When I was 10 or 11 years old, I seriously considered converting to Christianity. I had been listening to stories from the Bible from my Catholic friend and found that world, that moral order, the certainty of character, neatness of destiny, and brevity of storytelling irresistible. We would spend PT classes walking around the edge of the crowded tennis court, my friend narrating parables that hypnotised me. Alongside, I was filled with worry and guilt—how Catholic of me, you might chuckle—wondering how I would break the news to my parents, both proud, practising Hindus.
At that age of flux, it did not feel like a playful fascination, or like Piscine Patel from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi stumbling upon one religion, then another, then another, until he believed in everything. It felt like a profound shift, because I recognised that you do not accumulate but switch religions, and to switch religions was to switch lifestyles—there was something larger, more tectonic here.
My mother was horrified. She suggested I read about Sai Baba’s miracles if I was so entranced by magic. Around this time Sai Baba’s chapati was circulating in my extended family—where you placed a chapati morsel inside a box, prayed and meditated, and over a week it would flower into a whole chapati.
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But like every new, seductive story, Christianity’s grip too weakened over time. I had mistaken the beauty of the story for the beauty of the belief and having discovered the distinction, moved on to Dahl and Potter. Even so, I have always wondered, what if that grip had hardened instead? What if it had drawn blood—from me, from my loved ones?
The anxiety of conversion
Conversion is considered a cultural betrayal. When Dalits convert from the cruelty of caste Hinduism to casteless Buddhism, it is, at best, framed as a political act. But there is still a profound civilisational anxiety attached to it. Even when Article 25 of the Constitution, which grants the “freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion”, was being debated in 1948 in the Constituent Assembly, this fear was in the air. Of how it might lead to the “complete annihilation of Hindu culture” due to the “peaceful penetration” of Christianity. Today, as many as 10 States have anti-conversion laws in various stages of making, some being challenged in courts.
But there is something missing in this knee-jerk legal soup. What if we think about the act of conversion philosophically, rigorously? If conversion is considered a transaction—to materially alleviate people, send husbands to rehab and kids to school in exchange for embracing another god—that would make religion a product that can be bought and sold, whose value can be negotiated in the marketplace of ideas. That is hardly a controversial framing of religion.
Or there is the cultural impulse—to move towards a world view that is more true, more colourful, more persuasive, more modern. Robert Woodberry, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, attributes the “rise and spread of stable democracy around the world” to Protestant missionaries spreading mass education and mass printing. Conversion might also be tied to a spiritual quest, that you might be moved by a missionary’s zeal to truly believe that your soul could be saved by borrowed divinity.
All these choices, however odd, do not strike me as violent. It is when there is exertion—when people are “forced” to convert—that tempers flare. An individual story of such coercion or seduction is soon fleshed into a trend, and the trend narrativised into a threat and it is in the crosscurrents of such anxiety that a poisonous film like The Kerala Story gets made.
That director Sudipto Sen and producer Vipul Amritlal Shah are liars and opportunists is not up for debate. In the shadow of The Kashmir Files’rabid success, they released the teaser for their film, then titled The Kerala Files, with a bizarre statistic: “32,000 women”. This number placed alongside threats of conversion and human trafficking was a clever ploy to make the problem seem galactic.
The number was found to be unsubstantiated, something Sen produced from a back-of-the-envelope calculation. A previous Chief Minister of Kerala had cited that between 2,800 and 3,200 people annually convert to Islam. Sen took 3,200 and abstracted it over ten years to arrive at 32,000, then used this number to create a story of how many Hindu women in Kerala have been brainwashed into fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq in burqas and sneakers.
When the case went to Kerala High Court, the producers decided to remove the number from all promotional material. It did not matter, however, for the film was already out in the open, minting crores, the number seared into the fabric of the culture wars that are fought on grounds beyond fact and fiction.
The first thing the film does, cleverly, is to refuse the distinction between forceful and consensual conversion. The assumption is that every conversion is an act of violent coercion. That conversion is itself violent. I do not mean to imply that conversions are not happening or that some conversions are not part of an ISIS conveyor belt of recruits. Many girls have gone missing. Many parents have given their testimonies. These are facts.
But if this is the story, how to tell it? A lot about whom a film respects can be gauged from whom it gives agency to, whom it allows doubt, resistance, complexity. But in its blinding hatred of Muslims, the film forgets that the story it is telling is of the women. By making the women silly, brain-dead, and unironically innocent, it tries to whip up sympathy and frustration. If a film cannot respect its protagonists, see their journey as a complicated or moving evocation of the self, how can we?
The Kerala Story’s non-linear structure begins with a woman being caught by the UN forces. They think she is an ISIS terrorist, but she is actually escaping the ISIS and narrates her story—of how she was once a Hindu girl, studying nursing in Kerala, and was seduced into marrying a Muslim man who indoctrinated her into joining the ISIS. The film flips between Kerala, Afghanistan, and the present.
The non-linearity of the film exposes its fragility, because if it had opted for a linear style, the sheer exasperation of listening to the dialogues convincing her to first take up the hijab, then embrace Islam, then marry a Muslim, then join the ISIS, would defeat even the most patient cultural crusader. Here is an example of form enabling substance. The film’s frenetic back-and-forth allows it to make these transitions appear smooth. Linearity would make apparent the disjointedness, the shocking suddenness of the transition.
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Like The Kashmir Files, The Kerala Story is greedy in its impulse to demonise. So, it includes Muslims and Marxists/Communists within its cross hairs. In The Kashmir Files, there was the explicit villainisation of a JNU-like professor; here it is the Communist father and atheist mother who refuse to instil in their daughter any sense of being “Hindu”, which leaves her vulnerable to conversion. Odd, because atheism is not a vacuum of cultural thought. It is the rejection of a certain kind of cultural thought.
But this film privileges cultural education over a rational one, pretending that this will create a bulwark against conversion. It is an argument I have heard in many dining rooms—that Hindus do not have a strong sense of culture; no mandatory prayers five times a day, no mandatory Sunday temple visit. Hindus do not inscribe their faith as deeply into the fabric of daily life, leaving them vulnerable to conversion. What gets lost here is a fundamental belief in freedom—that culture emerges from society, it should never be imposed upon it.
Hatred as identity
It is this anxiety to “save” Hinduism that produces cultural garbage like The Kerala Story, where the desire to be Hindu is expressed as reactionary and not as an innate instinct. In The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, the love for India and for Hinduism is predicated on hatred for Islam. Ask these filmmakers what they believe in, and they will probably answer with what they do not believe in; ask what they stand for, and they will speak about what they stand against. Their ideology is built on the foundation of antagonism. Hatred is their identity.
It could be argued that a Bengali man, a Gujarati man, and a Punjabi man wrote and directed a film about a Malayali woman, set in Kerala, played by an actress born and raised in Maharashtra, who is speaking a force-fitted Hindi that is accented comically with Malayalam, as a plea for pan-Indian cinema, a gesture of cultural concern. But flip this coin and you find patronising intent, one that expresses concern as acid, love as hatred, and pride as anxiety.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.