Courtesy: BookMyShow

What is the controversy over ‘The Kerala Story’?

After both the Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court refused to stay the release of the film, it was released today to mixed reception from critics.

LONG before the release of the The Kerala Story, the film had created quite a storm for its subject-matter and the manner by which it reportedly sought to tackle it. The early buzz around the film clearly suggested that it was going to use what have become lazy tropes in India, such as ‘Islamic’ terrorism and ‘love jihad’.

The makers of the Hindi-language film decided to withdraw the teaser clip for the film, which made the unfounded claim that 32,000 women from Kerala went missing after being recruited by the militant Islamist group the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), from all social media platforms.

What is the controversy?

The film portrays gullible women, mostly Hindu, converting to Islam and being trafficked to join ISIS. The film’s trailer, released nine days ago, has already received 19 million views on YouTube.

The trailer is shown through the eyes of the protagonist Shalini Unnikrishnan, who is ‘radicalised’ and converted to Fatima, and then trafficked to join ISIS. In the trailer, the protagonist declares that in the next twenty years, Kerala will turn into an “Islamic state”.

The movie has been issued an ‘A’ certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) after reportedly having certain scenes deleted.

What have been the legal developments in this matter so far?

Several petitions were filed before the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the release of the film. The petitioners sought to restrain its release on the grounds that it is the “worst kind of hate speech” and an “audio-visual propaganda”. However, the Supreme Court division Bench of Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna on Tuesday refused to grant a stay and suggested that the Kerala High Court be approached for relief. It also stated that since the film has been granted certification by the CBFC, it would be appropriate to challenge the certification.

The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, a leading organisation of Islamic scholars belonging to the Deobandi school of thought in India, also moved a petition requesting that the film must carry a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, but the court refused to entertain it.

Eventually, the petitioners approached the high court, which earlier today also refused to grant a stay on the release of the movie.

The matter was heard by the Kerala High Court division Bench comprising Justices N. Nagaresh and Sophy Thomas. The Bench, after watching the trailer and the teaser clips, declined to grant any interim relief. It stated that there is no allegation against a particular religion as the film makes certain claims only against the ISIS.

In its order, the court observed that since none of the petitioners has watched the movie as a whole and that the CBFC has found it suitable to be released, no interim order restraining release of the film could be granted.

During the hearing, it was informed to the court by the film’s producer that the teaser, which claimed that 32, 00 women from Kerala were recruited by the ISIS, would be removed. The court questioned the producer’s counsel as to on what basis it had been claimed that 32,000 women were recruited to the ISIS from Kerala. The counsel said that they had received information about it, but the source of it was not mentioned.

The movie has been released to mixed reception from critics. Its trailer continues to state that it is based on true events.

What has been the reaction?

With the film’s release today, members of student-youth political parties the Nationalist Youth Congress and the Fraternity Movement have been protesting against its screening in Kochi. On the other hand, the district leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kochi were among those who watched the inaugural show.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has referred to the film in an electoral rally speech in Karnataka, which goes to polls later this month, to attack the Indian National Congress and its, in his words, support for terror apologists. He said, “Terrorism has taken a new form now. Apart from using weapons and bombs, they [terrorists] are working towards making the society hollow from inside out.”

However, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has criticised the film for attempting to spread Hindu nationalist propaganda, stating that “this fake story is the product of the Sangh Parivar’s lie factory”.

The Kerala Story is being compared to another controversial film. The Kashmir Files, released last year, which claimed to showcase the 1990 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir valley. The film was declared tax-free in many states by BJP governments.

It is interesting to compare the government’s reaction to these two films with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) two-part documentary titled India: The Modi Question, which alleged the role of Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, released earlier this year.

While The Kerala Story and The Kashmir Files show a certain community perpetuating violence and terrorism, the BBC’s documentary showed the members of the same community as victims of State-sponsored violence. The latter was blocked in India using ambiguous emergency powers.

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