Kozhikode, Kerala – A cash reward of 10 million rupees ($122,280) has been announced by a Muslim group in India’s Kerala state for providing evidence of claims made in an Indian film that thousands of Hindu and Christian women from the state were recruited into the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
Members of the Muslim Youth League, affiliated with the opposition Indian Union Muslim League party, set up what they call “evidence collection counters” in all 14 districts of Kerala on Thursday, a day before the film is due to be released in the Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu languages.
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According to the film’s trailer on YouTube, The Kerala Story, produced by Vipul Amrutlal Shah and directed by Sudipto Sen, claims to depict the “lives of innocent girls trapped, transformed and trafficked for terror” from Kerala.
“A spine-chilling, never told before true story – revealing a dangerous conspiracy that has been hatched against India,” the text below the trailer says.
The filmmakers say the 138-minute film is a “compilation of true stories of three young girls from different parts of Kerala”.
An earlier figure that was included in the text was that 32,000 girls were forced to join ISIL, a claim that is being challenged by Muslim and other groups as well as opposition political parties in Kerala and other parts of India.
“If 32,000 Hindu girls have joined ISIS from the state, that amounts to 10 girls from every village in the state. How can anyone miss it?” Muslim Youth League general secretary PK Firos asked.
What is the film about?
Makers of the The Kerala Story allude to the Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory of “love jihad” to back up their claims in the film. They say the film shows true stories of a Muslim “love jihad” plot, in which non-Muslim girls and women are supposedly romanced, lured to convert to Islam through marriage and then forced to join ISIL.
This plot is central to the film despite India’s junior home minister telling parliament in 2020 that there is no such thing as “love jihad” and government investigations have dismissed the allegations.
The filmmakers say the inspiration behind their film is a real woman named Nimisha, who converted to Islam in 2015 and married Bestin Vincent, another convert. The couple travelled to Afghanistan via Sri Lanka the next year to join ISIL, according to Indian officials.
In 2021, India declined to repatriate four Indians who had joined ISIL fighters in Afghanistan. Nimisha was among those seeking to return home after her husband was killed. Indian media reports say she has a daughter and both are in an Afghan prison.
“Thousands of innocent women have been systematically converted, radicalised and their lives destroyed. It’s their side of the story,” the film’s trailer on YouTube says. “The truth shall set us free!”
The film’s director told Al Jazeera he stands by his work and the claim that 32,000 girls were indoctrinated and recruited for ISIL. The latest trailer for the movie revises that number to “thousands”.
“We have a humanitarian agenda,” Sen said, adding that he has evidence to prove his claims and the film will be his answer to all the criticism.
“We are not against a particular community,” Sen said. “We are against terrorism, and we don’t believe terrorism has any religion. Our film had a Muslim scholar because we didn’t want to go wrong about presenting Islam. We had other Muslim crew members.”
Cash rewards for evidence
But Firos of the Muslim Youth League told Al Jazeera that the film reinforces “Islamophobic tropes”.
“This is to tarnish the reputation of our state as well as the Muslim community,” he said. “We felt that passing statements or issuing legal notice was not going to make a difference. We wanted people to make up their minds before watching the film.”
The Muslim Youth League is not alone in the campaign against the film.
Nazeer Hussain Kizhakkedathu, a native of Kerala who is settled in the United States, also announced a reward of 1 million rupees for evidence regarding only 10 girls and women – not thousands, as claimed by the film – who were forcibly converted and made to join ISIL. He encouraged a lawyer friend to offer another 1.1 million Indian rupees for a reward.
“This is part of a cultural genocide. We know about Nazi Germany making such films before killing thousands of Jews,” Kizhakkedathu, 51, told Al Jazeera.
The New Jersey-based software engineer said although he is an atheist, his marriage to a Hindu woman could also be considered a case of “love jihad” if the film’s premise is accepted without scrutiny.
“Most of the Indian people who allegedly joined the ISIL are from Muslim families, so Muslims are the real victims here. The film erases their pain and vilifies them,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to a US Department of State report in 2020, 66 fighters of Indian origin are known to have joined ISIL. In 2021, India’s National Investigation Agency said it was investigating 37 cases related to Indians joining the group and had arrested 168 people.
‘Factory of lies’
The ruling communist coalition government in Kerala and opposition leaders are seeking action against the film. State Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote on Facebook that the film is an “attempt to spread hate propaganda” and threatened legal action against the filmmakers.
“This bogus story is a product of the Sangh Parivar’s factory of lies,” he posted. “Justifying those who use cinema only to create division using the argument of freedom of expression is not right. Freedom of expression is not a licence to communalise this country, spread lies and divide people.”
Sangh Parivar refers to a collection of Hindu nationalist groups led by the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Propaganda films and the othering of Muslims should be viewed in the context of various efforts made by the Sangh Parivar to gain an advantage in electoral politics in Kerala,” the chief minister wrote.
The BJP has so far been unsuccessful in making significant headway in Kerala, one of India’s best governed states where power oscillates between the left and the Indian National Congress party.
“[The film] is an insult to the women of the state,” VD Sadeeshan, Kerala’s opposition leader from the Congress party, told Al Jazeera. “People who believe in rule of law, democracy and secularism won’t agree with the theme of this film.”
“Interfaith marriages are very common in Kerala. We are tolerant of such ideas. We are a progressive state,” Sadeeshan said, adding that the film will instigate tensions in a “comparatively peace-loving state”.
According to the 2011 census, Kerala’a population is 54 percent Hindu, 27 percent Muslim and 18 percent Christian, making it one of the most diverse Indian states.
Sen questioned the politicians accusing the film of being part of a “Sanghi [Sangh Parivar] agenda”.
“I will not dance to the tune of the politicians,” he told Al Jazeera, refusing to respond to the cash reward for evidence. “We are talking about human tragedy. This is not a joke.”
Several petitions have been filed in India’s Supreme Court as well as the Kerala High Court, seeking a stay on the release of the film.
The Kerala Story received an “adult” certificate from India’s Central Board of Film Certification after the agency recommended nearly a dozen cuts and a few changes in dialogues, the filmmakers said.
Critics say The Kerala Story is part of a new trend in Indian cinema that seeks to amplify far-right Hindu narratives with little care for facts. The trend, they say, started after Modi came to power in 2014.
Last year, a film called The Kashmir Files triggered controversy by claiming that thousands of Hindus were killed in Indian-administered Kashmir, forcing their exodus from the valley when a rebellion against New Delhi’s rule in the country’s only Muslim-majority region started in the late 1980s.
According to official figures, 219 Hindus, known as Pandits in the valley, were killed as the rebellion started. Still, the film was praised by Modi as “backing facts” and many BJP-ruled states awarded tax cuts to it.
Screenings of the film saw anti-Muslim hate speeches being made inside and outside theatres.
Sen was also part of the jury at last year’s International Film Festival of India, whose chairman, Nadav Lapid, an Israeli filmmaker, slammed The Kashmir Files as “propaganda” and a “vulgar movie”. Sen later distanced himself from Lapid’s comments.