The Kerala Story: Why an Indian film on Islamic State is so controversial

The Kerala Story has polarised opinions in India

A new film that claims to tell the story of Hindu and Christian women who were lured into joining the Islamic State (IS) group has stirred a huge controversy in India.

The Kerala Story – set in the southern state of Kerala – has been criticised by many opposition politicians, with some calling it propaganda and an attempt to destroy religious harmony.

But it has received support from leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who praised it at a recent political rally. Some party members have also hosted screenings and distributed free tickets.

The film has got poor reviews from many mainstream critics who have lambasted its performances and “lack of nuance” – one wrote that the film’s “thoughts about Islam and [religious] conversion seem to have been sourced from hate-filled WhatsApp groups”.

But its performance at the box office has been “extraordinary” for a film with a small budget and no big stars, analyst Taran Adarsh told the BBC. According to his estimates, it has earned more than 560m rupees ($6.8m, £5.4m) in five days, which he calls “a feat for any new release”.

The Kerala Story has drawn comparisons with The Kashmir Files, another sharply polarising movie that became one of last year’s biggest hits from Bollywood. That film – on the exodus of Hindus from Kashmir in the 1990s – was again made on a small budget, had no big stars, and received praise from Mr Modi and other BJP leaders though it got middling reviews.

The Kerala Story began sparking controversy months before its release. In November, some politicians from Kerala called for the film to be banned after its teaser claimed it told the “heart-breaking and gut-wrenching stories of 32,000 females” from the state who had joined the IS.

This was debunked by fact-checking website Alt News in a detailed report that concluded that there was “no evidence” to back the number.

According to the US state department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, there were “66 known Indian-origin fighters affiliated” with the IS as of November 2020. In September 2021, India’s National Investigation Agency said that it had arrested 168 people in connection with 37 cases “of terror attacks, conspiracy and funding” inspired by the IS’s ideology.

The filmmakers, however, said that The Kerala Story was based on true events and years of research.

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