The Hindi movie tells the story of four young women in Kerala who convert to Islam and are trafficked to the Islamic State—and claims to be true. Its upcoming release has sparked fierce political warfare—and several court petitions to block its release.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
What’s this movie?
The basic deets: The movie stars Adah Sharma (of ‘1920’ fame) and is directed by Sudipto Sen. It has been controversial ever since the first teaser dropped in November. The release of the trailer on April 26 brought it back into the headlines. It hits theatres tomorrow, May 5. You can see the trailer below:
The plot: The IMDB synopsis reads:
A converted muslim woman Fatima Ba narrates her ordeal of how she once wanted to become a nurse but was abducted from her home and manipulated by religious vanguards and turned into an ISIS terrorist and landed in Afghanistan jail.
According to the Economic Times, the broader story focuses on four college students—who are “tricked and trafficked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)”—presumably before they end up in an Afghan jail.
The director: Sudipto Sen’s previous films include Aasma (2018), Lucknow Times (2015), and The Last Monk (2006). He has also made a documentary on the same subject as ‘The Kerala Story’—-titled ‘In the Name of Love’. There was a bit of a fracas when the documentary was screened at JNU. Sen claimed he’d been physically assaulted by left-leaning groups—accusing the students union of having "lynched" and "raped" art, artists, artistic expression, and freedom of speech.
Ok, why all the big fuss?
One big reason is that the movie reaffirms the narrative of the BJP—which has been warning of ‘love jihad’ in Kerala for years. So it inevitably resulted in a political slugfest.
The BJP narrative: is that this is a true story. IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeted:
The movie portrays the rapid Islamisation of Kerala and how innocent girls are being trapped and groomed to be used as cannon fodder for ISIS. Love Jihad is real and dangerous.
The Kerala BJP chief echoed the claim: “It's a reality. Thousands of innocent girls belonging to the Christian and Hindu religions are victims of this.”
The Left’s comeback: Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan called the movie a product of the “Sangh Parivar's lie factory.” And he accused the filmmakers of “taking up the Sangh Parivar propaganda of projecting the state as a centre of religious extremism by raising the issue of 'love jihad'.” The Congress wants the film banned—claiming the movie is "an attempt to destroy the communal harmony of the state.”
The love jihad narrative: has been a staple part of the BJP’s rhetoric across the country. In Kerala, it helps peel Christian votes away from the opposition. In recent years, church leaders in Kerala have joined with the BJP to allege the “rampant conversion” of Christian women—and attempts to recruit them to the Islamic State cause.
But, but, but: The term ‘love jihad’ was coined by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti in 2009. But the rhetoric was first taken up by the Left. Kerala CM VS Achuthanandan (CPIM) claimed that a radical organisation was trying to increase the number of Muslims “by influencing youth of other religions and converting them by giving money, marrying them to Muslim women and thus producing kids of the community.” Also this: The idea that love jihad is part of an Islamic terrorist plot was first put forward by the Global Council of Indian Christians.
And is any of this real?
Even the tallest stories contain a kernel of truth. The short version of the answer is this: Yes, there is IS activity in Kerala. Yes, some women converted to Islam and are now in an Afghan jail. No, there is no evidence of any widespread jihadist conspiracy beyond this handful of cases.
The ‘32,000’ claim: When the first teaser was released in November, the main character Fathima says:
[T]here are 32,000 girls like me who have been converted and buried in the deserts of Syria and Yemen. A deadly game is being played to convert normal girls into dreaded terrorists in Kerala … will nobody stop them?
In his press interviews, director Sudipto Sen doubled down on the claim:
I said 32,000 girls went missing. If you go to northern Kerala, to areas like Kasargod or Mallapuram, you will find locals claiming the numbers to be as high as 50,000. Why and how it happened, that’s what the film is about. I can’t reveal the whole story of the film just yet. I have also personally talked to the NIA. Give me some time I will give you all answers.
But, but, but: When pushed to offer this evidence, Sen resorted to some bizarre maths:
In 2010, former Kerala CM Oommen Chandy put a report in front of Kerala assembly. In front of my camera, he denied that anything had happened. But in 2010, I documented a case where he (Chandy) said that every year approximately 2,800 to 3,200 girls were taking up Islam. Just calculate it for the following 10 years, and the number is around 32,000.
Turns out, Chandy said no such thing. AltNews instead unearthed a 2012 India Today report on Chandy’s responses in the state legislature—where he said that 2,667 women converted to Islam over a six year period—between 2006 and 2012. The number is confirmed in this 2016 New Indian Express piece, as well. Chandy was clear that there was no evidence of forced conversion—and he certainly didn’t mention the Islamic State.
Key point to note: The trailer has since been changed. The 32,000 figure has been removed—and it now claims to be “a compilation of the true stories of three young girls.”
The Islamic State recruitment claim: There is no doubt that IS has become more active on the subcontinent. A 2019 paper published by think tank Observer Research Foundation found there were 180-200 cases of IS supporters in India:
These are individuals who have either displayed an inclination to travel to West Asia to join the caliphate, or in fact did so; as well as a sizable number who are currently being prosecuted by law enforcement agencies and the courts.
Of these, 40 were from Kerala—the largest number from a single state. The most recent number we have is from the 2020 Country Reports on Terrorism issued by the US State Department. It identifies 66 known Indian-origin fighters affiliated with the Islamic State.
As for women recruits: There are no hard numbers. But a police official told BBC News: "One needs to check the records but our estimate is that there are not more than 10-15 women who have got converted and left to join the IS from Kerala since 2016."
The ‘true story’ claim: Numbers aside, Sen insists that the stories of the three women in his movie are true:
We are telling the story of three girls. One girl is right now in Afghanistan jail. One girl committed suicide and her parents are still waiting for justice. One girl has been raped repeatedly and now she’s in hibernation because her perpetrators are hounding her.
Setting aside the mirch masala, the Taliban has confirmed that four women from Kerala who joined the Islamic State are in jail in Afghanistan. These women were also interviewed by Indian security officials—and in 2020, Stratnewsglobal.com—a strategic affairs website—published a video of the interrogation of three of them. But here’s the irony: the Indian government doesn’t want them back:
One line of thought was to allow them to come back and become an approver in the cases here. However, their interview revealed that they are highly radicalised. The France model may be followed and the Afghanistan authorities can be requested to put them on trial there.
Point to note: In these video interviews, none of the women appear to have been tortured or coerced. For example, one of them says:
My husband did what he wanted and I can’t say I regret I came, I got three years more with him. Otherwise, he would have left me and gone. That was for sure. And once I reached there, I was not involved in anything. We were in the house, we weren’t exposed to any brutalities, we were not involved. We were not aware of it… We lived a very normal life. We were not exposed to anything
The bottomline: We predict the box office numbers for the movie will be dismal—especially in Kerala. That raises the big question: who is the intended audience of this film? Or was it made precisely to monopolise the public debate—forcing all of us to debate IS conspiracies in the state. If that’s the case, ‘The Kerala Story’ has been a grand success.
The Quint offers more on Sudipto Sen. The ORF paper on IS sympathisers lays out why Kerala is a relative hotbed of activity. If you want the shorter version, read this book excerpt in The Print. The Hindu and The News Minute have details of the four women in the Afghan jail. Watch the StratNews video of their interviews here. Alt News has the best fact-check of the movie’s claims. We also did an excellent Big Story on the history of love jihad—and anti-conversion laws in India.