“My name was Shalini Unnikrishnan,” an actor dressed head-to-toe in a full Islamic veil, says in a mournful voice as she speaks to the camera.
“Now I am Fatima Ba, an ISIS terrorist in an Afghanistan jail. And I’m not alone.”
This is the original teaser for Indian filmmaker Sudipto Sen’s controversial new movie, “The Kerala Story,” the latest box office hit in India despite fears it is deepening religious tensions between majority Hindus and Muslims in the nation of 1.4 billion.
The low-budget, scripted film has taken $24 million since its release just over two weeks ago, according to Box Office India, a worrying sign according to Debasish Roy Chowdhury, co-author of “To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism.”
Movies like these are “custom-made to spread hate, trigger Islamophobia and justify violence against Muslims,” he said.
Filmmakers had initially attempted to present the movie as based on a true story of three women in the southern state of Kerala who were allegedly lured into converting to Islam and trafficked into joining ISIS. According to the filmmakers, these women were pawns in a “dangerous conspiracy” hatched against India that has seen tens of thousands of Indian women follow the same path.
But critics were quick to point out that simply wasn’t true – and there was no evidence to support such a claim. Last week, India’s Supreme Court ordered the filmmakers to add a disclaimer that says the film is a fictionalized version of events, and that there is no data to back its claims of broader conspiracy to radicalize Indian women.
According to a 2020 report from the US state department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, there were “66 known Indian-origin fighters affiliated with ISIS” as of November that year. In 2021, India’s National Investigation Agency said it had arrested 168 people connected to 37 cases “of terror attacks, conspiracy, and funding” inspired by ISIS. Neither report provided a gender breakdown.
Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, has called the story “fake,” and others say the film perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslims at a time of increasing religious polarization.
But many prominent politicians from the country’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have praised the film, with some BJP-ruled states even waiving tax on tickets.
‘Stereotypes and propaganda’
The main character, Unnikrishnan, portrayed by Indian actress Adah Sharma, is depicted as an innocent, fun-loving Hindu girl, studying at a college in Kerala. She befriends her three roommates, including a young Muslim woman.
In the film’s trailer, the Muslim roommate is seen conspiring with older Muslim men at an “Islamic Study Center,” where they instruct a group of boys to “isolate” Unnikrishnan and her roommates from their families. “Develop physical relations… If required, make them pregnant,” an elderly, bearded man, wearing traditional Islamic clothes, says.
The Muslim roommate makes derogatory comments toward Hindu gods and claims that women who wear hijabs are never raped.
Unnikrishnan and the two other women appear to become brainwashed to marry Muslim men, convert to Islam, and join ISIS. The trailer also depicts scenes of brutal violence against women, over chants of “Allah is great.”
Speaking to reporters in Mumbai last week, filmmaker Sen said they “have done a service to the nation” by making the film.
The film’s producer, Vipul Amrutlal Shah, said they knew the film would be labeled as propaganda. “We knew every criticism that would come our way. But that should not deter us,” he added. “Our country needs to be woken up.”
However, some movie critics have slammed the film for its factual inaccuracy and failure to provide nuance.
Independent news outlet The Wire called it “a propaganda film that thrives on shock value.”
Critic Sowmya Rajendran wrote “all the creative liberties … are presented as the absolute truth, with no serious attempt to understand why such radicalisation takes place and what feeds it.”
Shubhra Gupta from the Indian Express called it “a poorly-made, poorly-acted rant which is not interested in interrogating the social complexities of Kerala, an India state proud of its multi-religious, multi-ethnic identity.”
She criticized the filmmakers for stereotypes, writing: “All the Muslim figures in the film are dark and intimidating.”
Several BJP politicians have praised the film for drawing the nation’s attention to “love jihad” – a term used by radical Hindu groups who accuse Muslim men of attempting to convert women of other faiths to Islam.
Some BJP-run states have introduced anti-conversion laws targeting “love jihad,” making it increasingly difficult for inter-faith couples to marry or for people to convert religions – a move lambasted by rights group for being unconstitutional and Islamophobic.
India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, which is governed by Yogi Adityanath, a hardline Hindu monk-turned-politician, was one of the first states to pass the law.
“The Kerala Story draws the attention of the entire nation to the conspiracy of love jihad,” Adityanath told reporters after a special screening of the film. “The entire society must be made aware of this distortion.”
Critics say religious polarization has increased since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP swept to power in 2014, prompting tensions between Hindus, who make up more than 80% of the country’s population, and Muslims, to simmer.
Modi, who was campaigning for the BJP during local elections earlier this month, said “The Kerala Story” was “trying to expose the consequences of terrorism in society,” while accusing opposition parties of trying to ban the film.
According to Chowdhury, the film “follows the familiar pattern of the Modi government’s unalloyed backing of hateful and divisive cinema.”
He said the film’s success “should be taken as a sign of radicalization” of society.
“There is no room for cinema like this in the civilized world, because my freedom of expression ends when it begins to threaten your freedom to exist,” he said.