What ‘The Kerala Story’ and ‘The Old Guard’ share

I was rewatching The Old Guard last week; the film is a bit of a favourite because a) Charlize Theron and b) it explores, even if in passing, the sometimes horrific terms on which science feels free to progress.

But last week, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported something that places The Old Guard on the same footing as The Kerala Story, the film that alleged that “32,000 women” had been converted to Islam and recruited to ISIS in the state, in one specific way.

The first time Merrick is introduced in the film, he’s talking about his company’s work on a de-aging technology based on telomere extension. Telemores are the ‘caps’ on the ends of chromosomes, “the long twisted strings of DNA carrying the cells’ genes”, per The New York Times. When the cell replicates, its telomere shrinks by just a little. At some point, the telomeres become too short and the cell dies. Scientists also found that younger people have longer telomeres.

They put these two together and figured that longer telomeres equal longer lifespans. This is how telomere-extension science was born.

In The Old Guard, Merrick’s company, of course also called Merrick, is intent on rolling out a de-aging solution based on telomere extension. To this end, the company abducts three of the film’s immortals and has them chemically debilitated while the chief scientist extracts tissue from their bodies and Merrick promises them he will “slice” them for years until the company has a solution.

The Old Guard is science-fiction, at the time it was released because of the idea that a small number of people can live for many thousands of years. Now, it is also science-fiction because it claims that telomere extension can reverse aging.

The new study found that telomeres can only be so much longer before they start to cause disease, just like shorter telomeres. In particular, researchers associated telomeres longer than the ‘normal’ range with a higher risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Part of the problem with The Kerala Story is one that we have seen in many films before, on less provocative but nonetheless equally controversial topics. We had the same issue in Mersal (Tamil), which falsely claimed a higher GST rate and collection on medicinal drugs than was the case in reality. Enthiran 2.0 (also Tamil) claimed that Kirlian photography is true and legitimate, whereas its reality is as a claim advanced by a Russian scientist and later established as pseudoscience.

Mission Mangal (Hindi) went a step ahead, calling the Van Allen radiation belt a debris field and that ISRO fashioned an instrument onboard the Mars Orbiter Mission with a “self-healing” material. Neither, of course, is true (among other similar claims).

I don’t recall if any of these films included a disclaimer that they contained fictionalised elements, but as each of them also shows, the problem is that unless we know something inside-out, we can’t know which parts are fictionalised and which aren’t.

Featured image: A scene from the film The Old Guard. Source: Netflix.