Art Or Islamophobia? How A Bollywood Blockbuster Is Stoking Tensions In India
Bollywood film The Kerala Story has done huge numbers at the Indian box office after public support by Hindu nationalist parties. But the film is facing claims it is Islamophobic propaganda that peddles conspiracy theories about Muslims.
NEW DELHI — India's Supreme Court has ordered the state governments of West Bengal, in the northeast of the country, and Tamil Nadu, in the southeast, to ensure that the Bollywood film TheKeralaStory is screened everywhere.
The movie is based on the true stories of three women from the state of Kerala, in the southwest of India, who were allegedly forcefully converted to Islam and forced to join the terror outfit ISIS. TheKeralaStory has been a box office smash in India, becoming the second highest grossing Hindi film of 2023.
However, it has faced litigation and protests in the states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, with accusations that it is Islamophobic propaganda that is promoting the agenda of Hindu nationalists.
The Supreme Court asked the West Bengal government to lift a ban on the film. It also ordered the Tamil Nadu government to provide adequate security to anyone who wants to screen and watch the film. Their simple and clinching argument is that when the Central Board of Film Certification has given permission to it, then the question of banning it does not arise. The court wants it to be treated like any other film, to be watched as a fiction.
But this is not an ordinary film. In fact, if you were to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), it is a national duty to watch this film.
Politicians promoting the film
The governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Uttarakhand led by the Bharatiya Janata Party have given tax exemption to the film. Obviously with an aim to encourage people to watch it. Modi himself has recently promoted the film. The chief ministers have taken out time from their busy schedules to watch the film and have appealed to the public to watch it. Obviously, no other film gets this push from the governments.
It is not known whether the Supreme Court was aware that Dashrath Tirkey, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal, took 140 girls and women from the tea garden of Alipurduar in Bengal to New Bongaigaon in the neighboring state of Assam to show them The Kerala Story. Along with the expenses on their travel, this BJP leader made arrangements for tickets and food. Because the film was banned in West Bengal, Tirkey, along with his wife, took the trouble to show all these women a film some 120 kilometers away from their home.
Why? According to him these girls and women go from their homes to other places to earn a living. They should be alert for their safety. They need to be aware of the dangers that are waiting to trap them. The film warns them of one of the dangers they will face when they go out. So as a people’s representative, it is his duty to create awareness in them about the dangers they would possibly face.
Needless to say that there was not a single Muslim among these women. So what dangers were Hindu or (we don’t know) tribal women asked to beware of? Why did Tirkey take only non-Muslim women to show the film? Why is he not worried about the safety of the rest of the working women in his area?
We know the answer to these questions. Like the answer to the question as why the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh gave tax exemption to the film KeralaStory. Or even before that, why a BJP leader (who is also the Prime Minister of India) Narendra Modi took upon himself to promote the film during the Karnataka state election campaign? Modi said that this film exposed the dangerous terrorist conspiracy being hatched in Kerala. He accused the Congress party for being against the film, which meant “it favored terrorism.”
It is being said that this film tells the story of the conspiracy of the terrorist organization Islamic State. In an imaginary way. But the conspiracy is real, and it is a conspiracy to convert Hindu and Christian women into Muslims and send them out of India as sex slaves for the terrorist organization, ISIS. The film tells how these women are led to the trap of love and then their religion is changed. In the lexicon of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, this is called “love jihad”.
The argument changed as soon as the lie was busted.
It was claimed that Kerala is the center of this conspiracy and from there 32,000 women have been converted to Islam and sent to the Islamic State as sex slaves. The film claims to tell the story of this huge and terrifying conspiracy and tragedy. 32,000 is a huge and dramatic number. Conversion of so many women under organized conspiracy should really be a matter of concern.
But as soon as Alt News pointed out that this was an outright lie, the producer and director of the film changed their story. They said that the number was only three, not 32,000. The numbers change the magnitude of the "conspiracy" but the argument changed as soon as the lie was busted. It was said that the number was not important, and even if it happens to only one person, it is equally terrible.
The filmmakers had no moral qualms about lying in the first place. There was no shame in getting caught either. They assured the court that it will be mentioned in the beginning of the film that it is a fictional account. The court did not find it necessary to ask him why he propagated such a big and terrible lie in the first place!
It also does not matter because the people who watched the film told us that in the film the number of converted and trafficked women is even higher: 50,000. It can be argued that even this fictitious number is being given only to create a dramatic effect.
Students protest at GMC Jammu after one of them was injured during a fight opposing students of two communities over "The Kerala Story".
The judges laughed and joked during the debate, as is the habit of powerful people even on serious occasions. For example, are films not made about ghosts and spirits even when they do not exist? We know that only people like them can afford to crack jokes when a community is worried about its existence and dignity and safety.
I am talking about Muslims. Because only they know that this film has been made for the Hindus to deepen their prejudice against Muslims. After watching this film, the number of common Hindus with a mind prejudiced against Muslims will increase. This will make Muslims even more insecure.
Every Muslim is now a suspect because how will you be able to differentiate between a good Muslim and a conspiratorial Muslim? Who would want to keep them in their neighborhood or employ them? Who would befriend them?
But only Muslims can ask these questions. The film is not made for them, but for Hindus. Muslims are the subject of the film. It can be cleverly said that it is about a terrorist organization and its conspiratorial methods and not about Muslims but after watching this film almost every reviewer has said that the film creates hatred against Muslims and hence it is dangerous.
It disturbs social harmony and increases estrangement among Hindus towards Muslims. In today’s environment, where there is already enough of this suspicion and hatred, should any such an act be tolerated?
The court did not ask why a particular political party and the government should promote this film. The film is made in a specific political context. The context is the politics of majoritarian hatred which has all the means and resources of the state in its hands. The court obviously did not consider the apprehension of Muslims to be a matter of concern and mechanically legitimized a hate propaganda under the guise of the principle of freedom of expression.
It may be right as many people are saying that banning the film will not work. But to say that those who don’t want to watch the film, should not watch it, or that if the film is bad, it would be rejected by the people is the result of a kind of majoritarian indifference or insensitivity. As we said, the question is not about this choice. If I am a Muslim, the very fact that I am being maligned or vilified in a large population makes me insecure. After this vilification, violence against me can and will increase even more and its legitimacy will also increase.
This will inspire more filmmakers to propagate anti-Muslim hatred in a cinematic language.
Why is this insecurity so difficult to understand? It is humiliating as well.
This film creates hatred towards the state of Kerala along with Muslims. The BJP is already propagating hatred among the people of north India towards Kerala by portraying it as the hub of terrorism.
In a country where a Muslim man’s relationship with a Hindu woman is not considered a private affair, and is believed to be part of an organized conspiracy aimed at increasing the Muslim population of India, the film makes that conspiracy look even more sinister. It is an international conspiracy!
The conspiracy is now not only to increase the population of Muslims in India, but also to traffic Hindu women to ISIS and to make them slaves of the Islamic terrorists. Will every Hindu watching the film be shrugging it off like any other fictional story?
Some writers have reminded us of films made before the pogrom of the Jews in Nazi Germany, which portrayed the Jews in the same way that the KeralaStory portrays Muslims. It is creating Hindu sanction for violence against Muslims. The makers of this film know it. They are not satisfied with making just this film. They have announced that they will help in efforts to rehabilitate women who are victims of conversion with the earnings of this film.
Now a formula has been found for making money by mediocre film makers. Low budget films even with poor acting and direction can make good earnings if only they do hate propaganda against Muslims, because in the promotion of such films, state machinery is now employed and a whole BJP machinery works for it. No one can do this for any other film.
It is being said that KeralaStory has earned a lot. This will inspire more filmmakers to propagate anti-Muslim hatred in a cinematic language. In the meanwhile we must be satisfied that our judges will watch this film and form their own opinion during this summer vacation.
Meanwhile, one should not say that this film has any direct relation with the incidents of violence against Muslims.