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Interview

‘The moment reflected in the poster is about shared love’

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

‘The moment reflected in the poster is about shared love’

 Leena Manimekalai.

 Leena Manimekalai.

Leena Manimekalai is unapologetic about her depiction of Kaali.

Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai is familiar to controversies: the 42-year-old filmmaker and poet has been ruffling feathers regularly, whether through her films depicting violence on Dalit women or poems celebrating lesbian love. However, what happened after she shared a poster of her performance documentary, Kaali, on Twitter on July 2 was unprecedented. The poster, depicting an actor dressed as the goddess Kali having a peaceful smoke in a park while one of her arms brandishes a Pride flag, was deemed offensive and the troll army descended in full force on Leena Manimekalai. Twitter removed the poster even as multiple FIRs were lodged against the filmmaker for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.

And then Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, where Kaali was being screened, issued an apology saying “The museum deeply regrets that one of the 18 short videos from ‘Under The Tent’ and its accompanying social media post have inadvertently caused an offence to the members of the Hindu and other faith communities.” Ironically, Kaali is Leena Manimekalai’s creative take on the theme of ‘Multiculturalism in Canada’ and, in the course of the film, the actor dressed as Kali can be seen silently interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds in Toronto.

Leena Manimekalai is unfazed. After Twitter removed the poster, she wrote on the site: “This is hilarous. Will @TwitterIndia withhold the tweets of the 200000 hate mongers?! These lowlife trolls tweeted and spread the very same poster that they find objectionable. Kaali cannot be lynched. Kaali cannot be raped. Kaali cannot be destroyed. She is the goddess of death.” Her film ends with Kali walking on in the city, her ankle bells ringing relentlessly, even if somewhat tiredly.

Here Leena Manimekalai talks about Kali the goddess and Kaali the film, the hatred she faced and why she isn’t giving up. Excerpts:

What does Kali represent for you? Why did you choose Kali for your film?
She is Mary Magdalene, She is Rahma. She is Sappho. She is Shekhinah. She is my ancestor. I chose Kali as she came naturally to me as the indigenous feminine spirit I wanted to embody for my performance. She is the manifestation of everything I want. She is a dark, naked, multi-limbed warrior with her anklet-clad foot on a rampage. Her lolling bloody tongue for me is the desire that refuses to be suppressed. I invoked her and took a soul ride of being, becoming and belonging in the city of Toronto I am currently living in. I filmed that soul ride, titled it as Kaali and presented it as my creative piece on Canadian multiculturalism.
The poster of ‘Kaali’.
The poster of ‘Kaali’.
Is the reaction to the poster entirely unwarranted? The poster is provocative after all.
My intention is not to provoke. The moment reflected in the poster is about shared love. Kali travels in the tram, listens to jazz, drinks cocktails, shares a cigarette and spends an evening with Torontonians from across cultures. If I had shown Kali in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning and washing, it wouldn’t have been labelled provocative. Kali with a Pride flag and a cigarette in her mouth proclaims her power, her choice and empowerment. So, everyone’s misogyny is getting exposed in the ugliest ways.
Is the movie complete as it stands now? Will the reaction its poster elicited from right-wingers change the way you originally planned the movie? Will the backlash be made a part of the story?
Kaali is an academic project; I have already completed the film but chose to show only the excerpt for the launch because of time constraints. Sixteen other creative works of film graduates from across Canadian universities were exhibited on July 2 at Aga Khan Museum. Toronto Metropolitan University micro-managed the project ‘Under the tent’ of which all of us were a part. I was representing York University, where I am currently studying and working as a graduate fellow.
By succumbing to fundamentalist elements, Toronto Metropolitan University and Aga Khan Museum have compromised on academic and artistic freedom. They have stated “we want to portray diversity to show everyone we care about it”, but the moment a modicum of bravery was demanded of them to support that exact diversity, they fell apart. With their cowardice, they have successfully allied themselves with a totalitarian regime and thrown scholarship under the bus.
There can’t be art without freedom. Given the present situation in India, will meaningful art become rarer?
India is now a Hindu supremacist state. The regime uses hate as a weapon to crush dissent and difference. It only approves of art that legitimises ruling forces and their aspirations and censors the rest. Art must be free. Because it gives freedom. It is free art that gives room to all of us to collectively resist. Collective resistance is the only hope in defeating fascism.
Should art cause offence?
If art can’t be offensive, can we really have art? The raison d’etre of the artist’s life is to offend, to disturb the status quo. But art’s intention to offend is to reshape the thoughts, rebuild the ideas, and regrow imaginations. My film Kaali will be offensive to misogynists, to queer-phobics, to the absolutists who want to establish a monolithic patriarchal Brahmanical Hinduism.
A still from ‘Kaali’.
A still from ‘Kaali’.
Indians seem to have become remarkably thin-skinned these days. Where does this insecurity come from?
I want to reiterate that the minions trained by the Sangh Parivar are not the only Indians or real ‘Hindus’. They are the foot soldiers of the ‘cyber pograms’ of the BJP’s IT wing who are periodically let loose on activists, artists and dissenters who do not subscribe to their grand plan of ethnic cleansing. It is an organised crime with a set script: Act 1 consists of heavy trolling, threats, abusing the target, Act 2 consists of manufacturing a climate of fear and moulding public opinion by shouting in TV studios and over megaphones, Act 3 consists of filing police and court cases. The climax consists of throwing the target in jail. It is a systematic political murder.
Trust me, if people with real faith feel offended, they simply avoid the offensive object, as a civil gesture. They don’t use their offence to threaten someone with death and rape. This loud little vicious faction uses every single opportunity to polarise people for political gain. They actually don’t care about any god or faith.
How should artists and intellectuals protest absolutist views? Can they change the course of things?
Our most urgent task today is to form a united front to fight absolutism despite all the political, religious, ideological differences that divide and shackle us. This is a necessity now. All those who suffer, all those who are oppressed, all those who desire freedom and dignity must come together to turn back the tide of fascism. To accelerate that, art in all its forms is more important than ever, just as it is more in danger than ever. We are hitting the peak of the graph in the indices of unemployment, price rise, inflation, poverty, gender disparity but the power-drunk regime systemically blinds the masses with talk of religion, with things that are actually non-issues. Art has to be alive to expose this loudly, fearlessly and relentlessly.
How are you handling the backlash?
Consider me already dead. It is a ghost who is speaking. And she will continue to speak.