The radicalisation and trafficking of gullible girls to germinate terror is a story waiting to be told. But the way director Sudipto Sen tells The Kerala Story, after years of research, is more burlesque than a sincere depiction of the problem. More like a companion piece to The Kashmir Files, the film maintains a divisive tone and the gaze is emotionally exploitative. Like the bigots in the film, it seems the makers are keen on converting the audience into hate mongers and expressing themselves in society.
Said to be based on real stories of how innocent non-Muslim girls are recruited for the Islamic State, it follows three nursing students in Kerala who are brainwashed by an extremist group into thinking that their gods are no good and that only Islam can be the guiding light. Lured by love and lopsided logic, the girls are trapped in a heinous game where they become fodder in a purported clash of civilisations.
Shalini or Fatima Ba (Adah Sharma) is one such girl who is converted and sent to Syria with her husband to fight for the cause of the Islamic State. Caught and imprisoned in Afghanistan, she tells her story in the flashback where she and her two classmates, Geetanjali (Siddhi Idnani) and Nimah (Yogita Bihani), were enticed to join the mission by another classmate Asifa (Sonia Balani). While Shalni succumbs, the other two have to bear the brunt of resisting the sinister plot.
While the premise demands attention and emotional investment, the treatment gets increasingly guided more by local politics than cinematic sagacity. There are some poignant moments but for the most part, it is either the gullible girls eager to buy the propaganda or sly creatures with Muslim names; there is no voice of sanity, and nuance is nowhere to be found. With so much pain on paper, the treatment demanded a soft, subtle touch, but Sen seems keen on hammering the message throughout.
The Kerala Story (Hindi)
The long passages on the art of indoctrination dull your senses, for the makers’ understanding of Islam, communism or any other ideology sounds as churlish as that of the villains of the piece about Hinduism and Christianity. The thoughts about Islam and conversion seem to have been sourced from hate-filled WhatsApp groups. With an adult certificate in hand, Sen leaves little to imagination in depicting brutality to eke out an emotional response from the audience.
Curiously, the writers don’t posit the narrative in the complex geopolitical issues as to who created Islamic State and why its heart is not bleeding for the cause of Palestine. It is busy decapitating women for wearing lipstick in pockets where there is a political void, rather than taking on the big fish. It doesn’t provide space for the view of many academics and experts who often ask what had prevented Indian Muslims from joining the Islamic State. Instead, towards the end, The Kerala Story goes on to extrapolate the numbers by peddling half-truths.
However, it is good to see the scenic beauty of Kerala in a Hindi film and it is aptly contrasted with the harsh landscape of Afghanistan.
Adah Sharma delivers an earnest performance and captures the pain of the vulnerable Shalini who is robbed of her innocence but retains her spine. The way she brings the Malayali accent into her Hindi makes the character all the more believable. The rest indulge in an amateurish exercise where every emotion has to be worn on the sleeve. Overall, it is a story that has little thought concealed in lots of provocation!
The Kerala Story is currently running in theatres