Leena Manimekalai’s Kaali too deep for the pious?

The sequence which caused the outrage was not about Kaali smoking, but Manimekalai dressed as Kaali, taking a break from the “performance” and smoking a cigarette offered by a homeless person

Leena Manimekalai’s Kaali too deep for the pious?
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Namrata Joshi

As I write this piece, Indian filmmaker and poet Leena Manimekalai has been moved to a “safe home” by Toronto Police.

In the latest development related to her new film Kaali, that has been in the eye of the storm for over ten days now, both Toronto Metropolitan University that hosted the programme that the film is a part of, and Aga Khan Museum that exhibited the programme have been “pressurised by the Indian High Commission to issue a regret statement”, she says, adding, “The university I belong to, York University, stands by me and my work.”

Manimekalai, originally from Madurai in Tamil Nadu, is currently in Canada pursuing Graduate Fellowship of Academic Distinction programme at York University, Toronto.

All hell broke loose earlier this month when she tweeted a poster to announce the launch of her performance documentary Kaali. The sight in it, of goddess Kaali smoking, with a Pride flag in one of her hands, led to FIRs against her in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh for “hurting religious sentiments” with the “objectionable and offensive” poster. Subsequently Indian High Commission in Ottawa asked the Canadian authorities to withdraw the ‘provocative material’ and Twitter withheld the tweet in India “in response to a legal demand” even as threats of rape and beheading, the vitriol, violence and misogyny against her continued unabated on social media.

“Will @TwitterIndia withhold the tweets of the 200000 hate mongers?!” asked Leena in a tweet. “Kaali cannot be lynched. Kaali cannot be raped. Kaali cannot be destroyed. She is the goddess of death,” she said.

It brought Kaali—her many avatars, embodiments and interpretations—into public discourse. But what about the film itself ? Somewhere in the intense hatemongering, the documentary, its theme and intent seem to have got lost. There’s certainly more to it than the decontextualised interpretations of an image on the poster.

“Nobody has seen the film extract except those 50-odd people who had attended the launch on Canada Day celebrations,” says Manimekalai. The director’s cut is not yet ready. Grading, mixing is pending. “It was shot as proof of concept for a long form film,” she says.

Kaali is a performance documentary done as an academic project for the programme “Under the Tent”, managed by Canadian Chair of Excellence in Research Creation (CERC—Migration) at Toronto Metropolitan University. Manimekalai was chosen as one of the 18 cohorts who are film graduates across Canadian Universities. “As a current Master of Fine Arts graduate student in Film at York University, I had participated in the programme and Kaali is my creative piece on ‘Multiculturalism in Canada’,” says Manimekalai.

The six-minute extract which was shown at the event (which NH has also seen) is about Manimekalai, dressed as Kaali herself, interacting with people on the streets of downtown Toronto. Always interested in deities rooted in tribal folklore, Manimekalai becomes the goddess in the same spirit. The goddess is also rooted in her own identity as a queer BIPOC Tamil filmmaker.

It is as though the spirit of the goddess has been let loose in the city by the night, more so in world of the marginalised and the disenfranchised. There is humour as well as poignancy in the way in which people respond to her, how she becomes a part of the human world and its concerns.

One such interaction that one sees snatches of in the extract is with a black homeless person in a park near Kensington Market. He offers a cigarette to ‘Kaali’ in a show of camaraderie while she enjoys reggae. That image has been the root of all the violent outrage on social media. Clearly, the sequence is not about Kaali smoking, but Manimekalai dressed as Kaali, taking a break from the “performance”.

Manimekalai says there are many layers to the film. And, in turn, as many ways of seeing. “I am mocking the thing called ‘multiculturalism’,” she says. According to her, as a filmmaker her commentary on the issue is through her presence as this indigenous feminine spirit embodied in Kaali. And the spirit appears and gets people react to her from their subconscious. Asians, Muslims, whites, blacks, men, women—how they react to her is her commentary on multiculturalism and diversity in Canada.

Kaali is then not about a goddess, faith, religion or spirituality so much as a repository of a gaze on people, communities and culture. “I am questioning the gaze. The exotic gaze on brown skin can be a metaphor for Kaali and the brown gaze on the rest of the cultures in this is that of the Pagan goddess,” she says. It’s these intersections and overlaps, conversations across races and ethnicities as well as conflicts and collusions that the film is all about. It is about “being, becoming and belonging”.

“I am also trying to understand settler colonialism and this farce called land acknowledgement,” she says. It gets reflected in a most compelling interaction with a First Nations.

“Documentaries give you these kind of surprise moments,” she says of the indigenous person’s interaction with the goddess. “He came straight to me and declared that it was his land, but he feels like a refugee, in turn saying that everybody else has colonised them,” explains Manimekalai.

Outspoken that she is, Manimekalai doesn’t mince words in pronouncing Canadian multiculturalism as a farce, despite the oft spoken inclusivity. “They are keeping it as some kind of a ‘zoo’. Maybe Kaali is visiting an open zoo”.


This is not the first time that the filmmaker has found herself in the eye of the storm. Political to the core, she has been in solidarity with filmmakers from conflict zones, recently with those in Ukraine and Afghanistan, on the one hand. On the other she been consistently working with the subaltern—Dalit, Adivasi, refugee communities.

Her second and most popular feature film till date, Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale, is about Puthirai Vannaar community, a Dalit caste group whose enforced job is to wash clothes of other Dalits, the dead and the menstruating women. Their sight is considered polluting by the ‘upper’ castes. Even among them, some are more equal than others, depending on which Dalit caste group they wash clothes for.

She has been outspoken on the issues of film censorship, gender, caste, MeToo and even her perception of Dalit masculinity and the “hierarchies” and “toxicity” within the community. “Gender is a huge operator in discrimination. It’s a monstrous tool of oppression. Within caste, gender becomes doubly discriminatory…A Dalit man is better off than a backward community woman like me…”, she wrote in a column for NH.

She has questioned the conscious invisibilisation of Maadathy, even on platforms devoted to caste annihilation, by labelling it as a work of a shudra and not of a Dalit filmmaker. “I never claim I am making anti-caste cinema. I never claim I am making perfect cinema. I am very much aware of my location, and I am making a conscious choice of showing solidarity with the communities I think I should be standing with,” she once told me.

She is gutsy enough to say that she is willing to pay for her convictions even with her life. Yet a part of her has been left vulnerable, violated, disgusted, and choked. “No one deserves these mountains of hate,” she writes to me.

Certainly not in the name of Kaali.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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