‘The Kerala Story’ Ushers in a New Era of Malicious Hindutva Propaganda

The film, which claims to tell the story of Malayali women who joined ISIS, paints memories of warm camaraderie in a thick greasy paste of communal hatred. 

Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker. She used cinematic techniques that were not used at the time, her use of music, and unconventional camera angles are still lessons in cinema. Her films are captivating. There is but a problem that is hard to ignore for those who know history. She made propaganda films for Adolf Hitler. One of her greatest films, Triumph of the Will, spoke about the return of Germany as a great power under Hitler. Olympia glorified the Olympics during the Nazi period. After the war when Riefenstahl was arrested, she claimed to have not known that Hitler’s ideology was ethnic cleansing of the Jews. 

A thoroughly anti-Muslim film from India garnered attention when Nadav Lapid, who was one of the jury members at IFFI last year, called it a “propaganda, vulgar movie, inappropriate for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival”. The Kashmir Files by Vivek Agnihotri showed none of the craft of Riefenstahl but was highly successful in its intent. It had the audience bellowing ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in cinemas. This reception seems to have encouraged other filmmakers who wanted to vent their Muslim hatred on screen as is clear from the recently released trailer of a film called The Kerala Story

The film is directed by Sudipto Sen and produced by Vipul Amrutlal Shah. Sudipto Sen is a Bengali filmmaker who seems to have a penchant for portraying women on religious quests. His film The Last Monk is about a wealthy woman from Delhi who explores Buddhism in pursuit of the meaning of life. It causes a spiritual and sexual awakening in her. In The Kerala Story, Malayali women who explore Islam are ‘trapped’ in it and turn into ISIS terrorists. They are sexually exploited and tortured. Sen had made a documentary film in 2018 called In the Name of Love which made similar claims. Incidentally, Sen was also the only jury member at IFFI who supported The Kashmir Files when Lapid called it a vulgar propaganda film. 

Nadav Lapid. Photo: Martin Kraft/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The teaser of the film describes it as the ‘heartbreaking and gut-wrenching stories of 32,000 females in Kerala!’ and shows a burqa-clad woman speaking to the camera in front of a barbed wire fence. She says that her name was Shalini Unnikrishnan and that she wanted to serve people as a nurse. She then says with tears streaming down her face that her name is now Fathima Ba and that she is an ISIS terrorist in Afghanistan jail. She says that there are 32,000 more girls from Kerala who, like her, converted to Islam and joined ISIS. The film would have been relevant despite the shoddy cinematography and terrible acting had her account been true. Only, it is as far removed from the truth as it can be.  

ISIS has successfully recruited Indian youth not just from Kerala but from other states as well. The exact figure is not known. Twenty-one individuals who went missing from Kerala in 2017 are believed to have joined ISIS. Less than ten cases were confirmed. Among them were Bexin, his brother Bestin (Christian), their wives Merrin Jacob (Christian) and Nimisha (Hindu) and Sonia Sebastian (Christian). When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Merrin, Nimisha and Sonia were among the prisoners they freed from Kabul jails. Their husbands had been killed in drone attacks in 2017. The video of the two women’s interrogation by Indian officials is available on YouTube. It is terrifying, in that the women seem to be unaware of the gravity of the situation or the crime they committed. They claim to have no knowledge of the terrorist activities of ISIS. One of them says she only wanted to live under Islamic law, the other says she was following her late husband. They can be heard talking about women from other states who were with them as well.

When there have been only three women who converted to Islam and joined ISIS from Kerala, why is this film talking about the ‘gut-wrenching stories’ of 32,000 women? It appears to cater to the highly popular Hindu right-wing refrain of ‘Hindu khatre mein hai’. It popularises ‘love jihad’ as a weapon used by Muslim men to lure young Hindu women under false pretence of love and convert them to Islam. 

Political parties and private individuals in Kerala have started a campaign offering prize money to anyone who provides proof of not 32,000 but even 32 female ISIS recruits from the state. Collectively, this amount has reached over Rs 1.5 crore, with the Indian Union Muslim League offering Rs 1 crore. So far, no one has claimed the amount.

The trailer of the film flashes a disclaimer saying ‘suicide or self harm topics’ before starting to play. It displays unabashed and deep-seated hatred of Muslims. It shows a group of female students, one of whom is Muslim. She seizes any opportunity for religious conversion, saying that Allah is the only god. After an incident at a mall where the girls are sexually assaulted by some men, the same Muslim girl tells the terrified victims that no woman who wears a hijab is ever raped and that Allah always protects them. The usual bearded Muslim terrorist seems to have given way to the bearded Muslim pimp when they show priests/leaders of the recruitment cell telling young Muslim men that they have to conquer Hindu women by sleeping with them and ‘if necessary, impregnating them.’

I found the most malicious bit in the trailer to be a shot in which one of the girls is seen mimicking her Muslim friend’s actions during namaz. This is because everyone in Kerala knows how relatable this is. All of us across the 14 districts grew up with Muslim friends, male and female. We were all curious about each other’s religious practices. When our classmates turned up with a cross painted on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, we begged them to do one on us. We asked our Muslim friends to teach us how to do the hijab simply because it seemed dexterous and crafty. When we grew older, many non-Muslims fasted for a couple of days during Ramzan out of solidarity or curiosity. We were invited to their homes at every other iftar party. It is these memories of warm camaraderie that the film is painting in a thick greasy paste of communal hatred.

Watch | ‘The Kerala Story’: The Facts, the Protests, and the Controversy

Curious timing

This is even more dangerous today because even in Kerala, Islamophobia and Muslim hatred have been on the rise since the BJP came to power in 2014. Religious polarisation started seeing success at small and steadily rising levels. Love jihad became an oft-used accusation – even when no evidence of it surfaced. The already existing patriarchal practice of the wife converting to the husband’s religion began to be called love jihad when the latter’s religion was Islam. Hadiya’s case was one such incident. The accusations have not ceased even after the Union government submitted in parliament, answering a question by Kerala MP Benny Behanan, that there is no evidence of ‘love jihad’ and that the term is not defined under the extant laws.

The trailer also mentions an ex-CM of Kerala who said that Kerala will turn into an Islamic state in the coming 20 years. Yet another lie. What V.S. Achutanandan of CPI(M) did in 2010, is unleash an attack on the radical Muslim organisation Popular Front of India – which is notorious in Kerala, especially for an assault they carried out in 2010. Its members cut off the palm of professor T. J. Joseph, whom they accused of insulting prophet Muhammad in a question paper he set for an exam. V.S. had said that the PFI is the Muslim counterpart of RSS and that their attempts to radicalise Muslim youth should be fought tooth and nail. Both the CPI(M) and Congress still uphold this view. So do most Keralites who welcomed the recent ban on PFI.

At the same time, Kerala’s politicians also drew attention to the fact that while being similar to PFI in their outlook and approach, the RSS faced no ban. Time and again, Kerala has proved itself to be an impenetrable political fort for the BJP and RSS. The only instance of the BJP winning a seat in the Niyamasabha was in 2016, when O. Rajagopal was elected. They lost this seat in 2021, resulting in jubilant celebrations across districts.

So it is no coincidence that the trailer comes as the BJP is making desperate attempts to make inroads into Kerala. They are holding talks with the Christian clergy in Kerala, even as churches in North India come under attack. We were surprised by a new train, the arrival of which BJP supporters celebrated at every stop with saffron flags. This is when repeated complaints of Kerala being ignored in railway packages from the Centre had hitherto fallen on deaf ears. In the recent youth summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off in Kerala, he announced several new infrastructural projects for the state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Global Buddhist Summit in New Delhi on April 21, 2023. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

Coupled with these measures, painting Kerala as the hub of Islamic terrorism might look like a promising strategy for the Hindu right-wing to gain a foothold in the state from their point of view. But judging from the reactions to the trailer, it seems to be backfiring. Malayalees of all faiths are indignant at this travesty of representation. V.D. Satheesan, the leader of the opposition of Kerala, has called for a ban on the film. “This is not a matter of freedom of expression but is part of the Sangh Parivar agenda to place minority communities under suspicion and promote sectarianism in the society,” he said in a Facebook post.

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan has assured legal action against it. “By placing Kerala, the land of secularism, as the centre of religious extremism, it is repeating the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda. 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,” he said in a Facebook post. The raging public outcry has resulted in the makers editing the description of one of the videos to say 3 instead of 32,000. People seemed to have calmed down a bit with this measure from the makers.

The minutest edit on one of the video descriptions is no cause for celebration. The teaser still shows the character of a Malayali woman repeating the lie of 32,000 ISIS converts from Kerala. Sudipto Sen is repeating the claim in interviews, sometimes going as high as 50,000. The film, which is set to release on May 5, 2023, is bound to have more of the Muslim hatred displayed in the trailer. The Supreme Court refused to hear pleas seeking a disclaimer on the film, clarifying that it is not based on true stories and directed the petitioners to approach the high court. Senior advocate Harish Salve appeared for the filmmakers and said that they are not agreeable to adding the disclaimer.

It seems like The Kerala Story has ushered in a new era in the dangerously malicious Hindutva propaganda factory. What remains to be seen is even when the murder of Muslims and violence against the community are at an all-time high in India, if the makers of these films will, like Riefenstahl, claim that they ‘did not know’ that they were fuelling the hatred that killed their fellow humans.

Kunjila Mascillamani is a writer-director from Kozhikode, Kerala. She is known for Asanghadithar (Freedom Fight).