Indian film about ISIS women recruits sparks outrage

Critics say 'The Kerala Story' has no factual basis

A member of Iraqi special forces looks on smoke rises over ISIS positions during heavy bombardment in Al Shura. Reuters
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Police in India’s southern Kerala state are considering legal action against a film that claims 32,000 Hindu women from the state converted to Islam to join ISIS.

The film has drawn widespread condemnation, with critics saying that it is sensational and without factual basis.

A teaser of ‘The Kerala Story’ has sparked controversy since it was shared by the film’s lead actress Adah Sharma on Twitter on November 4.

Ms Sharma plays a Malayali woman who wanted to become a nurse but instead joined the terrorist group.

The film’s teaser begins with Ms Sharma clad in a burqa speaking to the camera. She says that her name was Shalini Unnikrishnan and she wanted to become a nurse but now her name is “Fatima Ba”, an “ISIS terrorist in a jail in Afghanistan”.

She then talks about “32,000 girls like her who have been converted and buried in the deserts of Syria and Yemen”.

“A dangerous game is being played to convert normal girls into dreaded terrorists in Kerala and that too in the open,” Ms Sharma’s character says.

The teaser of the film, which is directed by Sudipto Sen and claims to tell the story of the 32,000 women, was also released on YouTube on November 3 and has had nearly half a million views.

But a top police officer in the state said an investigation has been opened into the content of the film and police may take further action on the basis of a final report.

“We have sought a legal opinion on the petition to decide on further steps, no case has been filed yet but we are probing the matter,” Sparjan Kumar, police commissioner of Thiruvananthapuram, told The National.

The film’s teaser has also stirred condemnation from politicians, academics and even journalists for exaggerating the prevalence of conversions to Islam, which has long been a contentious issue in the state.

Right-wing Hindu groups claim that the state has become a hotbed of Islamist extremism, and that Muslim men are luring Hindu women with a view to converting to Islam.

Aravindakshan BR, a journalist from Chennai in southern Tamil Nadu, has lodged a petition with the state government demanding that the film is banned.

“It is a very bad thing to try to make the state of Kerala look like a state that supports terrorism through the film. This is not only against the unity and sovereignty of India but also to all the intelligence agencies in India,” Mr Arvindakshan said in his petition.

He also demanded the Central Board of Film Certification “verify” the film was depicting a “true incident” before allowing the release of the film.

In an interview last year, director Mr Sen told a local media outlet his figures were based on statements made by former chief minister Oommen Chandy.

Mr Sen claimed that Mr Chandy had said that “every year approximately 2,800 to 3,200 girls were taking up Islam”, which totalled 32,000 over 10 years.

But critics including politicians have questioned Mr Sen’s claims and demanded evidence to back the figures.

“It is disseminating false information which may topple public tranquillity and is intended to defame Kerala,” John Brittas, a parliamentarian for the Communist Party, said.

Congress legislator and leader of the opposition VD Satheesan called the movie an “insult” to Kerala.

“This is not a Kerala Story. This is spreading hatred and communalism. They are trying to tarnish the image of Kerala … We won’t allow this type of campaign against Kerala. The makers have to bring the evidence openly,” Mr Satheesan said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, however, has called the controversy surrounding the film an attempt to “scuttle” the truth.

“The Kerala Story movie’s teaser has run into rough weather with powerful forces trying to scuttle the movie. A formal complaint has been filed with Kerala police to check the veracity of the claims made in the trailer. Who are these people who don’t want the truth to come out?”, Amit Malviya, the head of BJP’s social media department, said.

Although ISIS has radicalised people from around the world, in India, which has the second-largest Muslim population of 200 million, cases of radicalisation are thought to be relatively rare.

Security agencies in the country estimate that about 100 residents of the coastal state have either joined or tried to join ISIS.

In 2016, security forces found that two dozen young men and women left the country in batches to join an affiliate of ISIS.

Updated: November 10, 2022, 2:10 PM