Should a film or a book be banned? Should the wider public be prevented from seeing or reading it, simply because the authorities decree so? This is a question that keeps coming up every now and then and has once again being discussed after the release of The Kerala Story, a film that by all accounts is little more than hateful propaganda, full of factual errors, all deliberately distorted to present a particular point of view and, as was the case with The Kashmir Files, to demolish a community.
The Kerala Story is one more film that purports to tell the ‘truth’ but has little time for facts. This one tells us about how innocent Hindu girls from Kerala — 32,000 of them — have been recruited by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) after being converted to Islam. This operation was carried out by Muslim boys who seduced these women — another example of the so-called nefarious ‘love jihad’ by Muslims.
The trailer, which was released a few days ago, kept on hammering all these points, including the claim of 32,000, even while questions were raised about the accuracy of these figures. That such a large number had disappeared from one state without anyone noticing it seemed implausible – and it was. No such figure existed, it was all a figment of the filmmaker’s imagination. There had been reports of three Kerala women who had reportedly joined ISIS – the 32,000 figure is a gross exaggeration, and plain factually wrong.
When challenged by the courts, the director Sudipto Sen quietly dropped the number from his trailer. Why did he use it in the first place? No answer. Incidentally, Sen was the only jury member who had not supported filmmaker Nadav Lapis, chairman of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) jury, who had called The Kashmir Files a “vulgar propaganda film”.
After the trailer, people in Kerala offered a tidy sum of money to the filmmaker or anyone to prove the 32,000 number but there was no response. Social media was full of angry comments against Sen’s claims and it was pointed out that the ‘real’ Kerala story was its contribution to the economy, its excellent human development indicators and its long tradition of harmony. The historian Manu Pillai wrote that the Kerala story was about a syncretic culture that celebrated love, tolerance and respect that was embedded in every Malayalee. What the film purported to show was simply untrue. The chief minister of the state called it “hateful propaganda”.
Then, the film’s tall and wild claims were mentioned by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi had, in the past, also endorsed The Kashmir Files and one after another, BJP chief ministers had followed, allowing government employees to take a day off to see it. The film was a box office hit.
This time too, Madhya Pradesh, followed by Uttar Pradesh, declared The Kerala Story tax-free, which will undoubtedly help its box office takings. Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, has banned it in her state, which the Supreme Court has questioned. The exhibitors and cinema houses of Tamil Nadu, citing possible law and order problems and damage to theatres, have decided not to show it. In Gujarat, Parzania, a searing film about the Gujarat riots, was not banned – the theatres simply chose not to show it. The same happened with Fanaa, starring Aamir Khan and Kajol, which theatre owners in Gujarat boycotted because of his statements about the Narmada dam. There are various ways to ‘ban’ a film.
Kerala is one state that has refused steadfastly not to succumb to the efforts by the BJP to give it much political space, like Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Karnataka remains its point of entry into the south, but the other four states have resisted the BJP. Of these, Kerala particularly is a target for the BJP because it is administered by the CPI(M).
With over a quarter of the population as Muslims, the BJP sees an opportunity, especially among the Christians, to polarise the population. For this, it will use every opportunity, including pushing hate and lies mongering films.
Given this background, shouldn’t a film like The Kerala Story be disallowed from being screened, not just in the state but also elsewhere in the country?
Shabana Azmi, Anuraag Kashyap and Shashi Tharoor, who is an MP from Kerala, have all said it should not be banned. The censors have passed it, and banning in any case is not the answer. Let the people decide. It is the liberal position of not banning films, which has come in for criticism by others who would count as liberals.
But this is not just an ordinary film; it is a film filled with hate and venom with an obvious divisive agenda, to spread further polarisation. In the run-up to the next elections, more such films may come. Should they then be given a free run?
The right wing, and that includes the government, does not show the same courtesy to others when it comes to freedom of speech and expression. People are routinely shut down for their views, if not thrown into jail.
Even so, banning something opens the door for more bans. That is the crux of the issue. That is not something a democratic country should do. In fact this tendency should be resisted. Let the viewing public decide. The Kashmir Files was not banned, and made a lot of money for the filmmaker – but he never acquired legitimacy, as the strong statements by Lapid proved. The same will happen with The Kerala Story – it will make some money, which will encourage more filmmakers to make these kinds of films. But eventually if public response and box office returns dwindle, future filmmakers will be discouraged.
This happened with all those ‘historical’ sagas which were little more than Hindutva propaganda. How many people remember Vivek Oberoi’s The PM Narendra Modi? Or Accidental Prime Minister? Propaganda and malice never win. Ultimately, fans still want a Pathaan and a Shahrukh Khan with his message of harmony, not hate being hammered into their heads.