Language Lessons from "The Kerala Story" and the Coronation of Charles
Updated: Aug 3
If you have not heard of the movie The Kerala Story, you are not an Indian. It was released recently and has sharply polarized public opinion. The movie revolves around a group of girls from the Indian state of Kerala who were brainwashed by a Muslim friend into converting to Islam. They were then radicalized and sent to join the Islamic State in Syria. Admirers of the movie say that it reveals the well-hidden truth about Kerala as a breeding ground of Islamist jihadis who systematically prey on vulnerable Hindu and Christian girls, converting them to Islam and then radicalizing them to do the bidding of their handlers. They say that the movie depicts the exploitation of women by Islamic extremists who have found a comfortable refuge in Kerala, that it is based on real-life events, and that it is a story of national importance that must be told. Critics of the movie dismiss it as a propaganda movie that demonizes Kerala and its Muslim community and that is inspired by the Islamophobic ideology of the movie's political backers, who do not have even a single representative in the legislative assembly of Kerala and therefore seize every opportunity to target the state.
So, what is the language lesson we can learn from the movie? It is the power of a commonplace word that we usually do not pay much attention to, the definite article (i.e., the). The definite article is the most important word in the title "The Kerala Story." It leads from the front — literally — by declaring that the movie tells the story that symbolizes Kerala, the story that tells what you need to know about Kerala, the most important story about Kerala. If, on the other hand, the movie had been called "A Kerala Story," the title would have admitted the existence of multiple Kerala stories, which is definitely not the message that the maker of the movie wants to convey. In fact, a recently released Malayalam movie about the 2018 Kerala floods, 2018, has the tagline "The Real Kerala Story," and many "real Kerala stories" portraying the religious harmony of Kerala have gone viral on social media. The pushback in mainstream media is sometimes indirect, as in this report in The Hindu, whose title reminds one of the movie's title: "Kerala: An Exemplary Story in Palliative Care." A sentence in the final paragraph of the report contains the phrase "the Kerala story" and delivers the following telling message: "Finally, the Kerala story exemplifies how diverse groups of people — across religious, caste, and gender divides — forged solidarities to create care infrastructure."
From Kerala, we turn our attention to the United Kingdom, where a new king was recently crowned, who thereby acquired the titles of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Around 30 years ago, Prince Charles had said he would be a defender of faith in general rather than a defender of the faith. It caused something of a stir then, because "the faith" referred to Anglican Christianity, the stream of Christianity founded by the Church of England. So, was the title changed from "Defender of the Faith" to "Defender of Faith" during the coronation of Charles? No! Tradition had its way, though numerous gestures to religious diversity were made during the coronation ceremonies, in recognition of the multicultural nation that the United Kingdom is today.
The is the most frequent word in English. It is the only definite article in the language, though other words such as this, those, they, and that also indicate definiteness. The definite article's function is to disambiguate, but it can sometimes be weaponized to powerful social and political effect.