Not quite the Kerala story

The film by Sudipto Sen shows a clear lack of understanding of Malayali society

May 09, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 12:30 pm IST

People walk past the poster of the movie ‘The Kerala Story’ outside a cinema hall, in New Delhi.

People walk past the poster of the movie ‘The Kerala Story’ outside a cinema hall, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: ANI

Propaganda, it is said, is best delivered when it doesn’t appear to be so. But that is passé given the brazen display of animosity in films such as Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files. Sudipto Sen, director of The Kerala Story, seems to have taken a leaf out of Mr. Agnihotri’s style book. It could be that the audience these films address demands that the message be served in an unapologetically crass manner.

About a fortnight before its release, The Kerala Story was called out by many for its gross misrepresentation of facts and deceit as the trailer claimed to portray the true story of “32,000 women” from Kerala, who it said were lured through ‘love jihad’ into joining the Islamic State.

The Left, the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League dubbed the film as an attempt to malign Kerala and the Muslim community, which has greatly contributed to the State’s secular cultural milieu, while many organisations and individuals took legal recourse to get the film outlawed on the ground that it aimed to drive a wedge between communities.

The Supreme Court refused to entertain pleas against the movie, and reminded the petitioners about the “money sunk” into the project. It remanded the matter to the Kerala High Court, which also refused to put a stay on the film’s release. The makers informed the High Court that they would remove the teaser with the claim about “32,000 women” joining the IS and alter the trailer to say that it was a “compilation of the true stories of three young girls.” They also agreed to add a rider that the film is a work of fiction. The High Court upheld the filmmaker’s right to free creative expression.

A year ago, a short fiction film, Anthem for Kashmir, on human rights violations including enforced disappearances in the State that was reconstituted into two Union Territories, was banned by the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology invoking Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Its maker, Sandeep Ravindranath, chose not to undertake what would have been a complex legal battle citing paucity of support.

On the other hand, the BJP threw its weight behind The Kerala Story with none less than the Prime Minister using it as a poll plank in Karnataka where electioneering is in progress. The BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government made the screening of the film tax-free. The Catholic church in Kerala found the moment opportune to push its demand for a ban on Kakkukali, a play based on a story with the same name and written by writer Francis Noronha, claiming that it berated Christianity; the argument received the backing of the BJP.

Neither the play nor the film met with a ban, but the age-old debate on the limits of freedom of expression resurfaced in Kerala. Most reviews on social and in conventional media found The Kerala Story ill-motivated and made to demonise a community. The film is riddled with conjecture and smacks of a clear lack of understanding of Malayali society in northern Kerala — a case in point is the unconcealed zeal to paint the Malappuram district in a certain colour.

Several social media users reasoned that the film was made for a non-Kerala audience with a deeply divisive agenda, stemming from a detestation of the State as an outlier in national politics. While that could well be the case, a ban is not an answer to battle a propaganda film no matter its content. Calling for a ban is a double-edged weapon capable of upending future arguments in favour of free expression.

A creative response is possible, as evident from the series of ‘real Kerala stories’ flooding social media in the wake of the film’s release to lukewarm response in cinemas across the State. The wave is led by none other than music maestro A.R. Rahman, who shared a three-year-old video of a Hindu wedding solemnised in the premises of a mosque in Kayamkulam, with a message of unconditional love. Cartoonist E.P. Unny’s sketch of a mosque, temple and a church in Thiruvananthapuram a few metres apart from one another and sound artist Resul Pookutty’s call for #MyKeralaStory are all getting increasing traction on social media, forming an impromptu body of counter-narratives. All these messages may fall short in terms of reach, but they certainly show the way in building civic resistance in times of imperious governments.

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