. Shalini and Geetanjali in particular seem to exist to be exploited. They accept every bit of hogwash that their dorm-mate and ISIS agent Asifa (Sonia Balani) feeds them. In an alternate universe, a film about young women being radicalised would also have explored how Asifa became an ISIS agent, but such questions are not necessary in a propaganda film because simply being Muslim is enough to make you a terrorist.
There’s a bluntness to Sen’s filmmaking that teeters between ridiculous and chilling. On one hand, his worldbuilding is done in such broad strokes that the Communist household has a red flag at the door and a gigantic painting of Lenin and Marx. On the other, the local Muslim cleric drops the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in conversation, saying ISIS will complete what Alamgir was not able to fulfil in his lifetime. Asifa keeps telling the other women that the Gods they worship are weak and ineffective, and Shalini and Geetanjali unquestioningly accept this. Meanwhile, the background score does its best to be ominous by unleashing low bass notes (to signal doom) and noises of whiplash practically every time a Muslim character speaks. Asifa is able to manipulate her friends into first wearing the hijab and then falling for the Muslim men she introduces them to (all of them have beards. Naturally). When Shalini discovers she’s pregnant, she believes she has no option but to convert to Islam, get married to someone she only knows from the Islamic Study Centre that’s become her second home, and go off to Syria. No one mentions the Special Marriage Act to her or the option of an abortion (despite all women being nursing students). Catholic women, incidentally, are given a little more credit. Represented by Nimah, they’re tough to crack, Asifa says. Not only does Nimah not fall for the ISIS stooge that’s placed before her, towards the end of The Kerala Story, she is trusted with a speech that seeks to fan the flames of outrage in the audience’s soul.
Sen is not interested in why young men and women like Shalini, Geetanjali, and the young men who are willing to endure hardships for ISIS, feel drawn to radical and extremist Islamic groups. Neither does his film acknowledge the existence of extremist groups from other religions which also have a large proportion of young men in their ranks. The women subjects in The Kerala Story are simply an excuse to introduce the audience to Muslim characters who are Whatsapp forwards come to life. Every single Muslim character in The Kerala Story is evil and lives only to forward what they think is the Islamic State’s (ISIS) agenda. They’re drug dealers, deceitful Casanovas, impotent abusers, and flushed with cash. They exist to deceive, impregnate and rape women, whether in India or abroad. The only two Muslim characters who don’t appear to be connected to the terror outfit are also the two non-speaking parts in the film. Usually, most films that point fingers at a community have the grace to include one token good guy from that community as a counterbalance or they make it clear that the villain — like the Christian priest who seeks to convert the hapless or the Hindu who is a hateful bigot — is an exception. Not even that level of nuance is allowed in The Kerala Story. Sen’s film is simplistic propaganda that taps into the majoritarian anxiety that if the ignorant Hindu doesn’t wake up, then Hindus will be wiped out. It’s the kind of fearmongering that is foundational to contemporary Indian politics.
Not that factual accuracy should be expected of either propaganda or mainstream cinema, but multiple mainstream and independent media platforms have found the ‘facts’ in The Kerala Story to range from dubious to wrong. Possibly as a defence, Sen has a disclaimer at the start of the film that tells us he’s taken “cinematic liberty”. More fitting would have been to start The Kerala Story with the disclaimer from Queen Charlotte: “It is not a history lesson. It is fiction inspired by fact. All liberties taken by the author are quite intentional.”