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‘Will invite critics to watch’, says ‘Kaali’ film-maker after backlash over goddess poster

Leena Manimekalai’s poster for documentary, showing a woman dressed as Goddess Kali smoking a cigarette, has led to calls for her arrest. I have nothing to lose, she says in response.

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New Delhi: Tamil film-maker Leena Manimekalai said Monday that she stood by the poster of her new documentary Kaali, which has drawn backlash in India and has led to a police complaint over its portrayal of the Goddess Kali. 

Amid social media calls for her arrest, the Madurai-born Manimekalai told ThePrint that she would “invite all the critics to watch it”. 

“Any open-minded person will be touched by her,” Manimekalai told ThePrint.

The poster of Manimekalai’s new film Kaali — which she tweeted on 2 July— shows a woman dressed up as the goddess and smoking a cigarette. This image is set against the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ community. 

The documentary was part of a festival called Rhythms of Canada at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.  

An advocate in Delhi, Vineet Jindal, has filed a complaint against the filmmaker with the Intelligence Fusion & Strategic Operations (IFSO) of the Delhi Police over the poster. 

“The poster by Leena is really derogatory and inflammatory in terms of religious sentiments. We cannot allow such objectionable pictures in movies,” he told ThePrint, adding that it could even lead to “incidents” such as the ones that came on the back of a now-suspended Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson’s comments on the Prophet Muhammad in a television debate in May.

“I have nothing to lose,” Manimekalai said in a tweet in Tamil after the hashtag #arrestleenamanimekalai trended on Twitter. “As long as I am alive, I would like to voice, without fear, what I believe in. Even if my life is the cost.”    

Also Read: ‘Racist film, take it down’ — Movie on Prophet’s daughter triggers protests in UK

Previous brush with trouble

If the complaint against Manimekalai turns into a first information report, she could face charges under sections 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class) and 298 (uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings) under the Indian Penal Code.

The film-maker told ThePrint that her documentary was inspired by local myths about the deity descending on people at temple festivals. 

The film, she said, was about the goddess “descending upon a BIPOC queer Tamil filmmaker and takes a quintessential trip of being, belonging and becoming in the streets of Downtown Toronto”.

It’s common to see people dressed as Kali drinking, smoking, and dancing at such festivals, Manimekalai, who’s currently doing her master’s in film at York University, Toronto, told ThePrint.

This isn’t Manimekalai’s first brush with trouble: the film-maker, who has two internationally-acclaimed movies, Madathi and Sengadal (the Dead Sea) to her credit — both in Tamil — almost had her passport impounded in 2021

She was one of two women who spoke up against Kollywood director Susi Ganesan during the ‘Me Too’  movement against sexual misdemeanors in 2018.  Ganesan filed several cases against her, including criminal defamation. He also moved a petition at the Saidapet Metropolitan Magistrate Court to have her passport impounded in November 2020.    

On 8 February 2021, however, the regional passport office in Chennai issued her a notice asking her to explain why her passport shouldn’t be impounded because of the “criminal trials” pending against her.

She has seen everything from rape threats to attacks on her followers, Manimekalai told ThePrint.  

“In the history of human civilisation, artists are the first targets for fascists. But art has always survived through the violence, oppression, wars, and stayed witness to every human destruction,” she said. 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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