It is rarely that we are misinformed about a movie while standing in front of the box-office at a cinema. But these are those rare times as the voice from inside the counter says, “The Kerala Files”, to a question about the movie up for the next show. In this era of information overload, it is difficult to know where misinformation is coming from—at the box office or on the screen. For The Kerala Story directed by Sudipto Sen, the production team may have already come down on some numbers, but when it comes to art, the best way to filter content is through appreciation. And it is a good sign the film is a roaring theatrical success. The more people see the film, the better the chances of appreciation. It’s something like the elections. The voter and the viewer are the smartest people on the planet on that particular day inside those two sanctified spaces where the collective consciousness works in mysterious ways to sustain social progress and individual freedom and liberty.
Many people are understandably frightened of a dangerous trend of political propaganda in Indian cinema of late. Is the seventh art in our country, which began more than a century ago with the story of a king in Ayodhya who swore by the truth and royalty to his people, and faced consequences for it, under threat from the pretenders of art? Some, including a few of the finest minds in the world of cinema, are not even pretending that they are not angry. Jean-Michel Frodon, a former chief editor of the iconic French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema where Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Bunuel first worked as film critics, and a huge admirer of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, says, “Being one of the many who love and admire the creativity of Indian cinema for so many years, I can only be terribly worried and saddened when seeing such movies, and more generally the political deviation that arms mainstream Indian cinema, including films that do not seem so openly related with contemporary political issues, but actually do not show a correct vision of the reality of this great country in all its components.”
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The Kerala Story, which is about how devious religious conversion and indoctrination in Kasargod, Kerala, destroy the lives of three unsuspecting nursing students—Shalini Unnikrishnan (Adah Sharma), Geetanjali Menon (Siddhi Idnani) and Nimah Matthews (Yogita Bihani)—makes a feverish pitch against one community and the ruling communists in the state. Sometimes it is difficult to know who the film is trying to portray as the biggest enemy, the minority community or the non-believing communists. In one scene, Geetanjali lashes out at her father, a card-holding communist, for being responsible for her ordeal, “You never taught me about religion and our culture, but only your communist ideology.” Another dialogue goes like this: “Communists are the biggest hypocrites.” Hammer and sickle-drawn red flags lurk in the corners beside placards with praises for Osama bin Laden.
Can Indian cinema, with its rich artistic and aesthetic heritage, be easily swayed and influenced by movies with hidden motives? “Absolutely,” says award-winning director Pan Nalin, whose Gujarat language film, Chhello Show (The Last Film Show), was India’s entry to the Oscar award for Best International Feature Film this year. “It is already being influenced in variable degrees. Also, we should never forget about the power of cinema. It can be turned into the most dangerous soft weapon to colonise the minds of the people without them being aware,” adds Nalin, whose works include films like Angry Indian Goddesses about gender equality, Samsara about a Buddhist monk’s journey, and Faith Connections on the Kumbh Mela. “We live under an illusion that the colonial era is over. Yes, the era of conscious colonisation might be over, but what we are witnessing is lethal colonisation of unconscious minds, where every subject of that colony is living under an illusion of freedom—and they will never even know it. During the last century, the most powerful and consistent use of the cinema for propaganda was seen in the Soviet Union. Not to forget how the Nazis used cinema to create an image of the ‘national community’ and to demonise those they viewed as the enemy, such as the Jews,” says Nalin.
The political propaganda, which is at the core of the film, harks back to the mass conversions by the Mughals centuries ago, with an alleged ‘love jihad’ giving it a convenient contemporariness. An Imam is seen saying how important it is to carry on the incomplete work of Mughal emperor Aurangazeb. “From the Christian and Islamic perspective, there have been mass conversions linked to the state in India in the medieval and imperial times,” says Delhi-based sociologist J John.
“When the freedom of individual conversion (guaranteed under the Constitution) is extrapolated to group conversion, it changes the political nature of conversion. The film gives a young Hindu woman’s conversion the nature of a group conversion with political implications that threatens the character of society and the nation,” he adds. “That is what the movie projects. It carries the viewers to a false consciousness and a threat perception. The conversion case is deliberately focused on women, not men. If religion, as a group and community, is to be sustained over generations, the role of women becomes very important. Therefore, to regulate and control women becomes a kind of politically directed religious activity.”
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The one fact about The Kerala Story— it is not made by a filmmaker from the state—is not lost on the cinema fraternity. “Nobody will make such a film in Kerala,” says Malayalam filmmaker Shaji N Karun. “Cinema was an important element in strengthening secularism in the society in Kerala. You can’t twist history in favour of current politics,” he adds, referring to Malayalam movies like Neelakuyil (1954) and Nair Pidicha Pulival (1958), both directed by P Bhaskaran. Karun, the current chairperson of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation, recalls the founding of the Cannes film festival (where he won a Camera d’Or Special Mention for Piravi) to protect cinema from the propaganda films backed by Mussolini in Venice. “History has rejected propaganda films.”
If conversions in Mughal history is the logic of the film, the history of Hindi cinema points in a direction different from The Kerala Story. “Hindi cinema has always been a vehicle for communal harmony,” says film critic Saibal Chatterjee. “No Hindi film has actually ever been Islamophobic. In fact, you had the Muslim social drama as a genre in Hindi cinema, films set in Muslim society,” he adds. “Bollywood, which has top talent from the Muslim community, even made a movie, My Name is Khan, against Islamophobia after 9/11. Even cinema in the west, which aggressively promoted Islamophobia post-9/11, is now more conscious of diversity and inclusion.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer