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Beware the Film Critics
Who is really offended by The Kerala Story?
12 May, 2023
IT DOESN’T MATTER whether The Kerala Story is a good movie or a bad movie. Every week good movies and bad movies are released. And every other day good books and bad books are published. It does really matter when a government bans a movie or a book—no matter good or bad—or when an organisation, religious or secular, calls for a ban. Still, a bonfire of blasphemies and empty screens telling a story of banished scenes won’t go away. What is at play is the politics of offence, which is as old as imagination, and what offends them most is not bad art but what they perceive as bad representations of faith or ideology, gods or prophets, saints or national icons. They don’t have to read a book before burning it, and they don’t have to watch a film before ordering its boycott. In the politics of offence, ‘hurt’ is a useful sentiment, and it multiplies when distributed in the ghettos where anger is power.
It was the ghettos, by the way, that added to the anxieties of this century. The alternative to the wretchedness that sprawled across the Middle East was born in the minds of the chosen redeemers of faith, revolutionaries armed with the Book and the Sword. Ghettos that provided the foot soldiers. They were tutored to become god’s mercenaries, fighting in this godforsaken world for the realisation of a paradise elsewhere. There was nothing for them in this world of profanities, and to die as a martyr was to reserve a ticket to eternal pleasures. The new radicals found purity and perfection in the alternative world with scriptural legitimacy. The Islamic State grew from fantasy to reality in the sandy remoteness of the Levant because radical Islam didn’t separate political ambition from scriptural right, and out there, the ghettos of what Naipaul would have called half-made societies supplied the warriors. We saw those images, men in balaclavas wielding the sword of retribution, hovering over the victims in orange robes—a videotaped message of how much they reject the world of others and its values. We saw them marching out of the offices of a satirical magazine in Paris after killing its editorial staff, invoking their god. We also saw other victim nations periodically joining the prayers of those who survived the terror with a religious tag. It was a haunted road to paradise only nihilists who claimed god’s mandate could traverse.
The Islamic State, a scriptural fantasy in search of a geographical space, was bound to fail. Its only success was in radicalising the mind. It promised what its ideological predecessors did, with some modification of course: it was not heaven on earth but heaven itself. It industrialised the cult of sudden death. The Book was the cause, and to kill and to be killed was a revolutionary duty. One scholar of Islamic rage argued that it was not the radicalisation of Islam but the Islamisation of radicalism. That is to deny the inherent theology of domination in the scriptures itself, as argued by unrepentant dissenters like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The passions of radical Islam, as espoused by its most ardent apostles, provided a hopeless generation in those ghettos of wretchedness with a dream, as revolutions always did. The jihadist dreamed in the blood of the enemy. The possibility of an enemy is the prerequisite for any revolution. They crossed deserts to find one.
Maybe The Kerala Story is getting disproportionate attention from unlikely film critics because it portrays the journey of some such romantics. The story, no matter with what degree of aesthetic sophistication it is told, is certain to offend those who find any inconvenient conversation on political Islam “Islamophobic”. So why are we surprised? In the now-familiar liberal condescension, certain identities, ethnic or religious, deserve a suspension of the norm. Then there is also no reason to be alarmed by the adjective to the Story. Kerala has always been an ideal place for dream chasers—and it has a history. The state’s fascination with distant revolutions is only matched by its ingenuity in naturalising them. Communism may no longer be an ideological enterprise, even if the spectre still haunts comrades of a certain vintage. Expediencies of power and hollowness of slogans keep it alive as an electoral force. The new revolution, as news reports suggest, is not subaltern but subterranean, and it too draws its energy from distant lands. Radical Islam’s new romantics have taken the romance further by joining the global jihad.
Someone has made a movie about it. So what?
About The Author
S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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