Film In Focus
A Tale of Two Films: The Kerala Story and Afwaah
by Manas Ghosh

The Kerala Story, released on May 5th, is clearly not just another badly made film using tropes and stereotypes to appeal to audiences already influenced by dominant communal and bigoted ideologies – rather, perhaps even more than its predecessor The Kashmir Files, it has its own specific role as part of the wider propaganda arsenal of fascism. Whether it is the referencing of the film in election speeches in Karnataka directly by Modi and indirectly by Amit Shah, the generous tax breaks in BJP-ruled states, or the special screenings organised by BJP leaders in non-BJP ruled states – they all point to The Kerala Story’s strategic uses for the Sangh Parivar ahead of 2024. The film brings together, in a potent combination, two of the most poisonous myths weaponised against Muslims – ‘love jihad’ and the Muslim-as-terrorist, along with the accompanying patriarchal trope of the helpless Hindu woman devoid of agency or judgment. The performative targeting of audiences, such as the 300 free tickets for Adivasi young women students in Jharkhand sponsored by BJP leader Babulal Marandi, tell us how this propaganda film is being used to extend the reach of Islamophobia and deepen division, while at the same time, the film’s focus on Kerala serves to discredit and defame an opposition-controlled state with far better human development indicators than anywhere ruled by the BJP– and a record of communal harmony.  May 5th also saw the release of a very different kind of film, Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah – which actually tells a story of another such lie-driven orchestration of hate and violence, in the microcosm of a small town. Perhaps not surprising then, that whereas The Kerala Story is in cinemas widely, Afwaah, despite its positive critical reception and stellar cast, has been sidelined and has had to struggle for venues.  

Who is Interested?

To say that the recent film The Kerala Story is based on a set of lies is an understatement. In fact, the film is a blatant lie. The filmmaker Sudipto Sen has claimed that the story of a Hindu girl who converted to Islam and then joined ISIS is a mass phenomenon in Kerala. But he fails to provide any proof or even any source for this claim. Having been thoroughly exposed he has now changed his version and now the number of such cases claimed has been reduced from 32,000 to only three!

The RSS and BJP, which run the ‘whatsapp university’ to spread rumours and doctored information, have come out to celebrate the film. It is no wonder that the RSS mouthpiece The Organizer has published at least five positive reports on The Kerala Story and praised the film by saying that the film has revealed an ‘ugly reality’ and a ‘dangerous truth’. The Prime Minister in his public speech in Karnataka certified that the film reveals a real terrorist plan. Why do the followers of Godse invest so much in the film? Why are the traders in hatred supporting the film so loudly? The answer is simple and obvious. The film promotes fascist propaganda regarding love jihad and Islamic terrorism. A careful watching of the film exposes that the filmmaker had hardly done any research before he sat to write the script. The stereotyping of the characters and their actions in the film indicates that the filmmaker has been motivated primarily by the mythical narratives spread by the global Islamophobic media. And he fits those obnoxious narratives in his film to serve the purpose of the RSS-BJP.

How the Propaganda is Cooked

The Kerala Story is labeled by several serious film critics as a propaganda film. But the propaganda element is not confined merely to facts and figures. The film says that the official number of girls joining ISIS is 32,000 and it implies that the actual unofficial count is 50,000. After being challenged, the number has been reduced to three. It is a gross level of misrepresentation of the social fact. But beyond that, the propaganda elements are deployed on other levels too. When we watch a movie we not only watch the narrative but also watch the intention of the filmmaker and the film-text. The intentions can be easily read by observing the connections between the narrative and the visuals.

The Kerala Story tells the tale of a young girl Shalini Unnikrishnan who comes to study nursing in the city. She falls in love with a young educated Muslim man. Then she is taken by her husband to West Asia via Afghanistan. There she is virtually confined by Islamic terrorists while her husband joins ISIS. Later Shalini is rescued and her statement is recorded by the UN officials. Following Shalini’s narration the film moves back and forth in the timeline to tell her experience. In the 138-minute film, most of the images are filled with Islamic stereotypes. The stereotyped make-up and the costumes of the characters, and the iconic Afghan landscapes that we conventionally perceive in anti-Islam propaganda photographs and videos flood the visuals. The excess presence of those stereotypes makes the intention very clear. The film is trying to equate Islam with fundamentalism and terrorism. The narrative projects all Muslim men as negative characters; they are all cunning, rigid and heartless. All of them are shown as part of a grand conspiracy. No one is shown to have a normal social life. The film shows a world where the characters in the narrative are either brutes (directly or in disguise) or bewildered victims.

Who Benefits?

The film relies mostly on half-truths by hiding the sociopolitical context of some events. The ISIS activists are shown as monsters always carrying automatic rifles with them. They are inhuman and trigger-happy. The film tries to equate Islam as a whole with fundamentalism. The film never tells us that most of the Muslim-dominated countries of the world are part of the anti-ISIS campaign and joint-action force that fights the anti-ISIS war. This has compelled ISIS to retreat and now they are reduced to a small group in West Asia. The film intends to give us a feeling that ISIS targets mainly Western people and other non-Muslims. But the reality is not that simple. A CNN report says, “Despite ISIS's frequent calls for attacks in Europe and the United States, its biggest victims, often forgotten, are Muslims living outside Western countries.” The Kerala Story spends at least 50% of the narrative time on showing ISIS jihadis’ activities. But it does not show the oppressive conditions faced by the people in the ISIS-dominated territories, barring the images of some women captives. Neither does the film show those that have been successfully fighting against ISIS and rescued millions of men, women and children from ISIS-captured areas: most of them are Muslims.

If someone lists the emotional categories explored in the film, it is all about violence, mistrust, cheating, deception, betrayal, manipulation, exploitation, torture, hatred and conspiracy. There is no space left for trust, friendship and harmony. Moreover, the film is a one-dimensional narrative not worthy even to be considered as a good film in a normal sense. It begins as propaganda and it ends as propaganda. The 15-20 crore moderate-budget film is like an amateur one, with naïve computer game-like images of violence and a predictable plot. But enough to dig up a gulf of hatred and mistrust between Hindus and Muslims in our society.

Another Story

Sudhir Mishra’s new film Afwaah has also come out this May. But the film has not found a good distribution network and good exhibition slots, and as a result is getting only a limited audience though it has received critical appreciation. The film shows the story of political developments in a place called Sawalpur in Rajasthan. It exposes how social media is used to create communal tension and riots. The film shows how deliberately twisted facts spread through social media take the shape of rumour (afwaah), as a result of which communal violence erupts in public life and takes the lives of innocent ordinary people.

Mishra’s film is apparently based on a very common popular cinema story – a  young women running away comes across a young man who helps her to get rid of her pursuers, and then they run away together. But the film has something more to say. The filmmaker explores the context and the background of every development that takes place in the narrative. In fact, in Mishra’s film, the context is no less important than the dramatic development of the plot. Nivi the young protagonist of the film is the daughter of a powerful politician Gyan Singh. Her fiancée Vicky Singh is a young ambitious political leader who plots a communal riot to serve his narrow political interest. Nivi opposes her fiancée and her father and finally runs away from home. Vicky’s men chase her. When she is about to be caught by them, a young man Rahab Khan comes forward and rescues her. As Vicky’s gunmen are crazily running after them, Nivi and Rahab move from one shelter to another to evade Nivi’s capture. But unlike the formulaic commercial films, no love affair grows between them. Nivi expresses her gratitude to Rahab and Rahab supports her cause.

To extract political mileage from this development a social media campaign is started describing the incident as a case of ‘love jihad’. The false content is made viral using the social media algorithm. The rumour grips the minds of people. As a consequence, communal riots break out in the whole city. People say, ‘these things happen during the election!’ The political power-mongers say, ‘terrorize them; they will vote for you (out of fear).’ Rahab says, ‘being a good man is not a virtue anymore.’ Nivi shouts, ‘you believe in what has been shown in the viral video? To judge what is true and what’s not you need to apply your mind. Please do that.’ Though the narrative seems slightly stretched out, Mishra’s script and dialogues as usual are gripping and powerful. The film concludes neither as a simple revenge story nor as a wish-fulfilling love story.

Mishra finishes his film with a touch of ambiguity and it is not clear whether Nivi is transformed from a rebel into a conformist. But at the end of it all, what the audience remember is the unconditional camaraderie and mutual respect between Rahab and Nivi.

The Kerala Story and Afwaah