Even as accusations of hate speech and calls for ban dominate the social media discussion around the upcoming feature film The Kerala Story, its makers are mired in yet another controversy – of toning down the movie's initial claim that 32,000 women were converted to Islam and trafficked to join the ISIS.
The trailer of the film, which came out last week, says that "The Kerala Story is a compilation of the true stories of three young girls from different parts of Kerala."
Now, why is this controversial? The teaser of the movie released in November 2022 said it was based on the "heartbreaking and gut-wrenching stories of 32000 females in Kerala!" The magnanimity of this figure has since been contested, with many terming it a gross exaggeration.
However, in a purported video from a screening in New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Tuesday, 2 May, the director of the film Sudipto Sen responded to a question on the said figure, saying:
"Do you think the number actually matters? The 32,000 number is an arbitrary number. It is based on facts."
The Quint reached out to the director for his response, but he categorically said he would not comment on the matter.
'From 32,000 to 3': How the Figure Changed
Earlier on Tuesday, 2 May, many took to Twitter to point our the discrepancy in the figures mentioned in the teaser and the trailer. Former Finance Minister of Kerala, Thomas Isaac, wrote on the microblogging platform:
"Kerala Story of 32000 girls joining Islamic state has now become 'true story of 3 girls from different parts of Kerala'. Sanghi makers of the movie has edited the slander in its trailer in YouTube. Outrage film roused has forced reduction in numbers from 32000 to 3 in one day! [sic]"
Another Twitter user shared screenshots of the teaser and trailer, saying:
"The 'gut wrenching stories of 32000 women in Kerala' drops to 3 girls in just 24 hours. If it's just a story of 3 random girls, how dare they name it "The Kerala Story"? Isn't it spreading targeted hatred, vilification of a state? No FIRs?"
Some, including Rajya Sabha MP and CPI(M) leader John Brittas, tweeted that the description below the movie's teaser was also altered to say "three women." However, The Quint could not independently verify whether the teaser description was changed too.
How Did the Director Respond?
Speaking to The Quint over the phone, Sudipto Sen declined to comment on the matter, saying it was "cliched" to ask questions about the figure.
"I don't think by putting up these questions, you'll make any difference. It is very cliched. You watch the film, you write about it. I request you not to take answers from me. I will not comment."
But addressing a crowd during a screening at JNU on Tuesday, the filmmaker said that "the number doesn't matter" and that "even if one girl faced this, the story needs to be told."
The screening, organised by the Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), was met with protests from other student political parties on the campus. Producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah and actress Adah Sharma was also present at the event.
According to ANI, Sen said at the screening: "If people like it [the film], it will be the biggest prize for me."
But the Number Matters – Here's Why
In an interview with Citti Media in 2021, Sen had said that he arrived at the number 32,000 based on figures given to the Kerala Assembly by former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
However, fact-checking news website AltNews found that there was "no proof" to support this claim.
Sen further told Citti Media that "in 2010, I documented a case where he (Chandy) said that every year approximately 2,800 to 3,200 girls were taking up Islam. Just calculate it for the following 10 years, and the number is around 32,000."
But a few months ago, speaking to AltNews, which sought proof of these claims from him, he said:
"Let the intolerance reach a crescendo. I'll share my data after the film is released. Why should I defeat the cause of my film?"
AltNews also found that there is no substantial evidence in the public domain to corroborate Sen's claims.
Since the teaser of The Kerala Story, starring Adah Sharma in the lead role, came out last year, a political storm has been brewing in Kerala, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) labelling the film an "exposé" and the ruling CPI(M) and the Opposition Congress terming it a part of the Sangh Parivar's agenda to malign Kerala.
The teaser, which was centred around the '32,000 women' claim, has over 1.4 million views so far.