‘The Kerala Story’ is an Indian Hindi-language drama film that revolves around three young women from Kerala, India, who are manipulated into converting to Islam and then joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Directed by Sudipto Sen, the film stars Adah Sharma, Yogita Bihani, Siddhi Idnani, and Sonia Balani in the leading roles. The depiction of the harrowing journeys of three women as they are radicalized and then trafficked from their homes to a far-off country is quite jarring, to say the least. But is there any truth to their experiences? Let’s dive in together and find out!
Is The Kerala Story a True Story?
Yes, ‘The Kerala Story’ is inspired by a true story. Or rather, as the opening scene in the film puts it, “by many true stories.” Written by director Sudipto Sen, along with Suryapal Singh and Vipul Amrutlal Shah, the story is narrated through a series of flashbacks by Fatima Ba (Adah Sharma), who belonged to a Hindu Brahmin family before her conversion to Islam and is currently imprisoned in a jail in Afghanistan.
The film describes how three nursing students from Kerala are allegedly brainwashed by an extremist group and made to believe that Islam is the only true guiding light for them. The justification for the fight for Islam soon comes after, and they are sent to train with ISIS. Though there have been several reported cases of Indian Muslims leaving the country to join ISIS, the film’s factual claims have been questioned by many in the Southeast Asian country. The most controversial of these claims is that nearly 32,000 women have gone through forced conversion and been sent to Syria to join ISIS.
However, several prominent Indian news channels and publications use the data from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism’s 2020 report on Terrorism in India and the Observer Researcher Foundation’s paper on Islamic State-related activities in India. Both data sets clearly state that no more than 200 cases of pro-ISIS activities have been reported in the country, including attempts to join the terrorist organization and even spreading propaganda online.
It is a number that is not likely to have jumped so exponentially to a whopping 32,000 since 2020, as ‘The Kerala Story’ claims. The film’s director, Sudipto Sen, revealed in an interview with ‘The Free Press Journal’ that he had supposedly spent nearly four years researching the subject and that his inspiration comes from the cases of conversion and radicalization reported in the Northern parts of Kerala.
When asked about the allegations that have been made against him and his film of spreading misinformation, the director said, “We have the account of 32,000, we have the account of 50,000. Even if we asked through RTI [the Right to Information Act, 2005 in India] to Kerala government that ‘tell us we are wrong [about the number of cases], then what is the truth?’ They did not say, they did not reply to our RTI; they have replied, but it was such a confusing answer [that] there is no answer, actually.” Interestingly, no other clarifications were given by the director.
Regardless of the film’s factual accuracy, ‘The Kerala Story’ is still a compelling tale that speaks about the influence of extremist groups in India. While the depiction of remorseless brutality will shock the viewers in their seats, it is nothing compared to the nuance the actors bring to their respective characters. For instance, Adah Sharma especially shines through in her role as Shalini, aka Fatima Ba, bringing an innocence to the character that is so believable that the audience can’t help but feel sympathy for her when this same innocence is eventually lost.
Reportedly inspired by actual events based on the director’s research, ‘The Kerala Story’ acts as a reminder that forces that seek to disrupt the order and peace in the world remain active, hidden in plain sight, and that the most harm they can cause to a country is to turn its own people against it. But more than that, the film brings to light the plight of the family and friends of the people who have fallen prey to the heinous manipulations and left their homes to fight for a cause that was never their own to begin with.
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