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An Indian film director is facing multiple police cases for “hurting religious sentiments” over the poster for her new film, which depicts the Hindu goddess Kaali smoking a cigarette and clutching an LGBTQ+ flag.
Leena Manimekalai, an Indian film-maker currently based in Canada, was attacked online with thousands of threats of violence, rape and death after the poster of her short film, Kaali, which was aired in the Canadian city of Toronto on the weekend, went viral on social media.
A hashtag, “arrest Leena Manimekalai”, began trending. On Tuesday, two police cases – one in the Indian capital, Delhi, and another in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh – were filed against the director and others involved in the film for a “disrespectful depiction” of a Hindu god and allegedly “hurting religious sentiments”.
The Indian High Commission in Canada also issued a statement, saying they had received complaints from members of the Hindu community over the poster and “urged Canadian authorities and the event organisers to withdraw all such provocative material.”
Manimekalai wrote and directed the film as part of her graduate film studies at a Toronto university. In the piece, the goddess Kaali inhabits Manimekalai’s body and wanders the city streets in a search for belonging. The scene pictured on the film’s poster captured a moment where she was sharing a cigarette with a homeless man while dressed as the goddess.
The Aga Khan Museum, who hosted the screening of the film in Toronto, issued an apology that the film and poster had “inadvertently caused offence to members of the Hindu and other faith communities.”
Manimekalai, who was born and raised Hindu in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu but has now distanced herself from her religion, denied that her film was in any way disrespectful to the goddess or Hinduism. She defended her right to cultural freedom and freedom of expression in her art, and stated she “vehemently opposes censorship that comes within and from outside”.
“In rural Tamil Nadu, the state I come from, Kaali is believed to be a pagan goddess,” she said. “She eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks arrack, smokes beedi [cigarettes] and dances wild … that is the Kaali I had embodied for the film.”
In the days since the film’s poster appeared online, Manimekalai said that she, her family and collaborators had received threats from over 200,000 accounts online, which she described as a “grand scale mass lynching” by right wing Hindu groups.
“I have all rights to take back my culture, traditions and texts from the fundamentalist elements,” she said. “These trolls have nothing to do with religion or faith.”
Manimekalai’s film is the latest in a long line of projects, from films and television series to adverts, comedy and theatre, which have been accused of “hurting Hindu religious sentiments” in India in recent months, in what many see as a rapid erosion of freedom of expression and the cultural sphere under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Over the weekend, a theatre performance in the state of Karnataka was halted by a right-wing Hindu vigilante group because it contained Muslim characters and showed a Hindu-Muslim relationship.
Both Manimekalai’s debut feature, Sengadal, and her follow-up film, Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale, came up against the Indian censorship board. The director was also one of few who spoke out as part of the #MeToo movement, and has accused film-maker Susi Ganesan of sexual harassment. Ganesan filed defamation charges against her, and she temporarily had her passport impounded.
“It feels like the whole nation – that has now deteriorated from the largest democracy to the largest hate machine – wants to censor me,” said Manimekalai. “I do not feel safe anywhere at this moment.”
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