- Currently a student at Toronto’s York University, Leena Manimekalai is facing outrage for an alleged disrespectful depiction of a Hindu Goddess and purportedly hurting religious sentiments.
Leena Manimekalai, an Indian film director currently studying in Canada, has stirred the hornet’s nest over the poster of her new film, which depicts Goddess Kaali smoking a cigarette and clutching an LGBTQ+ flag. On July 3, the young filmmaker and student at Toronto’s York University posted an image introducing her short film “Kaali,” on her social media handles.
Since then multiple complaints were lodged against her in places like Lucknow, Delhi and Assam, and she’s been receiving threats of violence from several right-wing groups, as well as the wrath of social media trolls allegedly for a “disrespectful depiction” of a Hindu Goddess and “hurting religious sentiments.” The film was aired at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto last weekend.
She wrote and directed the film as part of her graduate film studies at York University. In the film, Kaali inhabits Manimekalai’s body and wanders the city streets in a search for belonging. In a scene depicted on the film’s poster, she shares a cigarette with a homeless man while dressed as the goddess.
In several recent interviews, Manimekalai has said that although she was raised as a Hindu in Tamil Nadu, she is now an atheist. She has also denied that her film was disrespectful to the goddess or Hinduism.
Despite the growing outrage, Manimekalai tweeted another photo on July 6 that irked her critics even more. The photo shows two people smoking while dressed in the costumes of Lord Shiva and a Hindu goddess.
Speaking to The Guardian, she defended her right to cultural freedom and freedom of expression in her art, and said she “vehemently opposes censorship that comes within and from outside.” She told the British daily that in rural Tamil Nadu, Kaali is believed to be “a pagan goddess,” who “eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks arrack, smokes beedi [cigarettes] and dances wild. And that’s Kaali I had embodied for the film.”
Noting that the trolls have “nothing to do with religion or faith,” she told The Guardian that she has “all rights to take back my culture, traditions and texts from the fundamentalist elements.”
However, she told the paper that she feels like “the whole nation —that has now deteriorated from the largest democracy to the largest hate machine – wants to censor me,” adding that she does not “feel safe anywhere at this moment.”
In an interview with The Federal, she said “the current Hindu fundamentalist fascist regime has erased all the rich legacy of democracy, diversity and pluralism of this country. These bigots have nothing to do with faith. They are dividing the people in the name of religion and cashing on hate.”
Meanwhile, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, which hosted the screening of the film, issued an apology, saying the film and poster had “inadvertently caused offense to members of the Hindu and other faith communities.”
A few days later, the microblogging site Twitter removed the controversial July 2 tweet. Reacting to Twitter’s action, Manimekalai asked whether the social media platform would also withhold posts by “hate mongers.”
This is not the first time that she has courted controversy. Her debut feature, “Sengadal, and her follow-up film, “Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale,” came up against the Indian censorship board. She was also one of few who spoke out as part of the #MeToo movement and has accused another filmmaker, Susi Ganesan, of sexual harassment. Ganesan filed defamation charges against her, and she temporarily had her passport impounded. It was because of the confiscation and the pandemic that she couldn’t reach Toronto until earlier this year, she told the quint. “I had to wage a four-tier legal battle and get the clearance from the Supreme court of India to be able to travel, study, and work.”
Several Twitter users criticized the depiction of the goddess on the poster calling it an insult to Hinduism. Many have called for legal action against the filmmaker. Several issued a “Hinduphobia alert.” Others asked for all religious sentiments to be respected.
Hindu human rights activist Rashmi Samant, former Oxford Student Union, feels Manimekalai’s “documentary is an attempt in the increased efforts to demonize, vilify and erase the oldest surviving indigenous faith and its faithful followers.”
Similarly, activist and author Renee Lynn, tweeted that “hurting Hindu sentiments by mocking Hindu Gods is the tool used by Hinduphobics like Leena Manimekalai, artists, comedians & Bollywood because they get away with it.” However, she noted that the same people “will never mock Mohammad because they know there will be dire consequences.” Lynn’s Twitter handle describes herself as a “voice to save India from secularism,” and a “patriot to save America from radical left.”
Twitter user captsgupta wondered why the filmmaker didn’t “experiment with religion other than Hindu.” He warned her not to India for granted, and threatened to have Prime Minister Narendra Modi “drag you on the streets of Canada.”
Rahul Shivshankar, editorial director and editor-in-chief of Times Now, noted that “the so-called free speech advocates cannot be selective.” He wondered why “all those who bayed for legal action against Nupur Sharma” are silent over Manimekalai
Meanwhile, ophthalmologist Ajay Kamath wrote that Hindus who “used to pride themselves on being much more tolerant than rigid Abrahamic religions, now seem to want to take umbrage at every other interpretation of our Gods and Goddesses than the one that suits us.”
Audrey Truschke, Associate Professor of South Asian History at New Jersey’s Rutgers University’s Newark campus also took to Twitter. “Another black mark for India as its thought police strike again,” she tweeted. “Those filing such FIRs are very ignorant of Hindu traditions, especially the wide latitude of opinions, irreverence, and political commentary expressed over time.”
Amid the row, her old tweets on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Lord Ram also surfaced on social media. In a 2013 tweet, she had stated that she would “surrender my passports, ration card, pancard and my citizenship if ever Modi becomes this country’s PM in my lifetime.”
A 2020 tweet by the filmmaker that is currently going viral on the internet reads, “Ram is not God. He is just a BJP invented the Electronic voting machine.”
With all the hate, Manimekalai may be dejected, but she’s optimistic. In a tweet in Tamil written on July 5, she said she will continue to use her voice fearlessly till she is alive. “I have nothing to lose. Till the time I live, I wish to live with a voice that speaks what I believe without fear. If the price for that is my life, it can be given.” She also urged people to watch the film “to understand the context behind the poster.”