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Propaganda masquerading as art

The Kerala Story is polarising the society, demonising Muslims and peddling Islamophobia

By Shafiq Ul Hasan Siddiqui |
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PUBLISHED May 21, 2023

The potential of a film to reshape societal norms and alter perspectives is often overlooked while research shows that movies have the ability to enhance our emotional intelligence and foster stronger social connections. Psychologists have delved into the correlation between fictional dramas and our emotional states, shedding light on this intriguing connection. In addition to stimulating emotions, films have the power to immerse audiences in a diverse range of feelings, exposing them to a fresh outlook on life. Films not only serve as an invaluable platform for filmmakers, producers, and communicators to raise awareness on crucial issues or causes, they also ignite profound thought and process transformations by captivating the hearts and minds of audiences.

Then there are also films that exploit the susceptibility of viewers, shamelessly parade misinformation, spread negativity, and promote a discourse of hate. Regrettably, The Kerala Story (TKS) finds itself ensnared within this lamentable category as it unapologetically traverses a treacherous path, weaving a fabricated tapestry of malice that inevitably ignites controversy about Muslims and Islam.

Disappointed and disgruntled, one acknowledges the deliberate attempt by TKS to needlessly portray Islam in a sinister light, devoid of any semblance of authenticity in today’s Islamophobic world. In its quest for sensationalism, the film intensively magnifies the negative aspects of this venerable religion [as all religions are respectable], generating discord and division among its audience. Films of this nature that fixate on hate speech and unilaterally present the darker facets of any culture, religion, or nation, can hardly be deemed as having any artistic merit, because they serve as nothing more than vehicles for insidious propaganda.

In its essence, TKS is a cautionary tale, and a stark reminder of the dangers that lurk when artistic integrity is sacrificed at the altar of propaganda. The depths to which TKS stoops is truly disheartening. Instead of employing a nuanced and insightful approach to storytelling, the film relies on crude caricatures and blatant misrepresentations. It shamelessly panders to base instincts, preying on the fears and biases of its viewers.

Controversy sells, so will TKS

Controversy is a powerful tool in the world of cinema, as it tends to generate considerable attention and entice audiences. It’s an undeniable reality that movies associated with controversy and those that evoke negative sentiments do well at the box office such as Mission Majnu, The Kashmir Files, The Tashkent Files, to name a few. In this context, TKS was highly anticipated and poised to make a significant impact commercially.

One aspect that has stirred discussion surrounding TKS is the portrayal of Muslim characters throughout the film as it is largely inaccurate and skewed. They are painted in an unfairly negative light, depicted with a predominantly dismal and harsh demeanour, and completely lacking the attributes of compassion, softness, and positivity. For individuals who harbour strong biases or animosity towards a particular religion, TKS could potentially serve as a catalyst to fire their negative sentiments.

The skewed, stewed story

The film delves into a ‘too bad to be true’ narrative around a group of women hailing from Kerala who find themselves embroiled in the tumultuous world of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Drawing inspiration from the controversial Love Jihad concept, the film takes a rather problematic stance, erroneously asserting the conversion of numerous Kerala women into Islam and their subsequent recruitment into ISIS. It revolves around Shalini Unnikrishnan (Adah Sharma)’s compelling and nightmarish odyssey, but she is predictably driven by her aspirations of becoming a nurse, only to be abducted from her own home and coerced into the clutches of extremist organisations. Once you understand the premise, the story has no mystery left, because you know what’s coming next.

The film proceeds to unravel an intricate web of deceit and manipulation that ensnares the protagonist, as she falls prey to an insidious love affair. Trapped in a deceptive relationship, Shalini tragically finds herself compelled to convert to Islam and ultimately faces the grim reality of multiple instances of marital rape. Well, what else could happen! Apparently that was not enough, and the depths of her ordeal reach their apex when she becomes a victim of a harrowing gang rape, unsurprisingly orchestrated by the Mujahideens in the remote outskirts of Afghanistan.

While these distressing events form the crux of the narrative, TKS comes across as a disconcerting cocktail of hatred and prejudice. It explores themes that tap into divisive ideologies, further exacerbating the already controversial premise of the film.

The provocative portrayal of a woman’s harrowing journey, marred by manipulation, violence, and the bleak underbelly of extremist ideologies is being lapped up by Indian audiences as it presents sensational elements such as ISIS sex slaves of savage religious fanatics. The film indulges in exaggerating and even changing facts in the stories of these real life people for dramatic value, in a bid to polarise viewers further and must be approached with a critical eye, sanity and a conscience that recognises the potential the film offers for the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, and fact-free conspiracy theories.

Before its release, the film promos claimed that the film was about 32,000 women from Kerala who had been misled into joining ISIS. When the number was fact-checked, the team backtracked and made it 3. The film opened though, not only with the imaginary figure of 32,000, but goes on to add that the actual, unofficial figure 50,000!

Yes we know there is religious indoctrination and radicalisation, but the film ignores the complexity in these stories, and the huge differences between communities. In reality, the Salafi movement in Kerala has opposition from within the Muslim community but the writer seems unaware.


Propaganda down your throat

In TKS, Muslims are depicted in a brutal and heartless manner that leaves no room for nuance or complexity. The writers have meticulously crafted characters who are intended to present Muslims as nothing short of evil, portraying them as deceitful and monstrous beings. The on-screen execution of these characters has a deliberate and premeditated feel, designed solely to perpetuate a negative and twisted image of Muslims.

It resorts to an excessive display of blood and gore conveniently attributed to Muslim characters. Such exaggerated depictions highlight a deliberate attempt to stoop to brand new and innovative lows in order to vilify Muslims. The portrayal of Shalini as a brainwashed jihadi, and her supposedly-not-being brainwashed reaches a level of absurdity that can only be described as comical, an attribute, not seen by the film makers.

The scenes that depict the prohibition of women owning mobile phones, according to Shariah Law, further reinforcing negative stereotypes. Shalini’s experience of marital rape at the hands of a practicing Muslim character adds to the narrative’s sensationalism. It becomes increasingly challenging to suspend disbelief when confronted with incredulous dialogues such as “Eating without prayer is a sin” or “Failure to thank Allah after a meal will condemn us to hellfire.”

The overall narrative of TKS is too contrived and specific agenda-driven to be entertaining, fun or unridiculous. Weak minds can easily succumb to the influence of the Muslim girl, Asifa, without any semblance of resistance or independent thought. The film’s relentless and forceful approach to its narrative further substantiates its underlying propagandistic intent.

Shallow characters with knee-deep research

The entire cast of characters is devoid of any semblance of humanity, firmly entrenched in the realm of extremism. Rameez, Abdullah, Asifa, and other Muslim characters are consistently portrayed with a singular dimension ― conniving and manipulative. However, let’s delve into the core of this film with a more serious lens, as it primarily revolves around human trafficking and the disturbing narrative of how a group of young men ensnare Hindu and Muslim girls through false love, leading to pregnancies, only to later abscond with them to Afghanistan under the guise of jihad.

The characters speak of nothing but religion day and night. The writer is so desperate to drill the film’s agenda in our heads that every second of the screenplay is punctuated with words such as Hindu, Islam, Allah, your God, my God.

At first glance, the premise of TKS may elicit anger, yet upon closer examination, one can’t help but chuckle at the absurdities and the lackluster justifications presented by characters who struggle even to pronounce basic words correctly, let alone deliver performances with conviction.

While the film attempts to tackle weighty subject matter, it falls short in its execution, leaving the audience questioning the believability and credibility of the narrative. The character development lacks depth, failing to evoke any empathy or genuine connection with the audience. This oversight detracts from the overall impact the film aims to achieve.

It could have been a thought-provoking exploration of a pertinent issue, shedding light on the dark issue of human trafficking but the film’s amateurish approach and one-dimensional characteristion undermines its potential impact, rendering it as an unconvincing portrayal of a complex problem. Approach TKS with caution, as it may leave discerning viewers yearning for more substance and authenticity.

Why TKS is working

In a landscape dominated by sensationalism and controversy, films centred around negative sentiments often thrive at the box office. Unfortunately, TKS is a film that exemplifies this off-putting truth. The creators shamelessly exploit anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani sentiments, pandering to base instincts and generating fervour among those who harbour hateful ideologies.

As responsible members of society, we must recognise the dangers of such projects and resist the allure of negativity. We should strive for a cinematic landscape that promotes empathy, tolerance, and genuine storytelling, rather than succumbing to the seductive grip of hatred and distorted perspectives.

The success of TKS can largely be attributed to two distinct factors: an audience that either lacks a deep understanding of the Islamic faith or harbours a desire to denigrate and undermine the image of Muslims and Islam. Disappointingly, the film’s triumph at the box office is not due to exceptional performances or standout dialogue and the direction fails to exhibit any form of artistic brilliance.

One can only hope that discerning audiences, armed with a keen eye for discerning truth from fiction, will rise above the lure of such films. It is essential to recognise and reject the toxic narratives woven by work like TKS for their impact extends far beyond the confines of the silver screen. By denouncing such propaganda masquerading as art, we can safeguard the integrity of the film industry and preserve the power of cinema to inspire, enlighten, and unite.


Shafiq Ul Hasan Siddiqui is an avid movie buff, and film and drama critic and a digital inbound marketer. He tweets as www.twitter.com/shafiqulhasan81. All information and facts are the responsibility of the writer