The image featured on the poster for her independent film Kaali sparked a national debate in India, reportedly including politicians, diplomats and local police accusing director Lina Manimekalai of offending religious feelings.
The film, which uses an alternative English spelling of the goddess’s name, was among 18 works designed to explore multiculturalism in the Toronto Metropolitan University’s “Under the Tent” exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum.
Described as a “performance documentary,” it depicts a Hindu goddess “coming down on a strange female filmmaker” and looking at Canada – and its diverse people – through her eyes, Manimekalai explained.
“She is a free spirit. She spits on patriarchy. It destroys Hindutva (an ideology that seeks to turn secular India into a Hindu nation). It destroys capitalism. She embraces everyone with a thousand arms.”
Kali “chooses love” and accepts cigarettes from “working street dwellers,” Manimekalai added in an email.
A promotional poster showing the filmmaker dressed as Kali shows a Hindu goddess smoking and holding a rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT community.
Manimekalai, from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, currently a student at York University in Toronto, shared the poster on Twitter on Saturday. It soon went viral, prompting an outcry from some Indian social media users, many of whom called for her arrest. Within a few days, tens of thousands of tweets appeared with the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai.
In a statement, the school added: “We are committed to fairness, diversity and inclusiveness while respecting the diversity of beliefs and viewpoints in our society.”
Manimekalai expressed her disappointment with the two institutions, accusing them of “sacrificing academic and artistic freedom to save their own skins”.
“It is sad to see these institutions operating in a sovereign country like Canada bow to international coercion of total Hindutva storytelling and ruthless suppression of free speech.”
A flood of insults
The director blames the angry online backlash on what she called a “troll army for hire” from BJP supporters and right-wing nationalists. She said her film crew members were doxed and family and friends were also subjected to online abuse.
Manimekalai claims she has been subjected to “hate speech” from thousands of social media accounts. Dozens of screenshots shared by the director with CNN show threats of violence, including direct death threats.
Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, time and the day of judgment, is revered throughout India. The wife of Shiva, she is often depicted as blue or black, with a long tongue and many arms.
A giant statue of the Hindu Goddess Kail at a Hindu temple in Kadalur, Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images
Manimekalai claims that her portrayal of the goddess is consistent with her own religious interpretation.
“In the countryside of Tamil Nadu, where I come from…she eats meat cooked with goat’s blood, drinks (alcoholic beverage) arrak, smokes a bidi and dances wildly,” she said, adding that this is a version of Kali with whom “ I grew up and … embodied in the film.
Manimekalai plans to complete a director’s cut of Kaali for a film festival screening.
“I will continue to make art,” she said.
Top image caption: Photograph of the director.