A few days ago, when I called up the director of The Kerala Story, Sudipto Sen, over an infamous claim that his movie makes – that 32,000 women were kidnapped from Kerala and sold to ISIS – he told me that my question was "cliched."
He then asked me to watch the movie before jumping into any conclusions. So, that's exactly what I did – I watched the movie. And he was right, I did jump to conclusions; the teaser and the trailer of the film did not prepare me enough for the Islamophobic rant that was The Kerala Story.
From a purely cinematic point of view, the movie was not well-made; it was caricature-ish at most places (I will get to that in detail). But the way the story was told… it was organised, with blatant and symbolic hate plastered on every single frame.
What could have been a nuanced film on religious extremism became just scenes and scenes of sexual violence and indoctrination, flippantly strung together by a loose thread.
So, as I stepped out of a theatre with barely 50 people in it – shortly after a matter-of-fact 'Jai Shri Ram' slogan – I was left with more "cliched" questions on my mind.
To begin with, what on earth was that accent?
Kerala, the Land of Kathakali
Full disclosure: I am a Malayali born and brought up in Kerala. Yes, Bollywood would have you believe that Kerala is about kathakali, houseboats, and girls with mullappoo (jasmine flowers) in their hair.
And unsurprisingly, Sudipto Sen chose to stick with these stereotypes. When the film brings us to the God's Own Country, Adah Sharma, who plays the role of Shalini Unnikrishnan (I cannot unhear that fake Malayalam accent), is seen walking around a temple with mullappoo in her hair, and chilling with a random kathakali artiste. But why!
Then she returns home to her amma and ammumma (who is probably the only character in the film who speaks Malayalam) – and they have lunch on vazha ela (banana leaf). We do have plates at home, you know.
Let's circle back to the accent that makes no sense. I understand that most of the actors in the film are non-Malayalis. But they have a fake Malayalam accent while speaking in Hindi and English (it is hard not to cringe when Adah Sharma says "mack-up" instead of "make-up").
And when they speak Malayalam, they have a heavy non-Malayali accent. There's really no uniformity in using this fake accent either; it comes and goes as it pleases.
So, what exactly was the point, sir?
I guess it's pretty simple.
The Kerala Story is not meant for a Malayali audience. It presents Kerala in a palatable form to those outside of Kerala – confirming their biases about the only communist party-ruled state in the country. Incidentally, Kerala also happens to be one of the few states in the country that, on the face of it, has rejected right-wing religious sentiments.
Speaking about the film earlier, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said:
"A glance at the trailer gives the impression that the movie was deliberately produced with the aim of communal polarisation and spreading hate propaganda against Kerala. Propaganda films and the othering of Muslims should be viewed in the context of various efforts made by the Sangh Parivar to gain an advantage in electoral politics in Kerala."
And speaking of communism, it's also difficult to miss the derisive placement of socialist symbols and heroes (Western propagandists, duh) throughout the movie, attempting to show that the ideology isn't helping the "poor, helpless women of Kerala."
For example, one of the 'targeted' women, Geetanjali (played by Siddhi Idnani), tells her 'atheist' father that it's his fault that she fell into a religious trap. "You should have taught me about our culture and religion…" That is, Hinduism.
But that also doesn't mean the film doesn't have an audience in the state. When 24-year-old Hadiya (who was a Hindu woman) converted to Islam on her own accord in 2017, Malayalis were quick to infantalise her and call her a product of brainwashing. In fact, Kerala has been at the centre of alleged 'love-jihad' politics for years now.
And frankly, it's unbelievable that there wasn't a hue and cry when 32,000 women allegedly went missing – as the movie suggests.
When The Quint spoke to a retired senior police official (who did not wish to be named) about this claim, he said:
"If 32,000 women went missing in Kerala, what would be the reaction? Here, if one woman goes missing, there's massive hue and cry. So I don't even need to explain why that number does not make any sense. Kerala has 12,000 schools, and as per this figure, three girls will have to go missing from each school. Kerala has only 1,000 panchayats – as per this figure, 32 women will have to go missing from there. Think about it!"
The Magic Number
I call 32,000 the magic number because it has been appearing and disappearing in and out of conversations surrounding the film, as per the makers' convenience. The movie's teaser first said 32,000, and then the trailer said three.
And in the film, when one of the victims, Nimah (played by Yogita Bihani), makes a passionate speech in front of a police officer, she, too, says "over 30,000" women.
She says: "Hamaare ex-chief minister ne bola hai, agle 20 saal mein Kerala Islamic state ban jaayega. (Our ex-chief minister has said that in the next 20 years, Kerala will become an Islamic State.)"
This is with reference to a statement made by CPI(M) leader VS Achuthanandan in 2010, with regard to the Popular Front of India's (PFI) influence in Kerala.
She also quotes – like it was some elocution competition or something – former chief minister Oommen Chandy, who had said in the Assembly that every year, approximately 2,800 to 3,200 girls were converting to Islam in Kerala.
And then, she concludes, "More than 32,000 girls are missing," and even goes on to say the unofficial figure is 50,000.
When the cop asks her for evidence and documents, she conveniently says it's hard to find proof in cases like this, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
Incidentally, director Sudipto Sen had said earlier that 32,000 is an "arbitrary" figure and that it doesn't really matter. Hmm…
If I didn't emphasise this enough, the claim that 32,000 women are missing remains unsubstantiated. At the end of the film, the makers say:
"To verify the claim of 32,000 conversions in the last 10 years, we filed a RTI application. In reply, we were asked to find the details on www.niyamasabha.org.in but this website doesn't exist."
Okay, one, a simple Google search shows that a website called www.niyamasabha.org does exist – but at this juncture, I'll just leave this to The Quint's fact-check team. Two, why would you publicise such a claim if it's not verified in the first place? And finally, the film's claim was not just about the conversions of these women, but that they're missing. None of this adds up.
And now, the makers have told the Kerala High Court, which refused to stay the film's release, that they would remove the teaser containing the said figure from all their social media accounts. Too little, too late?
Islamophobia & Women's Agency
Director Sudipto Sen, producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah, and actor Adah Sharma have categorically said during the film's promotions that "it doesn't target any religion."
I beg to differ. The storytelling in The Kerala Story is not meant to inform or evoke a nuanced conversation about religious conversions, but only to inorganically arouse sentiments of hate.
For instance, the evil Muslim characters (they're all evil, by the way) say the same evil things over and over again as though they're some kind of key toy.
Several religious practices central to Islam – like wearing the hijab or celebrating Eid – are blindly demonised in the film. One of the main evil characters is Asifa (Sonia Balani), who supposedly brainwashes Shalini and Geethanjali by telling them about the protection that a hijab offers.
What a far-fetched thing to say when in reality, hijabi girls of Karnataka schools and colleges are not even allowed to wear the headscarf and had to face abuses because of it.
There's even a shot of a girl burning what appears to be a hijab, which is, perhaps, inspired from the women's movements in Syria and Iran. A 'My Body, My Rules' graffiti is also spotted in one of the frames, which unfortunately makes no sense in a movie that campaigns against women's agency and blatantly portrays sexual violence.
As the end credits rolled with visuals of the apparent real-life victims of the story, the woman who sat next to me tells me that they should start screening such movies in schools and colleges. Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has endorsed The Kerala Story, I can actually see that happening.