The image, which featured on a poster for her indie film ‘Kaali’, has sparked national debate in India, with local politicians, diplomats and police among those accusing director Leena Manimekalai of offending religious sentiments .
The film, which uses an alternate English spelling of the goddesses’ names, was among 18 works set to explore multiculturalism at Metropolitan University of Toronto’s “Under the Tent” showcase at the Aga Khan Museum.
Described as a “performance documentary”, it imagines the Hindu goddess “going down on a queer filmmaker” and seeing Canada – and its diverse peoples – through her eyes, Manimekalai explained.
“She’s a free spirit. She spits on patriarchy. She dismantles Hindutva (an ideology that seeks to transform secular India into a Hindu nation). She destroys capitalism. She embraces everyone with a thousand hands. “
Kali “chooses love” and accepts a cigarette from “working class street dwellers”, Manimekalai added in an email.
A promotional poster, which features the director dressed as Kali, shows the Hindu goddess smoking and holding aloft a rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBTQ community.
Manimekalai, originally from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and currently a graduate of York University in Toronto, shared the poster on Twitter on Saturday. It quickly went viral, prompting furious responses from some Indian social media users, many of whom called for his arrest. Within days, tens of thousands of tweets had appeared with the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai.
In a statement, the school added: “We are committed to equity, diversity and inclusion while respecting the diversity of beliefs and points of view in our society.”
Manimekalai expressed his disappointment with the two institutions, accusing them of having “bartered academic freedom and artistic freedom to save themselves”.
“It is sad to see these institutions operating in a sovereign country like Canada bow to the international enforcement of the totalizing Hindutva narrative and the relentless nullification of freedom of expression.”
Torrent of abuse
The director attributes the anger of the online response to what she called a “mercenary troll army” made up of BJP supporters and right-wing nationalists. She said members of her film crew were doxed, while her family and friends were also abused online.
Manimekalai claims she was the victim of “incitement to hatred” on thousands of social media accounts. Dozens of screenshots, shared with CNN by the director, appear to show threats of violence, including direct death threats.
Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, time and apocalypse, is revered throughout India. Wife of Shiva, she is often depicted in blue or black, with a long tongue and multiple arms.
Manimekalai argues that his depiction of the goddess is consistent with his own religious interpretation.
“In rural Tamil Nadu, the state where I come from (…), she eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks (the alcoholic drink) arrack, smokes beedi and dances wildly “, she said, adding that this was the version of Kali that “I grew up with and … I portrayed in the film”.
Manimekalai plans to complete a director’s cut of “Kaali”, with a view to screening it at a film festival.
“I will continue to make art,” she said.
Top image caption: A photo of the filmmaker.