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Bollywood plays its part in India election season dominated by Modi

Critics say The Kerala Story incites negative sentiments against India's minority Muslim community
People ride past a poster of a Hindi movie titled “The Kerala Story”, outside a cinema in Mumbai, India May 9, 2023. Reuters
People ride past a poster of a Hindi movie titled “The Kerala Story”, outside a cinema in Mumbai, India May 9, 2023. Reuters

A Bollywood film about young Indian women recruited by Islamic State has sparked renewed controversy ahead of India’s elections, with the opposition saying its screening on national TV on Friday night could “sow seeds of religious animosity”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to win multi-phase national elections that begin on April 19, partly thanks to his consistent wooing of the majority community as well as to strong economic growth and handouts.

The BJP has also fielded many actors in the elections, votes from which will be counted on June 4.

But Bollywood’s involvement in the election takes a complicated turn on Friday night when The Kerala Story, set in the southern coastal state of the same name that is run by an opposition party, is aired on government-owned national broadcaster Doordarshan.

The small-budget movie, a surprise hit since its release last summer, follows three women who are indoctrinated and convert to Islam from Hinduism and are then sent to Islamic State camps in Afghanistan.

Critics say the film incites negative sentiments against India’s minority Muslim community.

As Doordarshan is free for consumers, the channel reaches many homes right across the country.

“Doordarshan is not an agency to undertake communal campaigns for BJP candidates,” Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, said in a statement regarding the airing of the film.

“Secular Kerala will stand united in resisting such subversive attempts aimed at fostering communal discord.”

The main opposition Congress party has also spoken out against the planned airing.

The federal ministry for information and broadcasting, which runs Doordarshan, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A BJP minister said the screening had nothing to do with politics.

“A movie is a piece of art and the expression of art is guaranteed in the constitution,” V Muraleedharan, a junior foreign minister who is also from Kerala, told reporters.

The BJP has little presence in many southern Indian states like Kerala but is keen to win more seats there in its bid to secure more than 400 in total for its coalition out of the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament.

The movie, which Modi has praised publicly, is among a string of Hindi-language films released since last year and which have appealed to BJP’s Hindu nationalist base.

In the run-up to the vote, several nationalistic films including a biopic on Hindu ideologue Vinayak Savarkar have been released in theatres this year.

“Things are changing,” Randeep Hooda, who directed, produced and acted in the biopic, told Reuters. “It’s a different country; these are different times and therefore there are different movies being made,” he said, adding: “Nationalistic films have done well in the past.”

Another film, The Sabarmati Report, focuses on an incident where a suspected Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, sparking one of India’s worst religious riots since independence.

It is due to be released in May, in the middle of the nationwide voting period.

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The Kerala Story