Filmmakers of 'The Kerala Story' Wish to Have Their Cake and Eat it Too

The Kerala Story injures the innocence of the audience’s expectations from drama—that they will only be taken for a playful ride and not be misled or violated.

The Supreme Court’s judgment to lift the ban on The Kerala Story’s screening in West Bengal is an entirely welcome development. It serves as a much-needed reminder that the State has no business banning films. 

But let us set aside the already much-debated question of whether the ban on the film was justified. I wish to dwell, instead, on another question raised by the court’s judgment. While the court stayed the ban on the film, it stopped short of completely exonerating the filmmakers. Noting the film’s dubious factual claims, the judges ordered the filmmakers to insert a disclaimer making it explicit that the figures they present as facts are, in fact, unsubstantiated. 

This brings into focus a far more interesting question: does The Kerala Story really represent a work of fiction? Or, are we witnessing the emergence of a new genre of film that systematically subverts the distinction between fiction and reality, and makes drama perform the tasks of history? 

Take, the insistence of the makers of The Kerala Story that the film is an accurate representation of the facts, a claim that lies at the source of the entire controversy. A similar claim was made by another recent film – Kashmir Files – which, too, insisted that its admittedly fictional portrayal of the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits was also a historically accurate representation of what happened in Kashmir at the beginning of the insurgency. 

That it took the court to delineate the boundary between reality and fiction for the The Kerala Story filmmakers is in itself indicative of the extent to which the film – like the one before it – seeks to muddle this distinction. What hangs on the filmmakers’ insistence that their narrative is an accurate representation of reality, and not merely a work of the imagination? 

The oddity of this claim may be better appreciated against the background of the traditionally understood role of the dramatic narrative, which is to make the drama believable so that it may be enjoyed by the viewer. 

According to rasa theory the narrative of drama is to serve as the matrix for the characters and their emotions which the audience may then relish in the form of rasa. In constructing a dramatic narrative, in determining which facts are to be included and how they are to be portrayed, rasa or aesthetic relish must always remain at the forefront of the poet’s considerations. 

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In order for it to perform its proper function and disclose an imaginary world this matrix, or the must appear believable to the viewers. A patently implausible story-line acts as a positive hindrance  in the audience’s imaginative absorption of  the play and thus presents a serious obstacle to rasa. Indeed, implausibility (sambhāvanāviraha) is the first among the impediments in drama listed by Abhinavagupta, the pre-eminent theorist in the rasa tradition. 

Plausibility, however, should not be conflated with historical accuracy. That the two are quite distinct may be seen from the fact that in drama an entirely fictional storyline can be eminently plausible. Factual accuracy is something we expect from historical or political narratives, not dramatic ones. 

Even when the narrative of a drama is based on historical events, the point of borrowing from history, as rasa theory tells us, is to make the story believable, not to present a historically accurate description of what in fact happened. It is precisely upon this implicit understanding that the story of the drama is not to be taken as an accurate representation of reality. And that drama is extended the artistic liberty to distort or exaggerate history for bending it to the purposes of aesthetic relish. The mandate of a dramatic narrative, even when it is based on historical events, never extends to correcting or overwriting history.

What is perplexing about The Kerala Story is that the filmmakers seem to reject this traditional understanding of the dramatic narrative’s function. The narrative of the film endeavors not merely to be a believable story, but claims also to be a historically accurate portrayal of events. 

This insistence on historical accuracy should  strike us as puzzling. Yet even more alarming – and perhaps the most worrying feature of this new genre – is what this insistence wants to accomplish. Not only does it violate the traditional mandate of the dramatic narrative º by making the narrative of drama perform the tasks of history – it also exploits the resulting confusion for covertly building a political narrative under the pretence of telling a fictional story. 

Cinema has always been political in the sense of taking its subject matter from politics, and in having relevance for politics. Yet Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story are political in an additional sense: they intend  to support the larger political project of Hindutva. 

Moreover, films like Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story accomplish their covert political aims by systematically blurring the distinction between reality and fiction. It is in this way that we should to understand the claim at the heart of this new genre of films

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Films in this genre succeed in their political work by making a set of contradictory demands on the viewers. On the one hand, they expect the audience to extend to their narrative the same sort of credulity as is generally extended to works of fiction. After all, viewers come to the theatre with the expectation of being taken on a playful ride, and for this reason are readily willing to go along with the fictional narrative. At the same time, however, the films claim to be historically accurate representations of events, and expect to be taken as such by the audience. They seek to exploit the willing gullibility of the audience of drama by inviting them to believe in a fictional story, but one that is presented to them as an accurate representation of reality. The filmmakers wish to have their cake and eat it too.

The audience, of course, is never told that this fictional-yet-real story is in fact part of a partisan political narrative. Someone who knows beforehand that they are being served political fare would tend to approach the narrative far more critically than the readily trusting audience of drama. The viewers of films like Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story are thus misled into extending belief to a political narrative masquerading as a dramatic one. Such narratives seek to perform the task of political persuasion under false pretences, and under conditions in which the audience’s critical faculties are willingly suspended. 

And it is here that this new genre is at its most injurious. The audience comes to the theatre, as Abhinavagupta says, with the expectation of witnessing something supra-mundane and beautiful, something eminently worth relishing, and drama delivers to them a sugar-coated learning, which, in time, sets them upon the path that leads to the true ends of humankind. 

By surreptitiously serving them political propaganda in the garb of drama, films like Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story injure the innocence of the audience’s expectations from drama—that they will only be taken for a playful ride and not be misled or violated.

The only appropriate response to this new genre is not banning the film, but for the public to take cognisance of deception at play in these films. If only the audience were able to properly see these films for what they are, they might perhaps reject them in the only way they know: by refusing to take relish in them, not by banning or boycotting them.

Vivek Yadav is an advanced graduate student at MESAAS, Columbia University, where he studies contemporary Indian politics.