If there is one thing that has been spoken about within cultural, academic and everyday circles at various levels over the past few months, it is Sudipto Sen’s Adah Sharma starrer, ‘The Kerala Story: Uncovering the Truth that was Kept Hidden’, a fictionalised account of the story of four women from Kerala who were converted to Islam and became a part of ISIS, an extremist Islamic terrorist group.
Before I say anything else, a few disclaimers are necessary, and it is even more important to state my intent and direction with this piece. I have seen a lot of controversies and criticism surrounding the film in the past few months, but it was only two days ago that I got the opportunity to watch the trailer. Undoubtedly, the impact of the trailer was felt within a few seconds, it was jarring, but a singular feeling stood out to me – discomfort.
As a student of literature and critic of culture and its products, discomfort is often associated with the ability of a film or a story to drive its point home. Discomfort can also be associated with the impact, essentially, the feeling of being buried deep within the realities that are deeply ignored or forgotten.
I knew one thing for sure, the discomfort I felt here was different. It was a discomfort that prophesied fear, an unsettling awareness of the barrage of Islamophobic sentiments that will most likely follow its release. As a Keralite, a student of literature, a secular individual, a close friend of many who will suffer the consequences of this film and finally, a responsible citizen whose words have a platform, it seemed unjust and cowardly not to write something.
Touching this film, speaking about it and even writing about it is a double-edged sword. One, it is based on the real-life experiences of four women from Kerala who were deceitfully forced to join ISIS; thus, any comment of the wrong form will entirely negate their experiences. What they went through is unimaginable; their stories should be heard, their voices need to resound across the nation, and people need to be aware of what is happening in the world. However, the actions of a group of people do not represent the actions of a large community of people.
Here is where I choose to divorce myself from this movie. Here is why I will not be watching ‘The Kerala Story’.
What do we know about the movie?
The trailer, released over a week ago, follows the story of Shalini Unnikrishnan, a Hindu Malayali nurse from Kerala. She is forcefully converted to Islam and travels with her husband to join ISIS before she is held in the Afghan jail for terrorism. At first glance, this seems like a story about survival, courage and beating the odds.
There are a few things I would like to highlight about the film from the trailer. They are simply questions you need to think about, not necessarily questions I have or want to share an answer to.
Consider the title and the description that was published along with the trailer
As the trailer claims, “The Kerala Story is a compilation of the true stories of three young girls from different parts of Kerala.” If they are the stories of ‘three young girls’, why is the title ‘The Kerala Story’? How did the story of three women, no matter how harrowing and terrifying, become the story of an entire state? What kind of an image does it purport about the state? How does this ‘innocent’ title portray an otherwise secular state?
32,000 to 3 overnight
Sudipto Sen, the director of the film, responded to criticism raised against the lack of facts and evidence for the numbers mentioned in the film, “Do you think the number actually matters? The 32,000 number is an arbitrary number. It is based on facts.” If so, why did 32,000 become 3 overnight? If the number did not matter as much, why is it repeated in the trailer so many times? The story of three girls…, out of 48 girls…7 are Christian, and the rest are Hindus…There are thousands of girls like me….
The imagery of God
I invite you to pause for a second and rewatch the trailer. Consider the colours used when Hindu gods are mentioned and the charged, high-tension situations when the name of Allah is evoked. Do you think, visually, the cool, cold colours of the desert and blood and the haunting browns associated with Islam in the trailer will change the way you view the film?
The comments section
Take a few minutes to sit with the trailer and read the comments section. How does that make you feel? Does it make your blood boil? Do you feel reverence toward the truth that is being uncovered? Let me offer a few unbiased examples of the comments I have picked randomly from the section, a small glimpse into the large sample size we are working with:
The purpose of art
Art is a form of human expression. Over millennia, the purpose of art has shifted; it has been defined and redefined. Art must educate. Art must give pleasure. Art must profess. Art must drive towards faith. Art must express. Art must inspire. Art must….the claims of what art must do are endless.
Two strains of thought represent all artistic movements. Simply said, those who create art for art’s sake and those who create art for a social purpose. Both of these are necessary. The first focuses on entertainment alone, while the second speaks of art that drives home the harsh realities of existence. However, there is a fine line between the two. Art has no one function; it does what the maker intends it to do, and sometimes, it even does more.
As I write this piece, I remember an incident that changed how I viewed cultural products and art. During a presentation in college, I was accused of being casteist because I claimed that art should not be used to harm or appropriate the values, traditions and cultures of a specific community. Some stories are everyone’s to tell, but then, there are other stories which a few people can only tell. These stories are unique to them; they are stories about strives and struggles to which we only have passive access.
When those in power decide to voice the stories of the marginalised, it becomes appropriation; it becomes manipulation, and it becomes propaganda. ‘The Kerala Story’ is one such story.
Regardless of the accusations raised against me in class, I stand by my statement, art, despite what it must do, should not be used to provoke violence, condemn people, make judgements or propagate hate. The second it delves into any of these categories, it becomes propaganda. Propaganda is still art, there is no doubt, but it is art with a hidden agenda.
What can stories like ‘The Kerala Story’ do?
We, as a community, are deeply entrenched in our culture. Unfortunately, our claim to a deep and rich culture is accompanied by several prejudices against particular religious beliefs, practices and values.
The word prejudice is often thrown around, but one needs to understand that it is a purely social and psychological phenomenon. It can be defined as an ‘assumption or an opinion about someone simply based on that person’s membership to a particular group’. Make no mistake, prejudices are logical, methodical, rational categories slowly created through planned actions and messages over a long period.
‘The Kerala Story’ slowly but conveniently has become a story that adds to this prejudice. If you genuinely want to know how a film will perform in the theatres, you need to look at the response the trailer receives. We are all, fortunately, at a point in the digital age where we are both participants and creators of the destiny of a film. We get to see what everyone is saying, hear what reviewers are putting out, and make an informed decision. However, when the comments sections are filled with hate, when Islamophobic sentiments are rampant and heightened by values of Hindutava, when the story of three women is portrayed as the story of an entire state and when the story of a few radicals is generalised into the story of an entire religion, we as creators of the legacy of an unreleased film need to ask ourselves:
“What the fuck are we blindly supporting?”
Excuse my language here. The discomfort I was speaking of earlier is back as I write this. There is no doubt this film will do well, but as a friend, a partner, a responsible artist, a student of culture and a respectful person, I am terrified of the impact of this film, the blatant Islamophobia that will follow it and the conversations, actions and demonstrations that will follow the release of this film.
The responsibility of an artist
While we are speaking of one ‘Kerala Story’, I think it is only apt to speak of another ‘Kerala Story’ to demonstrate how matters of communal importance should be ideally handled. Consider the example of Mahesh Narayanan’s directorial debut, Take Off. It is a Malayalam-language drama based on the experiences of 46 Indian nurses in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2014, who were taken hostage by the supporters of ISIS. The film, from the get-go, has a lot of similarities to The Kerala Story in terms of its themes and implications.
According to The Times of India, “Take Off is a brilliant take on a real-life tale and with the director’s spin on the incidents, it makes an engaging cinematic experience that could give even Bollywood movies of a similar genre, made at much-bigger budgets, a run for their money.”
Two phrases are important here: the ‘director’s spin on the incidents’ and the ‘real-life tale’. As an artist, the director, writer, actors, and producers are responsible for the audience. This responsibility is what offsets what are facts and what is fictitious in any cultural text. Narayanan is a critic of culture; there is no doubt about it. He does not spare even a second to criticise the conservative customs under which Sameera, the protagonist, lives, the reason why she leaves her husband, the harsh realities of nurses working in Kerala, the prejudice and ill-treatment they face, their struggles in the hands of ISIS and the cruelty and terrorism they are thrown in the midst of. However, the narrative we are offered is not that of Islamic hate. Narayanan does not scapegoat an entire religion and blames the actions of a few radicals on innocent people.
He makes it clear through several characters, most of whom are followers of Islam, that people are the choices they make. His film does not propagate hate against any religion; instead, it shows the reality while divorcing people’s actions away from Islam.
It is not possible to draw a complete analysis of The Kerala Story due to the lack of material, but from what the trailer suggests, Islamic prayers are radicalised, it is associated with violence, and gunshots and Muslims are portrayed as deceitful radicals who are on the hunt for innocent, naive women. I wish the messaging were a little more subliminal and subtle; at least then, there is an excuse for all the people who were carried away by what the trailer offered.
The fact that such a direct attack on a particular religion and a state is so well-received forces me to question the deep-rooted prejudices we proudly identify as culture.
Should you or should you not watch this film in theatres?
There is no correct answer to this question. I have made my stance clear from the very beginning. However, there is one answer I can give as a consumer of arts in India. We have a responsibility towards how we consume art.
As fellow creators and supporters of other creators, we should be able to discern art from propaganda and distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, what was created to educate and what was created to mislead.
Thus, it is not a question of whether you should or should not watch The Kerala Story. It is a question of what version of the narrative you choose to believe.