Recently, the film 2018 became the highest grosser in Malayalam cinema history and crossed ₹150 crore in box office collection for the first time. The Kerala Story, released at the same time, failed miserably collecting ₹20 lakh in Kerala (and Tamil Nadu). Yet, the film itself collected a humongous — considering its tiny budget — ₹280 crore (and counting) elsewhere.
2018 depicts the heroism of ordinary people, especially the marginalised fishing community, in confronting the catastrophe of the biggest Kerala floods of 100 years. While cinematically, it is not in the league of some of the brilliant Malayalam films, thematically it stresses people’s unity amidst vast social divisions. The Kerala Story is a Goebbelsian film without the cinematic qualities that even some Nazi propaganda films had. It is a shocking demonisation of Kerala and Muslims (other than the infantilisation of Hindu women). Its sole purpose is to scaremonger and establish the Islamic State (IS) as the biggest threat that India is facing presently (even if the now-defeated terrorist group has failed to kill a single Indian in a terror attack, and India has among the lowest number of IS recruits).
As the protagonist of the film says, “Kerala is sitting on live time bomb.”
If the subtitle of 2018 is “Everyone is a Hero,” the subtitle of The Kerala Story could well be: “Every Muslim in Kerala is an IS fanatic”. The Kerala Story is not Kerala’s story about itself but the nation’s perception of Kerala. And the nation ironically, is in the grip of a majoritarian religious supremacism which constantly searches for enemies — both internal and external. Here, imaginations of pluralism, language, religion, and cuisine are anathema for a homogenised imagination.
The dichotomy between these two imaginations is scarring for the nation. The protagonist and other characters speak Malayalam (sparingly used for effect) with a terrible accent as the makers of the film do not think Malayalam is a requirement for a film based on Keralites. The film that claims to be “The” Kerala Story, and not just “a story from Kerala”, has almost no characteristics of Kerala in it. And the Kerala there is would have been comical if it was not dangerous in its effects.
Not a Keralite’s Kerala
It is a Kerala in which the protagonist is a vegetarian Hindu woman (even though 99% people eat meat); it is a Kerala in which the protagonist meets Christian and Muslim college peers as if they are aliens (in reality, 45% of the population is Muslim and Christian); it is a Kerala in which colleges have Osama bin Laden graffiti (!); it is a Kerala in which IS radicals openly set fire to homes, sexually assault women publicly and people stand mute; and it is a Kerala in which Deepavali is a main festival.
No Kerala Muslim in the film is not an IS fanatic. In the movie, the dozen or so Kerala Muslims who joined the IS in reality represent the entire nine million Muslims. Expectedly, Malappuram and Kasaragod appear in the film as scary places where even Shariah operates. Makers of The Kerala Story would have no idea that the most significant recent development is the emergence of Muslim talent in Malayalam cinema, which veteran Kerala journalist M.G. Radhakrishnan calls as the “Malappuram New Wave,” and which has produced outstanding films on love, solidarity, fundamentalism, patriarchy, etc.
In 2021, Kerala, with 364 cases, had the lowest kidnapping rate (after tiny Mizoram and Lakshadweep) in India and seven times less than the national average. Yet, the film persists, despite the Supreme Court order on the disclaimer, with the gargantuan lie that over 30,000 non-Muslim women, not three, have been converted to Islam and recruited to IS from Kerala (in reality, less than 5,000 women globally joined IS).
This is the Kerala that viewers outside will carry with themselves. The six young North Indians, who watched the movie along with me in a Canadian theatre, were shaking with rage, and was not aware of the Supreme Court order. This is how propaganda succeeds. There is a new era in India where the state patronises hate-ridden propaganda films, and the filmmakers pay obeisance to the state. After all, the Prime Minister endorsed the film; the Uttar Pradesh government (and others) gave tax breaks and organised official screenings (like with Kashmir Files). And after all, the dialogues in The Kerala Story echo the nation’s Home Minister who warns other States about Kerala, and the ruling party chief who called Kerala the “breeding centre of Islamic terrorism.”
Art thrives on stories: everyone can tell stories — about themselves, and about others. These stories do not have to be laudatory only. They can be critical as well. But art ceases to be art when it systematically lies and evokes fear and hatred. Ironically, the mother of the real-life Hindu woman, whose story became the film, refused to endorse it. For her, The Kerala Story does not “offer any solution, but instead… want[s] to provoke the religious sentiments of the masses.”
When a nation embraces hateful propaganda about its own people as its main artistic imagination, it is in deep peril.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada