'My Kaali Is Deeply Rooted in Tribal Folklore': Leena Manimekalai Defends Film Poster

Following the release of her poster for her latest film ‘Kaali’, the filmmaker has been subjected to immense social media backlash.

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Chennai: Filmmaker and poet Leena Manimekalai is no novice when it comes to controversy.

Over the last two decades the artist, who hails from Madurai in Tamil Nadu, has faced immense criticism for bringing to screen the caste discrimination and exploitation faced by young girls who are handed over to temples. Manimekalai has also in the past stood up against the Central Board of Film Certification to ensure the release of her documentary Sengada (2011), which highlighted the plight of fishermen from India who unknowingly stray into Sri Lankan waters. But even these battles had not prepared her for the backlash she has been facing for sharing the poster of her latest film, Kaali.

“My life is under threat,” says the filmmaker as she replies to The Wire‘s questions from Toronto, Canada, where she is currently residing. “The hate mongers are having a free ride doxxing my crew, my family and my friends’ accounts and flooding their handles with death threats. I am processing mountains of hate and filth. It is so gory that it is hard to breathe. Nobody deserves this violence.”

On July 3, Manimekalai posted an image introducing her film on her various social media handles. The poster showed the filmmaker herself dressed as Kaali, with blue paint covering her body as she held up one hand to her lips, taking a drag from a cigarette. And behind her, a pride flag representing the LGBTQI+ community is caught mid-flutter. In her captions, she mentioned that she was ‘super thrilled’ to share the launch of the film at the Aga Khan Museum for the ‘Rhythms of Canada’ festival.

Demands for arrest

Within hours of Manimekalai sharing the poster, the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai began to trend on Twitter, with thousands of social media handles across platforms demanding that the filmmaker be booked for ‘hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus’ and insulting the Hindu goddess. The filmmaker was accused of courting ‘cheap publicity‘, and she said that her DMs were flooded with death and rape threats and allegations of ‘destroying Hinduism’. Her older tweets were also dug up in an attempt to prove that she was ‘anti-Hindu’.

This further escalated and two FIRs have been registered against the filmmaker, one in New Delhi and the other in Lucknow. In Delhi, one of the complaints was filed by advocate Vineet Jindal who alleged that the poster has hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus as it shows the deity smoking. Another one was filed by Gau Mahasabha member Ajay Gautam, with similar allegations of the filmmaker deliberately outraging the religious feeling of the Hindu community.

The Delhi Police IFSO unit has reportedly filed the FIR under IPC sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class).

The FIR in Hazratganj, Lucknow meanwhile has been lodged under Sections, 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 295 (injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and sections 66 and 67 of the Information Technology (IT) Act.

Leaders from the BJP too have demanded that Manimekalai face retribution for the poster. Karnataka BJP leader K.S. Eshwarappa went as far as saying that those who insult Hindus “should be hanged or killed by bullets”. Another leader, Shivam Chhabra, filed a police complaint in New Delhi against her.

But when asked if she believes she has hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus, Manimekalai responds with a defiant no.

‘Kaali is not a Hindu goddess’

“These trolls are not human enough to have any ‘sentiments’ to hurt. They have nothing to do with Hinduism or faith. Their claim to Kaali as a Hindu goddess is a farce. Kaali is deeply rooted in tribal folklore. Her manifestations are embedded in regional and indigenous cultures and belief systems of South Asia beyond the Sanskrit-ised Brahmanical Hindu Religion,” she argues. “My Kaali is inspired from Tamil and Telugu village rituals where she comes on people as a spirit and eats meat, smokes ganja, drinks country arrack, urinates in the middle of the village, spits on filth and dances wild. I embodied her and chose to walk across the streets of downtown Toronto, the land of immigrants, to understand settler colonialism.”

A BJP leader responded to this argument by saying it does not justify Kaali being shown to be smoking in the poster. “Yes, we too see Kaali as a goddess with tribal roots. This is true of gods like Muruga and Krishna too. But we still pray to them across the country. So what is the point of this argument? Irrespective of the roots, we will not accept a picture of a God smoking tobacco, ” says Narayanan Thirupathy, a BJP spokesperson from Chennai. “Whenever these filmmakers are questioned, their first move is to divide our gods into Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical when we worship them all the same way. This argument is unacceptable.”

The film narrates the short tale of Kaali, the ‘pagan goddess’ descending upon a queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) filmmaker in downtown Toronto – in short on Manimekalai herself.

“My Kaali believes in love and sharing. She accepts the cigarette from a Black street dweller at a park around Kensington market in Toronto and listens to reggae,” she continues. “When Kaali descends on me, the Queer Filmmaker, she will definitely hold a pride flag and a camera. Kaali is my embodiment. I have performed as Kaali.”

The filmmaker further alleges that the trolling and threats all signal a larger political agenda.

“This country is being prepared for genocide of minorities and dissenters to establish Hindu supremacy. There is no politics played here. It is only orchestrated pogroms and riots. There is no place for “tolerance” in the politics of hate. We should not forget that BJP’s mother organisation RSS and its members are the murderers of Gandhi, the Father of this Nation – who preached tolerance and non-violence. These trolls are Godse’s little clones, trained criminals,” alleges Manimekalai.

‘Would you show other gods in this way?’

One recurring question that those criticising the filmmaker have posed is if she would “dare to portray and Islamic or Christian figure” in such a manner. To this, Manimekalai maintains that while she is an atheist who believes in science she has a keen interest in faith, folklore and oral traditions as an artist.

“According to Marx, religion is the opium of people. If a God created an unequal society and made millions suffer in the name of religion and caste, their very purpose of being a god is lost, says E.V.R. Periyar. Ambedkar declared that a religion which did not grant an individual primacy was not acceptable to him,” she says. “As a cultural worker, I want to reclaim my body, my texts, my traditions, my cultures, my sexuality, my desires, my knowledge and my folklore from the fundamentalists. That is fundamental to my art practice and existence which is ingrained in decolonisation.”

Following the unfavourable response she has received for the poster on social media, Manimekalai is of the belief that it is not merely individuals but a larger force that she is battling.

“Just search for #ArrestLeenaManimekalai and you will see thousands of trolls with verified ids virtually molesting, raping, attacking, lynching and morphing pictures doxxed from my accounts,” she points out. “Who sanctions them with this kind of mindless power? Who runs this hate mongering stack? They are just unleashed by the Hindu fundamentalist regime. Welcome to India, the killing fields of minorities, artists, activists, journalists and dissenters.”

Some artists and historians meanwhile have also come out in support of the filmmaker, defending her art. Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra too had stated at an event that she saw Kaali as a meat-eating and alcohol consuming Goddess when asked about the film’s poster. She reportedly even stated that you could see sadhus (Hindu ascetics) smoking at certain religious destination in West Bengal.

“That is the version of Kali people worship (over there). I, within Hinduism, being a Kali worshipper, have the right to imagine Kali in that way; that is my freedom,” the West Bengal leader had said. Later however, when the party distanced itself from the comments, the Krishnanagar MP claimed that she never backed the poster.

In Tamil Nadu meanwhile, the DMK has maintained a stoic silence regarding the backlash and declined comment when contacted.

Despite the social media attack and backlash however, Manimekalai strongly states that self-censorship will never be a choice for her.

‘I don’t let self-censorship come my way’

“Who would even imagine a possible FIR while making an academic project? My entire filmography and bibliography is politically charged and been called ‘disruptive’. I have paid a heavy cost all through my art practice for that. I am able to continue my free expression because I don’t let self-censorship come my way. I have fought legal cases against state censorship for most of my films and was able to even win them. But I have never found any useful ways to fight extra constitutional censorship from fringe groups and fanatics,” she admits.

Manimekalai says that her view of the BJP government’s involvement is further supported by the India High Commission of Ottawa’s letter to Canadian authorities asking them to take down all ‘provocative material’ related to the film after it apparently received complaints from leaders of the Hindu Community in Canada.

Following this, the Aga Khan Museum responded saying that the film was no longer being shown. In a statement issued on its website, the museum apologised for hurting Hindu sentiments and for causing any offence to the community.

“Toronto Metropolitan University’s project presentation was hosted once at the Aga Khan Museum on July 2, 2022 in the context of the Museum’s mission to foster intercultural understanding and dialogue through the arts. Respect for diverse religious expressions and faith communities forms an integral part of that mission. The presentation is no longer being shown at the Museum,” it said in its statement.

Manimekalai is not surprised by the Indian High Commission’s stand on the matter. She says it was only expected – but adds that her film will be a visual antidote to this vitriol and hate directed at her.

Priyanka Thirumurthy is an award-winning documentary maker and journalist based in Tamil Nadu. She covers gender, crime, politics, environment and cinema.