While The Kerala Story plays almost like a WhatsApp forward trying to instil fear in Hindus about what will happen if they don’t ‘wake up’ and save their women, Afwaah asks of the Hindu community to reflect on the kind of world they are creating by believing in such WhatsApp forwards and warning them that the hate they are fomenting will be their undoing in the end.
SUDHIR Mishra’s Afwaahand Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Storyreleased on the same day, addressing the same audience regarding the same issues, but with claims to show diametrically opposite ‘truths’. Both Savarna filmmakers are addressing fellow Hindus and asking them questions about the kind of Hindus they want to be, the kind that sees a covert Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) operative inside every Muslim or the kind that appreciates the complex humanity of every Muslim.
If The Kerala Story asks Hindus to beware of what Muslims are doing to Hindus in general and Hindu women in particular, Afwaah asks Hindus to self-reflect and see what they are doing to themselves. While both films are centred on Hindu women, The Kerala Story shows Hindu women as so gullible and naïve that they can only be protected by vigilant brothers, fathers and husbands. On the other hand, Afwaah asks women to think for themselves and even go against ‘their’ men when need be.
Judging by audience reactions I witnessed in theatres, the two films succeed quite well at what they are trying to achieve. After watching The Kerala Story, a completely unknown middle-aged man started talking to me and my Muslim friend (who is usually mistaken for a Hindu because he wears a kada) about how “we Hindus need to wake up or they (the Muslims presumably) will keep taking our daughters and sisters away from us.”
It was telling to see his wife visibly embarrassed by his tirade and asking him to calm down and stay quiet, while looking at us apologetically. The film had not spoken to her— she had been portrayed as a stupid person susceptible to brainwashing and manipulation by just about anyone. The target audience for the film was her husband and he seemed to be reacting exactly as the filmmaker intended.
The Kerala Story explicitly claims it is “inspired by many true stories” and even shows footage of interviews with the actual girls or relatives of the girls whose stories have been fictionalised in the film. Afwaah steers clear of such a direct approach but makes sure we understand it is set in the real world by using plot devices such as news reports, social media posts and scenes that closely mirror actual events.
At the end of Afwaah, no one approached us but we happened to catch an exchange between another middle-aged couple. The saree-clad, bindi-wearing woman was telling her husband, “But it is true, no? These WhatsApp forwards seem to be saying anything these days.”
While one film made the Hindu man angry and concerned about the safety of ‘his’ women, the other film made the Hindu woman question the veracity of what she was being offered for consumption on social media. But both films were taken to be showcasing the ‘truth’ of our times.
The Kerala Story explicitly claims it is ‘inspired by many true stories’ and even shows footage of interviews with the actual girls or relatives of the girls whose stories have been fictionalised in the film. Afwaah steers clear of such a direct approach but makes sure we understand it is set in the real world by using plot devices such as news reports, social media posts and scenes that closely mirror actual events.
While one film claims to be showing the reality of ‘love jihad’, the other film claims to show how rumours of ‘love jihad’ are cemented in our minds by cynical politicians for their own gains. In a sense, Afwaah shows us how the ground was created for us to believe in the ‘truth’ of The Kerala Story, which for its own part shows us how films like Afwaah hide the truth from us and make us vulnerable to the machinations of evildoers.
Afwaah suggests that films like The Kerala Story are the kind of propaganda that takes us down the path of hatred and self-destruction. While The Kerala Story suggests that films like Afwaah are the kind of propaganda that takes us down the path of complacency and self-destruction.
As an audience, how are we to decide which film is the truth and which propaganda? How are we to decide what to believe and what not to believe? I think one way of approaching this is to recognise that the distinction between truth and propaganda is itself false. It is created and sustained only because propaganda has been given a negative connotation in popular parlance. But propaganda does not have to be negative.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines propaganda as the dissemination of information— facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths or lies— to influence public opinion. The very nature of filmmaking, and of art, is to represent reality from a particular point of view for a particular purpose.
The hatred of Muslims and the fear-mongering of love jihad that The Kerala Story engages in is not finally aimed at Muslims at all but at Hindu women. For every Hindu woman that marries outside of her caste weakens the caste system and, thus, Hinduism. This is why the film focuses on Hindu women even though more Christian women seem to have converted to Islam and gone to Afghanistan.
A film, and any piece of art, is the deliberate construction of an artifice to influence people. In his essay Criteria of Negro Art, W.E.B Du Bois states that “All art is propaganda and ever must be” and then goes on to tell us the positive potential Black art has as propaganda. In fact, there is a longstanding tradition in Black political thought that emphasises propaganda’s positive potential.
While most modern work on propaganda has focussed on the problems of propaganda, particularly its uses by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes (from Hitler to Modi), propaganda is also the only tool available for revolutionaries and leaders of popular movements.
Propaganda itself is a neutral tool, and as Dr Martin Luther King Jr maintained, the deciding factor in whether propaganda is good or bad is the merit of the cause being urged. In that case, what is of significance to us here is not to differentiate between which film is the ‘truth’ and which film is not, but which film is good propaganda and which film is bad propaganda. To do that, we have to judge the films on the merits of the causes that they are urging.
Good propaganda and bad propaganda
Appeal to reason versus appeal to emotions
Over time, we have developed an understanding of what constitutes good touch and bad touch in order to educate ourselves and our children on how to distinguish between them. Since a touch is personal, the parameters for judging good and bad touches are entirely personal as well. A good touch is that which makes the person feel safe and cared for, while a bad touch is that which makes a person feel unsafe and scared. Since propaganda affects us at a societal level and is aimed at the public, we have to develop societal parameters to judge propaganda.
Given that we live in a constitutional republic where democracy is taken to be one of the highest values, we can safely claim that in our society the kind of propaganda that promotes democracy is good while the kind of propaganda that denigrates democracy is bad. Or, to put it another way, good propaganda is aimed at promoting and fostering democratic action while bad propaganda is aimed at inciting anti-democratic action.
As an audience, how are we to decide which film is the truth and which propaganda? How are we to decide what to believe and what not to believe? I think one way of approaching this is to recognise that the distinction between truth and propaganda is itself false.
While all propaganda relies on stirring emotions to shape public opinion, a democracy does not function only on emotions but also on the ability of each individual to exercise their capacity to reason. Arguments for extending democracy to hitherto excluded nations, classes and genders have always relied on every human’s equal capacity to reason. Conversely, those who have ruled over others— whether through the construction of caste, race or gender— have always justified their rule on the basis of the enslaved not having the capacity to reason.
We can safely say that developing the capacity for reason has always been an important component of freedom movements and revolutions. Thus, we can judge a piece of propaganda as democratic or anti-democratic by seeing whether it promotes the use of reason or denigrates it.
Given that both The Kerala Story and Afwaah are films that sermonise, we can use Dr King’s formulation that good propaganda can be understood on the lines of a ‘sensible sermon’. A sensible sermon is one which appeals to the emotions of the audience to bring them to a place where they are asked to use their reason.
An insensible sermon is one which whips the audience into a frenzy and asks them to act from that inflamed emotional state with no heed given to reason. A sensible sermon would be something Dr King would give to motivate black folk for civil disobedience; while an insensible sermon would be something given by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to provoke white folk for a lynching.
This difference is showcased in the two films through an almost parallel scene. Both films have a moment of exposition (or a sermon) by a female protagonist, meant as much for the audience as for the hapless character on screen being subject to it.
In Afwaah, a college student asks Rahab Ahmad (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Nivi Singh (played by Bhumi Pednekar) why they had to elope at such a sensitive and riot-prone time. To which Nivi Singh gives him a lecture about how he should do his own research and use his judgment before believing any damn thing that pops up on his social media. She asks him to think for himself in the face of social media campaigns that appeal to his emotions.
In The Kerala Story, Nimah Matthews (played by Yogita Bihani) goes to the police and starts narrating unsubstantiated facts about thousands of girls (32,000 to be exact) from Kerala who have been brainwashed and kidnapped by local Kerala Muslims to become suicide bombers and sex slaves of ISIS in Afghanistan and Syria.
The police officer, to his credit and to the audible disappointment of everyone sitting in the movie theatre, brings up the (apparently insensitive) point that as a representative of the law, he can’t act upon circumstantial evidence. To which Nimah responds with a stinging question (met with claps from the audience)— will he keep asking for evidence even as Kerala is turned into an Islamic state or will he get up and do something to save the country?
The courts did not act in the BBC documentary case, nor did they act in The Kerala Story case. Both the bans were politically motivated and helmed by political parties. They were also justified on tenuous grounds, which also the courts have not challenged. While banning this or that might be in the interest of political parties, it is neither in the interest of the public nor good for the rule of law.
Nimah is essentially saying that we should rely on our emotions to deliver vigilante justice because the process of collecting hard evidence and using the law is too cumbersome and time-taking (and might result in us finding out we were wrong). While Nivi is asking us to collect evidence before making a judgment, Nimah is asking us to do the opposite.
While one movie discounts reason and rationality completely and asks us to act on emotions, the other says that emotion must be accompanied by reason and rationality. In this, Afwaah acts as propaganda that can be used for democratic purposes— as a form of counter-propaganda that uses emotions to show us why abandonment of reason is bad for us.
Monolithic versus well-rounded and fully-fleshed arguments and characters
Another way of distinguishing good propaganda from bad propaganda is through the complexity of the matter presented to us. Are people being treated as complete human beings with complex motivations or are they being caricatured merely to forward an agenda?
Du Bois saw democratic propaganda as expanding people’s moral horizons, offering them a wider view of the world and their place in it. An essential aspect of expanding one’s moral horizon is understanding and respecting differences of identities and opinions. That is also necessary for a well-functioning democracy.
It is only because we understand and respect each other that we are willing to allow each other to participate in choosing our representatives. While Afwaah asks us to understand and respect Muslims (and Hindus), The Kerala Story undermines respect and understanding for fellow citizens by telling us that we cannot trust Muslims no matter how close they are to us, as any Muslim could be a covert ISIS agent (according to The Kerala Story, we also cannot trust Hindu girls because they are too easily brainwashed but more on that in a bit).
Even though both films are not talking to a Muslim audience, Muslims play central parts in both narratives. In Afwaah, we see various types of Muslims. We have Rahab Ahmad, who is the quintessential ‘liberal’ Muslim who is rich, urban, westernised, married to a Hindu woman without having her convert to Islam, and does not remember the last time he offered namaz.
Along with him we have an upper caste Muslim family (Siddiquis) whose patriarch has an ‘understanding’ with the Rajput politicians fomenting Hindu–Muslim enmity and who even rejected a marriage with one of Rahab’s relatives because Rahab’s family is low-caste (carpenters).
There is the Muslim truck driver, who is a happy-go-lucky chap going about his business without worrying about the fact that a Hindu supremacist has taken a lift with him. Then there are the helpless Muslims who get mowed down by Hindu rioters. That is at least four different kinds of Muslims with speaking parts in the film, in many different shades— good–bad, rich–poor, Ashraf–Ajlaf, liberal–conservative, etc.
In the absence of well-defined laws, it is just up to the whim of whoever is in power to decide what is worthy of being banned and what is not. This kind of arbitrary power cannot bode well for democratic functioning where open discussion and debate are a must.
In The Kerala Story, every single Muslim with a speaking part is irrevocably and inhumanly emotionless, with access to copious amounts of cash, and willing to go to any lengths to manipulate and destroy the lives of their chosen targets. They seem to have no family or friends who could possibly think differently from them or rein in their excesses.
Even the controversial distinction between a good Muslim and a bad Muslim is eschewed here, or between an Islam that preaches love and an Islam that preaches violence. If one goes by the portrayal in the film, all Muslims are invariably bad and Islam preaches nothing but violence.
How is a democratic society possible with such Muslims? How can we trust these Muslims who always seem to have a nefarious design informed by an extremely skewed view of Islam? If they cannot be democratic because they are Muslims and Islam does not allow any space for democracy, the film seems to argue, then it is their fault and we are not only right to act undemocratically with them but it is our duty to do so.
The villainisation of Muslims is incessant and every small opportunity is taken to do so in the film. At one point, we are shown a poster in the room of the Muslim man manipulating the central protagonist Shalini Unnikrishnan (played by Adah Sharma) which says “Nationalism is haram we are Muslim community”.
The place where Hindu women go to get radicalised is called an Islamic Study Centre [the reference to Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) or Popular Front of India (PFI) or the eponymous apocryphal ‘madrassa’ can’t be mistaken].
In another eye-catching scene, when Shalini enters the campus of her nursing college for the first time, she sees ‘Free Kashmir’ graffiti paired with Allahu-Akbar (God is great) and then her eyes and the camera hit upon the prize, the faces of Burhan Wani and Osama Bin Laden drawn together.
The militants in Kashmir, who are fighting a nationalist fight for freedom, are made out to be part of a global Islamist network that wants to change the world order, of the kind Osama Bin Laden was part of. It is insinuated no nuances or differences within Muslims are possible. Incidentally, the film does make a passing reference to the ‘conflict’ between Al-Qaeda (which operated from Afghanistan in the period the film is set in and are allied with the Taliban) and ISIS, but this angle is left unexplored.
An objection can be raised that apples are being compared to oranges here. While The Kerala Story criticises Muslims, Afwaah is a criticism of Hindus and so we should see the portrayal of Hindus in Afwaah to judge whether complexity is preserved there as well.
If The Kerala Story needed to present Muslims as caricatures to criticise them, did Afwaah do the same with Hindus? Is it necessary to make a caricature to criticise a community effectively? Given the multi-layered portrayal of Hindus in Afwaah, it would seem not.
To begin with, the Hindus are shown fighting and killing each other as much as they are killing Muslims (unlike the Muslims in The Kerala Story who stand united with no contradictions between them). Secondly, even the henchmen and their political leader in Afwaah are portrayed as complex characters who constantly question and have qualms about what they are doing. There is an inner conflict within even the most villainous Hindu depicted in the film— forces of good and evil that are tugging at him and being fanned by the various circumstances he is being pushed into.
Films like The Kerala Story, for all their problems, are being made because a certain section of society watches them and relates to them. Instead of banning these films and refusing to have a conversation with those people, it would be best to use these films as occasions to talk the matter out.
Vicky Singh (Nivi’s fiancé and the central villain of the story, played by Sumeet Vyas) is shown inciting Hindu–Muslim violence but only because he needs the support of a Hindu-majoritarian party, he himself does not believe in any of the bigotry for even one moment.
His henchmen seem to be in the same boat as they seem to have nothing against Muslims as such, they are just following orders from above. The primary henchman, Chandan Singh (played by Sharib Hashmi), arguably the only character in the film with an actual anti-Muslim bent, befriends a Muslim truck driver and respectfully buries him after his death because he was a good man.
Not even this basic courtesy is extended towards Muslims in The Kerala Story who kill, rape, maim and murder not only Hindus with gleeful abandon but also fellow Muslims. Not a shred of remorse or doubt is granted to them even in the worst circumstances. A truck driver’s kindness awakens the humanity in a henchman, who was shown to have killed Muslims in cold blood in the opening scene of Afwaah, but not even the prolonged unconditional love of the women is able to raise a modicum of doubt in the young Muslim men in The Kerala Story.
In Afwaah, the major conflict is within a Rajput family. It is a conflict between the good Hindu and the bad Hindu. While the bad Hindu, who actually hates Muslims or purports to hate Muslims for political gain, is decried, the good Hindu is celebrated. The film does not say all Hindus are bad and we need to get rid of them (unlike The Kerala Story which gives us no other solution— if all Muslims are bad and can’t be changed, what are you supposed to do with them? Either gharwapsi/shuddhi, i.e.,returning home/purification, or murder or forced migration— genocide either way).
Rather, Afwaah says that the corruption within Hinduism can be treated by Hindus themselves, by the good Hindus taking up the responsibility of improving their own. The onus of this is put on the Hindu woman, Nivi Singh, who leaves her fiancé and father when she sees them embracing religious bigotry and fights them till the very end, even causing the death of her fiancé.
She chooses to do the right thing over family loyalty and tells Hindus that they can all do the same (maybe Afwaah is even asking the wives, girlfriends, daughters and sisters of the makers of The Kerala Story to pull a Nivi and hold ‘their’ men accountable for making such a prejudiced film). This distinction between good Hindu and bad Hindu is itself problematic when seen from an anti-caste lens (but that is a discussion for another day).
Are those who participate in democracy and film-watching stupid or intelligent?
One of the things democracy relies on is the trust that people around us are intelligent and have the capability to form independent and reasoned judgments. Without such an understanding, democracy would never be possible. In fact, as the work of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere shows, it is a hallmark of anti-democratic ideologies to argue in some way or the other that people or ‘the mob’ are too stupid to know what is good for them and thus need someone else (more intelligent than them of course) to guide and protect them. This same argument was used by M.K. Gandhi against the Untouchables, and continues to be used by white supremacists against the Black community, by men against women and by ‘benevolent’ monarchs and colonial forces everywhere in the world.
It would be best to allow all pieces of art to be aired openly unless they directly advocate violence. In this digital age, it is virtually impossible to stop people from accessing content. So, the bans are well-nigh useless in stopping people from consuming something and mostly even counter-productive in that they increase people’s interest by the controversy they create. If you don’t want people to watch something, the best strategy would be to ignore it.
This brings me to the third way of distinguishing the democratic and anti-democratic stance of the two film— through the portrayal of Hindu women. Though the women in the two films are all upper-caste, affluent and about the same age (early 20s), they seem to have widely different knowledge of the world.
The Kerala Story comes across more anti-Hindu women than anti-Muslim in how stupid it shows the two Hindu protagonists— Shalini and Geetanjali (played by Siddhi Idnani)— to be. They are not only completely bereft of agency in how easily they are “brainwashed, programmed and controlled by an invisible remote,” but also of the remotest signs of intelligent life.
In the age of the internet, they seem to have never seen photos of the college they are going to attend. The two women have reached a nursing college after finishing their bachelors in cities of Kerala but they seem to have never encountered a Christian or Muslim before.
Given the strong syncretic tradition in Kerala and the length of time that the two religions have co-existed with various forms of Hinduism, it seems extremely unlikely that something like this could be possible. The girls act surprised when they find out that Christians and Muslims have a concept of heaven and hell. Given their fearful reaction to being told they will go to hell if they don’t convert to Islam, it seems like they have brains of five-year-olds and not adult college students.
They are nursing students but they accept unmarked pills in an unmarked plastic packet by boys they don’t know too well and start popping them. They don’t realize over the course of more than a year that they were popping amphetamines (stimulant drugs) even though the effect amphetamines have is markedly different from the effect anti-anxiety pills have (so different that they fall in separate classes of recreational drugs, one is an upper and the other is a downer, not even a social science bachelors’ student would confuse the two, let alone nursing students).
They agree to wear a hijab after the ridiculous argument that no girl wearing a hijab is ever bothered by a man because Allah protects her. Have they never seen the news? Could they not even google this little thing? They start sending nudes, they get pregnant, they forget abortion exists, they spit on their dying father because he has not accepted Islam, they abandon their widowed mother and go off to fight for the self-appointed Caliph in Syria. They believe every girl in Kasaragod except them wears a hijab even though they can see girls who don’t, the list of their obtuseness just goes on and on.
While Geetanjali seems to suddenly develop a brain because the boy manipulating her turns out to be impotent (don’t ask me how the two are connected), Shalini has to be raped by her husband in Afghanistan to finally start seeing the light, and that too not a very bright one. One wonders how she ever got admitted to the nursing college in the first place if she is so damn stupid and does not know how to use either her senses or the internet.
What is the film’s answer to why the women are so gullible? For that it employs a Christian foil. The Muslim girl Asifa (played by Sonia Balani) is not able to manipulate the Christian Nimah because Christians are taught religion, faith and tradition by their families which protects them from Muslim propaganda. On the other hand, Hindus have become liberals and communists, forgotten their traditions or given them up, thus allowing their girls to fall prey to the first Muslim who comes along and has something to offer them to fill the religious vacuum in their lives.
Under this narrative logic, someone like Hadiya does not marry a Muslim man because she wants to but because she wasn’t given the tools to counter his brainwashing. Since Hindu fathers are responsible for Hindu girls getting manipulated into love jihad, the film asks them to embrace Hinduism and control their women before it is too late.
The women not only have no agency while being manipulated by all and sundry but they do not even have any agency in the solution being offered. To stop from becoming victims of love jihad, they have to accept the protection of their fathers, brothers and husbands. They have to accept Hinduism which in no uncertain terms gives control of their lives and sexuality to men. Women are going to remain stupid. It is up to Hindu men to protect them from wily Muslims.
How is a democratic society possible with such Muslims? How can we trust these Muslims who always seem to have a nefarious design informed by an extremely skewed view of Islam?
The film conveniently ignores the fact that of the four known girls who fled from Kerala to Afghanistan between 2016 and 2018, three were Christians— Sonia Sebastian, Merrin Jacob and Raffaela— and only one Hindu— Nimisha. Or that the boy Nimisha married was a Christian who had converted to Islam with her.
The argument the film is making to tell Hindus to become more religious wouldn’t make any sense if these facts were accepted. There is another question that can be raised at this juncture, if these girls have been proven innocent but are still languishing in some Afghanistan prison, why hasn’t the Indian government done anything to bring them back home? Maybe because the girls are more intelligent than they are allowed to be in the film and weren’t brainwashed at all but actually do believe in the path they have chosen. At least that is what Indian investigative agencies found when they interviewed the four girls in Kabul.
Afwaah also revolves around a Hindu woman protagonist. But this time, she is given a brain and a will to use that brain to oppose the wrongs she sees in the world, independently of and even against her father and fiancé. The two films offer us a choice. How do we want to see women— as hapless victims or intelligent human beings— and how do we want women to be— protected by their husbands and fathers, or as independent people who can protect themselves (even from their own husbands and fathers if the need arises).
While one film delivers women back to the patriarchal fold, the other argues that independent and intelligent women not only have the capacity to save themselves but might just hold the potential to transform society as well. While one film argues that women don’t deserve independent agency because they are too stupid to exercise it, the other argues that society can only be saved by women exercising their agency. As far as the woman question is concerned, it is not difficult to see which film is bad propaganda and which film is good propaganda.
Only one film wants to liberate women while the other film wants to enslave them within Brahminical patriarchy to escape from which they have struggled for centuries. The bogey of ‘love jihad’ is merely used to induce a fear psychosis and send them back to the constricting embrace of ‘their’ men.
Hindus do not care about Muslims as much as they care about preserving the caste system. It is not essential to Hinduism to hate Muslims but it is essential to Hinduism to control women’s sexuality. The hatred of Muslims and the fear-mongering of love jihad that The Kerala Story engages in is not finally aimed at Muslims at all but at Hindu women; for every Hindu woman that marries outside of her caste weakens the caste system and, thus, Hinduism. This is why the film focuses on Hindu women even though more Christian women seem to have converted to Islam and gone to Afghanistan.
Good propaganda is also a call of action against ‘affected ignorance’
For any piece of propaganda to be called democratic, it must also be aimed at bringing about an abandonment of undemocratic ideologies. Dr King saw the political inaction of white moderates as a central problem of the civil rights movement in America and his ‘sensible sermon’ was in part aimed at inducing a sense of shame in them by calling them out for their hypocrisy.
The film conveniently ignores the fact that of the four known girls who fled from Kerala to Afghanistan between 2016 and 2018, three were Christians—Sonia Sebastian, Merrin Jacob and Raffaela— and only one Hindu—Nimisha. Or that the boy Nimisha married was a Christian who had converted to Islam with her.
While White moderates made promises and moral commitments to help the Black community and professed to be on their side, they also refused to take a committed public stand and all the risks such a stand entails. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr King called them out for their ‘affected ignorance’— wherein the Whites knew what needed to be done but refused to do it due to self-interest— by showing them that they were failing to meet their own professed moral standards.
By shaming them into dropping their hypocrisy and match words with actions, he wanted to force them to either take a clear stand against Blacks because, as Dr Ambedkar put it in a different context, “open enemies are far better than treacherous friends”, or take the risks involved in a committed struggle for civil rights for Blacks.
While both Afwaah and The Kerala Story are essentially aimed at the political inaction of moderate or liberal Hindus, The Kerala Story does not deal in shame but in fear. It makes moderate Hindus afraid of what will happen to their sisters and daughters if they don’t join extremist Hindus and asks them to act from a position of paranoia. This is precisely the response that it elicited in the audience member mentioned in the beginning of the article. He came out of the film not feeling ashamed but afraid and angry.
Afwaah, on the other hand, seeks to shame liberal Hindus for their hypocrisy. After Rahab finally reaches Nahargarh fort, with the assumption that the liberals at the literary festival will save him from the Hindu fanatics out to murder him, he gets a rude surprise. The liberals, even as they are celebrating multiculturalism and democracy in the comfortable confines of their festival, refuse to let him in because he poses a security risk.
They even ask his wife, who is a participant at the festival, about how she can be so sure that he has not engaged in love jihad. Because of this refusal of liberal Hindus to take a modicum of risk to save a Muslim life, and their willingness to believe a fabricated social media narrative about love jihad, Rahab is needlessly stabbed.
This sequence of events is clearly meant to tell liberal Hindus that it is finally because of their lack of courage to stand up to the extremists that Muslims lose their lives. It is telling them that they are hypocrites— Rahab’s wife Nandita says so herself— for waxing eloquent about peace and harmony and dangers of fascism while doing nothing on the ground to save Muslims.
The film does not ask for the moderate Hindu to empathise with Muslims but to be ashamed about their own complicity in what is happening to them. In this, the film addresses one of the central problems confronting democracy in India today, the political inaction of the moderate Hindus and asks them to either take a committed stand in favour of non-Hindus or recognise that they are not so different from the extremist Hindus. While The Kerala Story induces fear in its audience to justify vigilantism, Afwaah induces shame to demand democratic action.
To sum up, Afwaah is good propaganda because it promotes the use of reason, expands moral horizons and understanding of others, and induces democratic political action. The Kerala Story is bad propaganda because it denigrates the use of reason, constricts moral horizons by caricaturing others, and induces undemocratic vigilantism.
The two films offer us a choice. How do we want to see women—as hapless victims or intelligent human beings—and how do we want women to be—protected by their husbands and fathers, or as independent people who can protect themselves (even from their own husbands and fathers if the need arises).
Afwaah is a counter to The Kerala Story because they are both addressed to the same audience and the former essentially asks them whether they are going to believe films like The Kerala Story and join the Vickys and Chandans of the world or whether they are going to feel shame and finally take a committed political stand against the Vickys and the Chandans.
Should bad propaganda be banned?
At this juncture we are confronted with another question. Calls to ban films, documentaries, books, paintings and so on keep being made with regularity by people on all sides of the political spectrum. While some people will ask for a ban on The Kashmir Files because it is inflammatory, others might ask for a ban on Pathaanbecause of the perceived disrespect to Bharat Mata (Mother India) shown by the film.
Calls to ban The Kerala Story for being hate speech and propaganda have also been made. Petitions were filed with the Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court to stay the release of the film. Both courts refused, with the Supreme Court saying that since the film has been granted certification by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), it would be inappropriate for the court to challenge.
Be that as it may, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered a ban on the film in West Bengal, citing a threat to law and order in the state. While the Tamil Nadu government did not ban the film, the Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners’ Association decided to withdraw it from multiplexes. Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh has made the film tax-free, because according to the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, “the film should be watched by all”.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is raising questions about Mamata Banerjee banning the film because she is afraid of the truth, we will do well to remember that the Central government of the BJP banned the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi arguing it was a threat to national security, even as Mamata Banerjee and other opposition leaders raised questions about the BJP being afraid of the truth.
The point is this. The courts did not act in the BBC documentary case, nor did they act in The Kerala Story case. Both the bans were politically motivated and helmed by political parties. They were also justified on tenuous grounds, which also the courts have not challenged. While banning this or that might be in the interest of political parties, it is neither in the interest of the public nor good for the rule of law.
Legal definitions regarding hate speech and bad propaganda are hazy. While the law-makers, in their majesty, might have been kept these definitions vague on purpose, so as to allow appropriate authorities to deal with each incident on merits, the fact of the matter is that more often than not, authorities misuse these unclear mandates to ban what they don’t like (mostly criticism against their policies and politics) while allowing other speech and expression, which may be ‘hateful’ but which serves the political purpose of the authorities.
With everything The Kerala Story shows, the Kerala High Court is able to state that there is no allegation against a particular religion as the film makes certain claims only against ISIS. Though the film might give rise to feelings of fear and anger, but it does not directly advocate violence, the court adds.
It would be very difficult for the court to ban The Kerala Story without setting a wrong precedent. The right to freedom of speech and expression is protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution and can be limited under Article 19(2) if the ‘speech’ directly encourages violence or threatens public order, morality, decency and India’s sovereignty and integrity. It would be very difficult to argue The Kerala Story does any of that without opening a Pandora’s box wherein anything and everything has the potential to be challenged. Who is to say that Deepika Padukone wearing a saffron bikini does not threaten public order, morality and decency? Can the The Kerala Story be banned under Section 153A, Section 295A and Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) because, as the Kerala High Court’s statement shows, it is impossible to ‘prove’ the film is about Muslims in general and not ISIS? Inciting animosity against ISIS and using derogatory language to vilify them is pretty much a patriotic sport in India.
So, the larger question is this— should we even ask for bans on films and books? In my opinion, it would be best to allow all pieces of art to be aired openly unless they directly advocate violence.
Firstly, in this digital age, it is virtually impossible to stop people from accessing content. So, the bans are well-nigh useless in stopping people from consuming something and mostly even counter-productive in that they increase people’s interest by the controversy they create.
If you don’t want people to watch something, the best strategy would be to ignore it or, as George Orwell suggested, laugh it into oblivion. Asking for bans only makes the piece of art more lucrative.
Secondly, even if we were to agree that some things need to be banned, we need better, clearer laws. In the absence of well-defined laws, it is just up to the whim of whoever is in power to decide what is worthy of being banned and what is not. This kind of arbitrary power cannot bode well for democratic functioning where open discussion and debate are a must.
For example, last year the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act to ban a short film on human rights violations in Kashmir called Anthem For Kashmir, while at the same time the government not only did not ban The Kashmir Files but actively supported it by openly urging people to watch it. Similarly, the government banned the BBC documentary this year while actively supporting The Kerala Story.
Lastly, bad propaganda should get as much of an airing as possible so that it can be criticised. By banning it, it is just being pushed underground where it cannot be debated openly. Moreover, a sheen of persecution is also attached to it, which just makes it harder to counter as it can play the victim card. Which, in any case, films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story play by placing themselves as stories which have been wilfully hidden by mainstream intellectuals and artists.
Films like The Kerala Story, for all their problems, are being made because a certain section of society watches them and relates to them. Instead of banning these films and refusing to have a conversation with those people, it would be best to use these films as occasions to talk the matter out.
For example, by being able to watch the film, I was able to write an article showcasing how it is a piece of bad propaganda which undermines democracy and promotes violent vigilantism. Some writers, like Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, have written that a debate over the film is pointless because it “will be reduced to two sides accusing each other’s political motives.”
I think it is our responsibility to find a common value and a common ground on which a fruitful debate can be held. I have tried to make democracy that common value here and judged the films based on that value. Without constantly constructing such common values, it is not just that we can’t have debates but that we can’t even have a society.
Therefore, I think it is best for democratic forces to be against bans in toto, whether they like the art piece or not. To take a selective stance only hurts us. For when we say the BBC documentary should not be banned but The Kerala Files should be, we fall into logical inconsistencies which are utilised by our opponents.
In any case, since the country is being ruled by undemocratic forces, the power to ban something is in their hands and any call to ban anything only makes their decision to ban something else easier as we lose the ground to oppose the ban on principled grounds.
The art the Right produces should be screened openly and criticised. We should fight against arbitrary bans on everything so that the stuff we make is harder to ban as well. It is more important to stop democratic propaganda from being banned than to ban undemocratic propaganda. It is easier and more necessary to fight bad propaganda with good propaganda rather than to ban it.