The Kerala Story: Why an Indian film on ISIS is so controversial

May 11, 2023
The film has been banned in India's West Bengal state
The film has been banned in India's West Bengal state

KOCHI — A new film that claims to tell the story of Hindu and Christian women who were lured into joining the Islamic State (ISIS) group has stirred a huge controversy in India.

The Kerala Story, set in the southern state of Kerala, has been criticized by many opposition politicians, with some calling it propaganda and an attempt to destroy religious harmony.

But it has received support from leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who praised it at a recent political rally. Some party members have also hosted screenings and distributed free tickets.

The film has got poor reviews from many mainstream critics who have lambasted its performances and "lack of nuance" — one wrote that the film's "thoughts about Islam and [religious] conversion seem to have been sourced from hate-filled WhatsApp groups".

But its performance at the box office has been "extraordinary" for a film with a small budget and no big stars, analyst Taran Adarsh told the BBC. According to his estimates, it has earned more than 560m rupees ($6.8m, £5.4m) in five days, which he calls "a feat for any new release".

The Kerala Story has drawn comparisons with The Kashmir Files, another sharply polarizing movie that became one of last year's biggest hits from Bollywood. That film on the exodus of Hindus from Kashmir in the 1990s was again made on a small budget, had no big stars, and received praise from Modi and other BJP leaders though it got middling reviews.

The Kerala Story began sparking controversy months before its release. In November, some politicians from Kerala called for the film to be banned after its teaser claimed it told the "heart-breaking and gut-wrenching stories of 32,000 females" from the state who had joined the ISIS

This was debunked by fact-checking website Alt News in a detailed report that concluded that there was "no evidence" to back the number.

According to the US State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, there were "66 known Indian-origin fighters affiliated" with the ISIS as of November 2020. In September 2021, India's National Investigation Agency said that it had arrested 168 people in connection with 37 cases "of terror attacks, conspiracy and funding" inspired by the ISIS's ideology.

The filmmakers, however, said that The Kerala Story was based on true events and years of research.

The movie faced legal challenges and mounting criticism in April as its release date approached. The Kerala high court refused to stay the release, but the film's makers agreed to remove the teaser, which gave the contentious figure of 32,000 women. Its description on YouTube was also changed to "the compilation of the true stories of three young girls from different parts of Kerala".

In 2021, after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, Indian officials had said that four women from Kerala who had joined the ISIS were in jail there. A police official from Kerala told the BBC last year on condition of anonymity that "there are not more than 10-15 women who have got converted and left to join the ISIS from Kerala since 2016".

After the film's release, it was praised by many supporters who said it dealt with an important issue that deserved to be discussed. Two state governments — Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, both governed by the BJP — have made the film tax-free.

Others, however, have accused it of demonizing Muslims and peddling Islamophobia.

In Tamil Nadu state, an association of multiplex owners said they would stop screening the film, citing protests and low audiences. West Bengal, governed by the Trinamool Congress, banned the film, saying it "could be dangerous to peace and order".

The ban has been criticized by some filmmakers and several BJP leaders, including at least two federal ministers. On Friday, India's Supreme Court will hear a petition from the film's makers against the ban.

The film has also sparked social media campaigns — many people have been sharing examples of religious camaraderie in Kerala under hashtags such as #MyKeralaStory and #RealKeralaStory.

Singer TM Krishna wrote that over the past two decades, he has performed at "innumerable temples" across the state in front of "people who belong to diverse faiths".

Political cartoonist EP Unny shared a cartoon of a mosque, temple and a church standing next to each in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram, calling it "the real Kerala story".

Kerala, considered one of India's most progressive states, is often praised for its religious harmony. According to the last census in 2011, 27% of Kerala's 33 million people are Muslims and 18% are Christians.

Several politicians and Muslim leaders have alleged that the film is part of a larger campaign to disturb religious harmony and "insult the state". Some people have also offered monetary rewards to anyone who could provide proof of the film's claims.

The state's chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan also criticized the film ahead of its release, saying that it seemed to have been made "with the aim of communal polarization and spreading hate propaganda". His government, however, has not banned the film.

The Kerala Story's release coincided with a heated election campaign in Karnataka, the only southern state where the BJP is in power.

Modi had praised the film during an election rally last week, saying that it tried to "expose the consequences of terrorism in a society".

But analysts say that while such movies create plenty of noise, they are unlikely to have real-life political impact.

Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and pro-vice chancellor at the Jagran Lakeside University in Bhopal, says that films such as The Kerala Story are more likely to appeal to people who already support its message.

"It does not bring more people to your side." — BBC

May 11, 2023
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