EXCLUSIVE: No Actor was ready, such was fear; The Kerala Story will shake up institutions: Vipul Shah

The brave cast of The Kerala Story speaks about Islamic fundamentalism, challenges, controversies, Kerala government’s apathy as they gear up for the release of the most anticipated film

MUMBAI | Updated: 30 April, 2023 10:58 pm IST

As The Kerala Story, a movie based on the indoctrination of girls by ISIS terrorists, is scheduled to release on May 5 ahead of the Karnataka elections, The New Indian’s executive editor Rohan Dua speaks to the brave star cast in ‘Catch The Stars’.

The movie draws parallels to the 2017 case of a young woman, who changed her religion to Islam against the wishes of her parents.

The case drew attention to the case of women from Kerala who were converted to ISIS brides. Four of them travelled to Nangarhar, Afghanistan, where their husbands were killed in military operations.

The women were among thousands of Islamic State fighters and affiliates who surrendered before the Afghan authorities in the months of November and December 2019.

Was such conversion part of a terror war against India? Or the perpetrators of such crimes only wanted romance.

Is ISIS still a threat? The brave star cast, actor Adah Sharma, director Sudipto Sen and producer Vipul Shah, explain why they took such a risk in approaching this subject.

Rohan Dua: Can you shed light on the subject of The Kerala Story?

Sudipto Sen: The 2017 Hadiya case is what triggered this film. Hadiya was first converted and then she was reconverted. She was attacked in Trivandrum. After the attack, she decided to go back to her village in Kasaragod. When she reached her village, she realised her house was burned to the ground. I started following the story from there.

After research, I realised that it is the sinister plan of ISIS and Al-Qaeda to traffic the girls from Kerala who are vulnerable. In Kerala, the Muslim population is very high and Christians and Hindus are very few. This triggered Islamic extremists to target Kerala girls. That became The Kerala Story.

Rohan Dua: Do you feel that the subjects of ISIS and love jihad are intertwined?

Sudipto Sen: Saddam Hussain in 2008 already said why are Islamists getting busy making atom bombs when Islam sanctions ‘population explosion’. So, Kerala is a breeding ground for them. They are successful in doing that.

Rohan Dua: How difficult was it for you (Vipul Shah) to get an actor to do this script?

Vipul Shah: When I looked at the research material and met those girls, I thought this human tragedy had to be told. Not to get into an intellectual debate on this issue, but for me, it was about saving our daughters. I believe that if this film can save a few girls, its purpose is fulfilled.

When I met girls who were victims but got lucky and came back home, I was in tears listening to their stories. I know when the film releases, I will be told it’s a propaganda film, we are stooges of A, B, C, D, you took money from XYZ to malign a certain religion and community, but the truth is uncomfortable. This truth is going to shake certain institutions.

When we wrote the film, we thought no actor was going to agree to do it because of the threat that comes with the role. But Adah accepted it and she has done a terrific job.

Rohan Dua: How difficult was it for Adah to come to terms with the fact that such barbarism exists in any part of the world?

Adah Sharma: I felt like a lawyer for these girls. Because every day on the set, I am the one who gets to speak for these girls. I am the medium through which this story can be told.

Yes, there were some difficult scenes, but I don’t think I can even compare them to how difficult it was for those girls. I am on set. I can call it a cut anytime when there are some physically tough scenes. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I felt empowered when I was doing these scenes.

Rohan Dua: There is an oblique reference to Amnesty International, what is it about?

Sudipto Sen: Many human rights organisations are involved in the facade of human rights. They are doing a lot of illegal activities. When we were doing the research, we found many links. These human rights organisations have been exposed internationally in South America, the Middle East, and even East Africa. So, we have made little mention of that. Organisations like the Ford Foundation and Amnesty International have researchers working on ‘disturbed democracies’. If there is no disturbance, they will create disturbance, and then they will act.

Rohan Dua: How proud do you feel that this film can bring justice to innocent women?

Vipul Shah: We all will feel proud of ourselves when justice is done with these girls. When the perpetrators are put behind bars forever.

Sudipto Sen: History will remember Vipul Shah for this film as a producer who, without any help from any studio, invested his hard-earned money in this film when he was not sure whether this film would see the light of day.

Rohan Dua: You approached the Kerala government or the police to ensure what you were reporting in this movie?

Vipul Shah: If you are making a film like this and your facts are not correct, then you will get discredited. The film will be discredited. Because of all of our mistakes, the girls who are suffering will suffer more injustice.

There was a reference to the number of women who have been trafficked from Kerala to the Middle East to become suicide bombers – 32,000. This number was doubted when the teaser was released. We have a lot of evidence, but we decided to file an RTI. We got an address to a website that unfortunately doesn’t exist. Everybody can interpret it in their own way.

Sudipto Sen: We went to 14 districts in Kerala and went to the police headquarters to ask for the number of girls missing in the last 10 years, the number of girls rescued, and the number of girls registered. We were told DGP Kerala would get back to us in 15 days. It’s been 4 months since there has been no response.

Rohan Dua: Do you actually believe today in the modern world that wearing a hijab to an academic institution is okay?

Vipul Shah: I’m a very strong believer in freedom and liberty. But one should also respect the laws that are made by that particular institution. You can decide not to get into that institution if you don’t like the laws, but once you are part of that institution, you need to follow the laws of that particular institution. Or you can find an institution that will allow you to practice whatever religious belief you follow.

Rohan Dua: In one of the scenes, there’s a pregnant woman being murdered by a man. Where did you get all these images from? And another dialogue is Islam mein husband ko khush rakhna zaruri nahi hota, shukr banao ki khana bana rahi ho, sochlo ki ye dard sehna zaruri hai

Sudipto Sen: We don’t want any kind of controversy. But the scenes are based on the stories of girls in Kerala with whom we interacted.

Vipul Shah: The film is not about religion. We have shown what we heard from girls in their testimonies: that they went to this. In every scene in the film, the girls have experienced those moments.

Rohan Dua: Do you actually believe, Adah, that atheism is leading to this sort of problem?

Adah Sharma: I’ve always been told that God resides in every living being. So, I respect every living being. I try to live with kindness and love; that is the religion that I follow. Love is the religion that I follow.

Rohan Dua: In some scenes, you show how during indoctrination Hindu gods are disrespected; don’t you think it can come under IPC Sections 295 A and 295 – hurting religious sentiments?

Vipul Shah: It is the duty of every human being to respect another’s religion. In three of our interviews (with the rescued girls) one common thread emerged that their religious beliefs were broken. And as their beliefs broke, a process of indoctrination started.

The dialogues in the film related to Lord Ram and Shiva are also from the testimonies of the girls. These scenes can hurt religious sentiments. But it was important to show it because when the person sees how indoctrination happens, they become aware.

Rohan Dua: You say that these are the testimonies of girls, but have you ever felt that Hinduism is disrespected?

Vipul Shah: I would not tolerate that from anyone. But the victims are those who cannot give it back. And in this process, the victim starts breaking down.

Our aim is to caution people. This technique can be used on you. But how you save yourself is a mechanism you have to develop.

Rohan Dua: What about the film crew? Did they feel uncomfortable in the making?

Sudipto Sen: People can call the film propaganda if they want. But we have crew members who are five-time namazis. We also had a girl on the set who taught the actresses how to tie a hijab.
We got congratulatory messages for our preview from our Muslim crew members.

Vipul Shah: I have worked with many Muslims in my life, and I have a very good bond with them. This is an example of creative freedom. When you work in a crew where 30-40 per cent are Muslims and you are working without any hesitation or suppressing your feelings. If you watch this film with a neutral lens, you will not feel it is against any religion.

Rohan Dua: Were your families against the film?

Adah Sharm: My mother was actually very proud. My father is no more, but I am sure he would have been proud of me.

Vipul Shah: When I told my wife (acclaimed actress Shefali Shah) I was doing this film, she said, if the girls are suffering, we’ll deal with what comes. You do it.

In this country, there’s a debate about the end of democracy and the lack of creative freedom. I am interested in knowing what the reaction of those who say there’s no creative freedom will be to the release of this film.

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