(Trigger warning: Hate speech)
"32,000 or three, the number doesn't matter. If even one Hindu girl fell prey to the 'love jihad' trap, it is our collective responsibility to watch and promote this film," said Rahul Barole, a 28-year-old Hindutva activist from Maharashtra's Aurangabad district.
At the time of writing this report, Barole claimed that he sponsored approximately 1,500 tickets for young women and girls in his district to watch 'The Kerala Story' – a controversial Hindi film that follows a fictional storyline of a group of women from Kerala who are coerced into converting to Islam and join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The film ran into legal trouble after it was banned in West Bengal for "presenting disputed facts and figures" and "promoting Islamophobia." The makers also alleged that a de-facto ban was imposed on the film in Tamil Nadu, a claim which was later refuted by the Tamil Nadu government in the Supreme Court.
The filmmakers, Vipul Amrutlal Shah (producer) and Sudipto Sen (director), initially claimed that 32,000 women from Kerala had joined the ISIS but after widespread public outrage, they changed the number to state that the movie was a “compilation of the true stories of three young girls”.
As per trade portal Sacnilk, the film crossed Rs 200 crore at the box office worldwide on 26 May – its 21st day in theatres.
The Quint found that in addition to the organic footfall at theatres, individuals such as Barole, those associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Hindu nationalist groups such as Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, worked to promote the film by organising free screenings for women across the country.
'A' Certificate Not a Deterrent; Minors Present at Screenings
'The Kerala Story' finally released on 5 May after it received an 'A' certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) which means that only people above 18 years of age can watch the film in theatres.
These irregularities in numbers or the 'A' certificate by the CBFC, however, did not deter Barole from promoting the film by organising free screenings for women, and in some cases for minors who, he claimed, are "more vulnerable to the 'love jihad' trap".
"After the film released, I put up posters across Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (formerly Aurangabad) asking women between the age group of 18-35 years to register for free screenings. I also funded popcorn and cold drinks for some of them. Because of the 'A' certificate I could not directly ask younger girls to come and watch but in certain cases, I pressured the theatre staff to let the younger girls in, if they turned up. I told those who are 18+ to bring their younger sisters with them. Once they were at the theatre, the owners or managers could not ask them to sit outside while their elder sisters watched the film. It is important for girls between 12 and 18 years of age to watch this film as they are more vulnerable to 'love jihad'," said Barole.
In Maharashtra's Nanded, Sumit Chordiya, 28, a member of the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist outfit which forms the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), distributed 200 free tickets of the film to women who attended a Durga Vahini shivir (camp) in his district.
The Durga Vahini is the women's wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad.
"Only women above the age of 18 years attend Durga Vahini shivirs but while I was distributing the tickets, I told all of those women to go back home and spread the message of the film to girls above 12 years of age, who won't be able to watch it in the theatres," Chordiya said.
The 'Star Campaigners'
On 5 May – the day the film was released – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a rally ahead of the assembly elections in Karnataka, said that 'The Kerala Story' "exposes the consequences of terrorism in society."
"The movie 'The Kerala Story' is trying to expose the consequences of terrorism in a society, especially in a state like Kerala which is a beautiful land of hardworking, talented, and intellectual people. The Congress party is now trying to ban the film and support the terror elements," said Modi.
BJP leaders across the board followed suit and started organising free screenings for women.
In Assam, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma watched the film with his family and cabinet colleagues. "Everybody should watch #TheKeralaStory with their daughters," Sarma later tweeted.
Ankur Baruah, Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) state President in Assam, told The Quint that they are organising screenings in 20 out of 39 districts of the state.
"We are organising screenings for women above 18 years of age. It is important for them to see what's happening in the society. I personally attended a screening with some party karyakartas, and one with the Chief Minister," said Baruah.
BJYM is the youth wing of the BJP.
Former BJP MP from Betul in Madhya Pradesh, Hemant Khandelwal had organised at least 10 shows of the film by 12 May, as per Paridhi News, a local daily in MP.
In Rajasthan, Satish Poonia, BJP MLA and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, organised a screening of the film for women and party workers in Jaipur. "Watching the 'The Kerala Story' with daughters of Amer," the MLA tweeted.
In some BJP-ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra, the film was declared tax free.
The 'Foot Soldiers'
Anilsinh Chauhan, a 49-year-old civil engineer in Gujarat's Vadodara, said he is "not a communal person" but feels that "collective force is required to oppose immoral and illegal activities underway in Muslim dominated areas".
"We organised a screening for 165 women in our area. It is important that our young girls watch this film and be cautious in the future. Our generation has seen what these people (Muslims) are capable of. After the 2002 (Gujarat) riots, however, things changed. Today our girls are not aware of what these people (Muslims) can do. We're not communal people, I am not saying all Muslims are bad. But there is a section of Muslims who indulge in such activities."Anilsinh Chauhan
Chauhan is the president of Sara Foundation – a registered trust comprising 125+ residential societies in Vadodara – which organises cultural and social programmes for its members.
While the poster shared by the foundation on social media claims that the screening is for women above 18 years of age, Chauhan, while speaking to The Quint claimed that girls upto 16 years of age are allowed to watch the film but with their parents.
"I have watched the film. Barring three-four scenes, their is nothing that minors cannot watch. We have told the parents to accompany their daughters if they're minors. They assure us that they will ask them (daughters) to close their eyes when those scenes come. They (parents) were insisting that their daughters should watch the film at a young age because that is when they are most vulnerable to such traps," Chauhan said.
Complementing individuals such as Chauhan and Barole in their efforts are members of the ABVP, a right-wing student organisation associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Kirtiraj Patel, 25, an ABVP functionary in Rajasthan's Jodhpur, said that they have organised at least 10 screenings of the film in Jodhpur alone. "Each screening is attended by at least 150 women. Though there are no restrictions from our end but most of these women at 18+. Such screenings are being organised by ABVP throughout the country," Patel, who currently pursuing his PhD told The Quint.
The 'Gate Keepers'
Nitesh Parab, a resident of Thane in Mumbai, organised a screening of the film in Sindhudurg district, over 500 km from Mumbai.
"I feel women in rural areas should definitely watch this film because cases of religious conversions and 'love jihad' are mostly reported from such areas only," Parab said.
A member of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan – a right-wing Hindu nationalist outfit led by Sambhaji Bhide, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case – Parab has organised three screenings of the film so far, costing approximately Rs 15,000 each.
While Parab claimed that no minors were present at the screening of the film, videos and images accessed by The Quint suggest otherwise.
An employee at the theatre, on condition of anonymity, told The Quint that several minors attend these shows despite repeated warning by the staff.
"We do tell these people that the film has received an 'A' certificate but how much can we do. We cannot force the children to sit outside while other family members watch the film," the employee said.