We know we have reached Kerala in The Kerala Story, directed by Sudipto Sen, when its lead character, Shalini Unnikrishnan (Adah Sharma), wears a white and gold saree and walks with a Kathakali dancer. It’s the tourist brochure version of Kerala that you will never see in a Malayalam film. But then, the outsider gaze is crucial for The Kerala Story and the message it wants to send to the Hindi-speaking audience – look, bhaiyo aur behno, the state you thought was ‘God’s own country’ is in the grip of the wrong god and the epidemic is spreading!
Written by Sudipto Sen, Suryapal Singh, and Vipul Amrutlal Shah, The Kerala Story is a knight-in-shining-armour attempt to save the Hindu and Christian women of Kerala who are walking the roads in their nighties (minus a Kathakali friend), unaware that they’re on the verge of being impregnated by Muslim men and transported to Syria. The film is loosely inspired by a video report put together by StratNewsGlobal, a Delhi-based news website, that pieced together the footage of three young Malayali women who were questioned by Indian officials about their links to the terrorist organisation ISIS. They had left India with their spouses and a group of others to join ISIS. However, all the “creative” liberties it takes with these stories are presented as the absolute truth, with no serious attempt to understand why such radicalisation takes place and what feeds it.
Before its release, for instance, the promos claimed that the film was about “32,000” women from Kerala who had been misled into joining ISIS. When the number was fact-checked, the team backtracked and made it “3”. The film, though, not only has this imaginary figure of “32,000” but goes on to add that the actual, unofficial figure is “50,000”.
Shalini Unnikrishnan is a good girl from a good Hindu family (Tamil actor Devadarshini plays her mother) that hails from the good Hindu-majority district of Thiruvananthapuram. She wants to study nursing and goes to a Muslim-run college in the bad Muslim-majority district of Kasaragod. None of the actors with speaking roles are from Kerala, so the Malayali identity is forged by mangling all the languages equally – Malayalam, Hindi, and English. Along with Shalini in this hapless land where nobody can speak any language properly are Geethanjali (Siddhi Idnani), the daughter of a communist father, and Nima (Yogita Bihani), a Christian girl from Kottayam. The fourth member is Asifa (Sonia Balani), a sinister Muslim woman who is out to trap girls from other religions.
The film has a non-linear plot that goes back and forth in time to present Shalini as she is now – a prisoner being interrogated at a United Nations incarceration centre – and Shalini as she was then – an innocent lamb being led to slaughter. Not surprisingly, Sudipto Sen shows a sheep that is slaughtered on screen, the knife landing on its neck and the decapitated head lying on the ground, to mark Shalini’s discovery that her nightmare has just begun. Symbolism yes, but also an obvious attempt to vilify the Muslim community. By the time the film reaches the point when you spot a poster that says, “Nationalism is haram, Muslim is your identity,” Sen has given up any pretence that this is a film and not brainwashing propaganda – the very thing that it claims to be against.
The Kerala Story locates its war on the bodies of women, playing up the fears of families and communities in a heavily patriarchal society. There is a mention of a Christian man who is radicalised and converts to Islam, but the film isn’t interested in understanding the whys and hows of that story. The focus is on the women, with extremely triggering, graphic scenes of sexual violence. In one scene, a pregnant woman is slammed against a table while her Muslim husband tells her that it is her duty to have sex with him. From the rapist lifting her clothes to undo the strings of her pyjamas to heaving over her and orgasming, the camera captures it all. It’s a “shock value” scene – and in a country where there is stringent opposition to criminalising marital rape, it is shocking only because of the religious identity of the husband.
The characters speak of nothing but religion day and night. Nobody orders a plate of parotta-beef fry or eats a pazham pori (banana fritter) as they do in Malayalam movies set in Kerala. The writing is so desperate to drill the film’s agenda every second of the screenplay that all you can hear are Hindu-Islam-Allah-your God-my God and occasionally, “communist”. While communists, in general, are fond of holding lengthy conversations, Geethanjali’s father merely looks confused and wears a T-shirt with ‘WROGN’ on it. Like The Kashmir Files that has clearly inspired it, The Kerala Story also uses posters of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin to warn us of this “Western” ideology.
The Vivek Agnihotri film successfully mixed dangerous fictionalised narratives with incidents drawn from reality, and The Kerala Story follows the same formula. It indulges in exaggerating and even changing facts in the stories of these real life people for “dramatic” value, in a bid to polarise viewers further. The actors are uniformly earnest, quivering their way through scene after scene that reiterates their helplessness in the hands of vicious Muslim men. The film tries to position itself as a ‘feminist’ narrative by including lines like “my body, my rules” and the powerful real-life image of Syrian women burning their burqas after being freed from ISIS, to suit its purpose. But, its idea of ‘women’s emancipation’ begins and ends with Hindu women toeing the line and staying within the fold. It cleverly stokes distrust between one minority and another through Nima’s character – basing itself on the rise of the Christian right in Kerala. It also subtly berates Hindu parents for not doing enough to make their kids aware and proud of their Hindu identity, unlike Christians.
Nobody should be in denial of religious indoctrination and radicalisation. In fact, India is at a juncture when all of us should be thinking about it. But, The Kerala Story is not an effort that wants to lead its audience towards such a reflection. It is not willing to look at the complexity in these stories, the spectrum of differences that exist within communities (for instance, the fact that the Salafi movement in Kerala has opposition from within the Muslim community itself), women’s agency in an increasingly rigid society, and what happens when religious polarisation and communalism are normalised – who does it really benefit? The film, instead, is similar to the ‘brainwashing’ pill that its characters swallow to turn into zombies, and the dawn it desires is the zombie apocalypse.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema.