A Bollywood film depicting Hindu and Christian women lured to join Isis has divided India along state lines, triggering deadly clashes.
The Kerala Story is a fictional drama, but was originally touted as being based on the true stories of more than 30,000 such women until a court ruled the creators’ claims had no basis in fact.
Critics from opposition parties across India have described the film as Hindu nationalist “propaganda” and accused it of perpetuating Islamophobia.
But it has been heavily promoted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including in tweets by prime minister Narendra Modi.
The low-budget film, from director Sudipto Sen, has been at the centre of controversy since the day its trailer was released in India. After its cinema release on 5 May, the state of West Bengal banned showings, while Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh – the country’s two most populous BJP-ruled states – cut the price of tickets by waiving government taxes.
The first death reported in the row occurred in Akola in Maharashtra, after clashes broke out between two groups with differing views on the film. The state government has increased the police presence in the city and cut off access to the internet in several areas, in an attempt to prevent protesters and rival groups from gathering.
The clashes reportedly began with an Instagram post on Saturday about The Kerala Story and ended with the death of 40-year-old electrician Vilas Gaikwad, as two rival groups pelted each other with stones and destroyed several private and government vehicles, according to officials quoted by Indian news agency ANI.
Maharashtra police said more than 135 people had been arrested; the state’s deputy chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, said police stations had been warned to stay on high alert and watch out for any flare-ups.
In a separate incident in Jammu and Kashmir, several Muslim students at the Government Medical College in Jammu city were reportedly beaten by supporters of the film on Sunday night.
Local media said the clashes were between two groups of students, and began when one started an argument over The Kerala Story in a WhatsApp group, to which a group of Muslim students objected.
More than 6000,000 people have seen this film so far in India.
A new chapter begins today. THE KERALA STORY is releasing more than 40-countries together...
More and more numbers are going to get added. More and more blessings, love and adulation will overwhelm us. We shall feel… pic.twitter.com/LGFaDju2qA
— Sudipto SEN (@sudiptoSENtlm) May 12, 2023
Mehbooba Mufti, president of the People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir, tweeted: “Shocking that GOI [the government of India] promotes & encourages violence through movies stoking communal fires. The blood of innocents is being spilt to quench the BJP’s insatiable thirst for petty electoral dividends.”
The chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, did not ban the film in the state but said that the movie had seemed to be made “with the aim of communal polarisation and spreading hate propaganda”.
On social media, a number of alternative hashtags about the film, such as #MyKeralaStory and #RealKeralaStory, started trending, with people sharing their own stories of religious harmony and camaraderie.
Film website IMDb summarises the plot as telling the story of “a converted Muslim woman [named] Fatima Ba” who “wanted to become a nurse but was abducted from her home and manipulated by religious vanguards, turned into an Isis terrorist and landed in an Afghanistan jail”.
Mr Modi praised the film and said that it attempted to “expose the consequences of terrorism in a society”.
In Uttar Pradesh, firebrand BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath said the film “draws the attention of the entire nation to the conspiracy of lovejihad”, a reference to an unfounded theory that there is a coordinated effort by Muslim men to convert Indian women of other faiths through marriage.
“The entire society must be made aware of this distortion. A commendable and brave effort has been made in this regard by the film’s producer, director and entire team,” he said.
#WATCH | 'The Kerala Story' film is based on a terror conspiracy. It shows the ugly truth of terrorism and exposes terrorists' design. Congress is opposing the film made on terrorism and standing with terror tendencies. Congress has shielded terrorism for the vote bank: PM… pic.twitter.com/qlUQlc3qQf
— ANI (@ANI) May 5, 2023
On Friday, the film was shown at more than 200 screens in the US and Canada. Mr Sen told reporters during a virtual press conference that “the country [India] was in denial of the long-existing issue in the state of Kerala. The Kerala Story is a mission which is beyond the creative boundaries of cinema, a movement that should reach the masses all over the world and raise awareness.”
The producer of the film, Vipul Shah, said the subject “was hidden from the masses and deserved to be told. We made the film to initiate deliberation worldwide.”