There was nothing in the trailer which excited me or motivated me to watch the movie, from a purely aesthetic perspective. The very idea of Hindi-speaking actors in a Malayalam movie was off-putting’’ ‘’There are scenes where they show a college which has posters saying Save Kashmir and something about Bin Laden on the walls. Which college has such? And they show a communist, the father of one of the girls, who has portraits of Marx and Lenin on the walls of his house. The research behind the film is shoddy, and it seems like someone’s imagination of how things are in Kerala, not the reality.
he Sudipto Sen film The Kerala Story has created quite a stir in the country, with the Prime Minister himself endorsing it in a pre-poll speech in Karnataka recently. And the box office records of nearly 200 crores made it too big to be ignored by major film critics and leaders.
The film had courted controversy right during the release of its trailer, which claimed that 32000 women from Kerala had been recruited to the militant Islamic group ISIS. The makers later changed the number to three, after facing severe backlash, asking for proof to substantiate the original number. Whether the film is fictional or not remains hazy still, with the makers going back and forth on the issue.
Post the release, while some States sought to ban the film, Madhya Pradesh made it tax-free. Free screenings were organised for college girls by Hindu groups in Bangalore while at the Kollur Mookambika Temple at Udupi, Karnataka, banners were put up with the message, ‘Malayalee devotees welcome to Mookambika. If you want your generations to be the devotees of Maa Mookambika, please watch The KERALA Story.’ Social media abounds with comments for and against the movie, with right-wing supporters lauding it as an ‘eye opener’ which ‘every Hindu girl should watch’. During a promotional event of the film, the lead actress of the film, Adah Sharma, can be seen starting off by saying that she’s a proud Hindu girl, which is welcomed with loud cheers and applause from the audience.
Interestingly, amidst all the chaos, there is one State where the film has hardly made a ripple. No prizes for guessing that it is none other than Kerala, where the film is supposedly set. Despite calls to ban the film, the Kerala High Court allowed its screening, commenting that the viewers will ‘take it for what it is’. However, by its second week, the film left most theatres in Kerala, giving way to the massively popular Jude Anthany directorial titled 2018, which incidentally released on the same date – 5 May 2023. The Tovino Thomas starrer revolves around the Kerala floods and how people of all communities from across the State came together for the rescue and rehabilitation of those affected. ‘The real Kerala Story’, is how Jude’s film has been termed within Kerala.
Thus, except for a small minority with an interest in the religion angle of The Kerala Story, the film received a ‘below average response’ in Kerala, in the words of a member of the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK).
However, the reasons cited for the lukewarm response are not all connected to politics and religion. “There was nothing in the trailer which excited me or motivated me to watch the movie, from a purely aesthetic perspective. The very idea of Hindi-speaking actors in a Malayalam movie was off-putting,” says Mahesh Narayan, director of the massively successful 2017 movie Take-Off, which features the dramatic rescue of a group of Malayali nurses held hostage in Iraq by the ISIS.
Other reasons cited are the violence in the movie and its ‘A’ rating, which deterred families and children, and the lack of a star cast familiar to the Malayali audience. “The film is very obviously made for a Hindi-speaking audience, and there’s nothing Malayali about it except visuals of the landscape,” says Sridhar A, an independent researcher based in Bengaluru. The makers have hardly done their homework when it comes to portraying the ethos of Kerala, especially the colleges, he further adds. “For example, there are scenes where they show a college which has posters saying Save Kashmir and something about Bin Laden on the walls. Which college has such? And they show a communist, the father of one of the girls, who has portraits of Marx and Lenin on the walls of his house. The research behind the film is shoddy, and it seems like someone’s imagination of how things are in Kerala, not the reality,” says Sridhar, adding that those who don’t know much about Kerala might feel that this is the reality. “This movie might sow seeds of doubt in such people.” Also, while the makers removed the 32000 figure from the trailer, it is mentioned in one of the scenes in the film, he points out.
Before the release, a man named Nazeer Hussain Kizhakkedath from Kerala offered Rs 10 lakh to anyone who could share the names and addresses of the multitude of women who were converted to Islam and sold off to the ISIS.
Many Malayalis also feel that the film seems to have based its research on WhatsApp forwards. “We live in an age where WhatsApp forwards have more takers than actual news. There will be more of such films in the future and we can’t do anything about it,” says Mahesh, adding that the focus of his film Take Off was on the human element in the story and nothing more.
Venkatesh Balakrishnan, who works in a private firm in Chennai concurs, “I found the entire film an overweight WhatsApp forward. I think it was never intended to be a good film, and was designed to be a political tool to ensure continued polarisation in coastal Karnataka and to ensure the continuous othering of Kerala. Also, most films made in India present Muslims as terrorists. The kinder ones show a “good Muslim” to complete the binary. This film is different in that there’s no such binary. Even ordinary Muslims are shown as dangerous. Leave marriage, even friendships with Muslims are shown as harmful.”
Both Sridhar and Venkatesh observe that the film overtly encourages the suppressing of Hindu women and portrays them as persons without any agency. “The film starts with the elderly woman saying it’s best not to allow girl children to move far away from home for college and the story vindicates her,” Venkatesh says.
At the same time, few feel that the film should be banned. “Let people watch it and make their conclusions about Kerala. A filmmaker has every right to make a movie. And the maker’s circumstances will reflect in that movie,” says Mahesh, a view endorsed by MP Shashi Tharoor in his tweet, “
Actor Tovino Thomas, on the other hand, stated in an interview with a national media organisation that you can’t generalise something about a State made up of 35 million people based on three incidents. “We all have the same brain capacity… Even if I say something, don’t believe it blindly…You have a brain so think and decide. It is 2023…start thinking, and rationalising. Don’t let anybody feed misinformation to you.”
Instances of communal harmony continue to get massively shared with the hashtag, Real Kerala Story. Prominent among them is music maestro AR Rahman, who shared a video online of a Hindu couple who had a traditional Hindu wedding in a mosque in Alappuzha, after the bride’s mother requested the mosque authorities for a venue for the ceremony.
Shashi Tharoor’s tweet probably sums up the sentiments of the mostly secular and moderate mindset of the majority in Kerala – “It may be *your* Kerala story. It is not *our* Kerala story.”