The unwitting spectators of our times

Taking the case of The Kerala Story, the writer discusses how narratives are built, resisted, taken down, and upheld through our collective consciousness, and of course... social media discourse
The unwitting spectators of our times

What strange, complicated times we live in. Multiple hashtags have all been blazing on social media—and if you weren’t paying attention, you could be forgiven for being rather bewildered. One that began doing the rounds was #TheKeralaStory, which, of course, pertains to the Hindi film of the same title, the recipient of many a fiery takedown for its incendiary politics. The film, about the trafficking of gullible Kerala girls by the Islamic State, paints what has been deemed a dishonest, exaggerated picture of the situation—its likely objective to fan the flames of insecurity among Hindus by suggesting that ‘love Jihad’ is entirely in force in Kerala. Even more contentious has been the suggestion by the film (and its promotional material) that 32,000 women from the region have been duped into joining ISIS so far, a colossal figure that does not seem substantiated by any official data.

The resistance to such a narrative has been swift, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As a result, #BantheKeralaStory began trending. Litigations were filed seeking a ban on the screening of this film, but they have all been rejected—the latest to do so is the Madras High Court, which also pointed out that other courts have not had a problem with this film. The courts have also pointed out that the Censor Board didn’t raise any objections either.

Amid the battle of these hashtags, another—#TheRealKeralaStory—has also jumped into the fray. This one pertains to the release of a new Malayalam film, 2018, which is suggested as an opposing alternative to The Kerala Story and which is being celebrated by Malayali audiences for reflecting the real, resilient spirit of the state. This new film by director Jude Anthany Joseph pays homage to the brave people from many walks of life who stood united and survived the onslaught of the 2018 Kerala floods.

In many ways, we are akin to spectators of a tennis match. As the rallies between opponents continue, we turn our heads left and right, desperately trying to keep an eye on the ball—which, in this case, would be the shifting narratives and the back-and-forth arguments. An attacking forehand. One side claiming that Kerala Hindu women are gullible victims of a mass recruitment drive by ISIS. A defensive slice. The other side decrying the release of a film that seems like a smear campaign on Kerala, with its use of exaggerations and half-truths.

This is starting to feel like a pattern in this new India, isn’t it? Just a few months ago, we struggled to keep pace with arguments for and against the depiction of the Kashmir pandits exodus. Hindu pandits are victims, they said, but critics argued against the lack of nuance and worried about the incendiary power of generalisations. It’s a different film now, but is the debate so different? Again, a new film, under the guise of encouraging Hindus to be proud of their culture and religious identity, aims to be provocative and encourage the vilification of the other. Perhaps a good question to raise under these circumstances is whether pride in our identity is predicated on mistrust and antagonism towards another’s. If yes, is such pride humane or useful?

There’s an example of a recent film that spoke of cultural and historic pride (of Tamils) without needing an enemy to achieve its end. Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 2 (based on Kalki’s great historical fiction novel) speaks of a power struggle in the 10th-century Chola empire. There’s plenty of love for how life was then… the architecture and the clothes, the food and the drinks, the language and the gods. The film evinces love for a simplistic life centred on human relationships and captures the finer details—imagined and documented—of a people from a celebrated time in Tamil history. Contrast that with The Kerala Story, which in trying to tell the story of how Malayali women are duped, struggles to get local nuances right, including how the language is spoken.

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 2 steers clear of polarisation by telling a gripping story through a dissection of its many characters based on real people. The singular narrative intends to trace the origins of a glorious empire, but in a way that doesn’t encourage us to watch our shoulders or hate another. The story is of a power struggle, and naturally, there are multiple contenders, each deserving—and perhaps undeserving too—in their respective ways. In fact, so careful is the discourse around the identity of the Cholas featured in this film that there was even widespread resistance from the Tamil fraternity to the Chola clan being appropriated for today’s definitions of Hinduism.

In such polarising times, you can be forgiven for being confused about a fundamental question: Who must we feel sorry for? The Hindus who are apparently naïve, trusting victims, as suggested by films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story? Or the Muslims who seem like targets of a well-orchestrated cinema campaign that aims to destabilise and sow seeds of mistrust? Who should we feel sorry for? Perhaps, the most uncontroversial answer is that we ought to feel sorry for ourselves for being unwitting spectators in such times.

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