One wonders why not many claimed that Caliphate was a propaganda' film, though it had strikingly similar storyline as The Kerala Story'? Why recent films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala story (the two K films') are being labelled propaganda' films by many? PTI
Two college going sisters are brainwashed by an ISIS recruiter in their college to join ISIS in Syria. In just a few months, the girls are ‘prepared’, they go against their parents and take the flight to an ‘exciting world’ of ISIS. What follows is a painful journey filled with violence, sufferings and agony inflicted by the bad world of religious fanatics. Does that sound like the plot of the film ‘The Kerala Story’? Actually, it is not. It’s the story of ‘Caliphate’, a Swedish web-series released around 2020.
One wonders why not many claimed that Caliphate was a ‘propaganda’ film, though it had strikingly similar storyline as ‘The Kerala Story’? Why recent films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala story (the two ‘K films’) are being labelled ‘propaganda’ films by many? Afterall the makers of the two K films claimed that their films are based on true stories and incidents. The K films attracted a large audience who were drawn back to housefull cinema halls after a long Covid break. And still, some other sections of the society were asking for a ban on the K films which a few states indeed implemented even as the makers of the K films whined about attacks on freedom of expression. A battle between ‘FoE’ and ‘Progaganda’ has once again broken out. But why did the K films feel like propaganda, at least to some?
Now dive into the details. In the two ‘K films’ there were hardly any ‘good’ guys from the Muslim community whereas Caliphate had mostly Muslim characters – some good, some bad. Caliphate showed a really ‘bad’ Muslim teacher who brainwashed girls to join ISIS. But Caliphate also had a liberal father who was a forward-looking Muslim upset at his daughter who gave up playing basketball because she was told it was ‘haram’. In Caliphate, there are enough number of moderate characters from the same community. And there lies the fundamental difference between two ‘K films’ and Caliphate.
Most things aren’t black and white – there are always shades of grey (yes, sometimes it’s more grey). When one narrates a story (real or imaginary) it is storyteller’s moral responsibility to balance both the sides (black and white) of a community or a section that is being portrayed. Storyteller needs to walk the fine balance of forcefully criticizing a bad ideology of violence and hate while avoiding showcasing entire communities or sections as bad. In a film story, if sufferer is always from section A and perpetrator of crime is always from section B, the film starts to feel like propaganda. And that is what seems to have happened in the two K films. It was similar to agenda-driven people on twitter who 24X365 outrage only selectively by posting about only one-sided stories to reinforce that community A is good and community B is bad.
The two K films could have been careful in making their stories more balanced, nuanced and subtle in their messaging. The Kashmir Files could have included the fact that there were also moderate Muslims who were killed by the terrorists or fought the terrorists in the Kashmir conflict. The Kerala Story could have shown that there were many Muslim girls too sent to ISIS whose parents were opposed to their decisions. With such balance, the K films could have been seen more as a story of good ideology vs bad ideology rather than that of section A of the society versus section B. A filmmaker’s story needs to make the good people feel proud & victorious and bad people feel guilty and exposed of their ideology irrespective of which section or community they belong to. Not only is it morally correct to show both the sides of a community, it is also politically correct to show the positive side of a community to take them along in the journey of fight against the evil.
The Indian filmmakers of two K films have taken the first step of daring to take up difficult subjects which were earlier rarely touched upon. Now, the filmmakers taking up such subjects need to take the second step of making their storytelling more balanced, subtle and nuanced. A few more years and hopefully, it shall happen.
The article is authored by Alpesh Patel, author Chalta Hai India, Bloomsbury.