Filmmaker faces death threats over controversial poster of Hindu goddess
Oscar Holland, CNN
A Toronto-based filmmaker says she received a barrage of death threats and abuse from Hindu nationalists in India after depicting the goddess Kali smoking a cigarette.
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 inhabitants — 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 Released on Monday, India’s High Commission in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, urged the country’s authorities to “take action” against what it called “disrespectful representation”. The Aga Khan Museum – after screening a clip of the film over the weekend – later announced that Manimekalai’s work was “no longer being shown”.
“The Museum deeply regrets that one of the 18 short videos of ‘Under the Tent’ and the accompanying social media post have inadvertently offended members of Hindu communities and other religious communities,” it said Tuesday. the museum in a press release.
Toronto Metropolitan University also distanced itself from the film, expressing “regret” for “offending”.
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 application of the totalizing Hindutva narrative and the relentless nullification of freedom of expression.
The controversy played out all week on TV debates, where critics argued that Manimekalai’s portrayal had disparaged a sacred figure. Indian lawmakers also weighed in, with Vinit Goenka, spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), calling the image an “insult to all Indians”. Indian-Canadian politician Chandra Arya also expressed concern, writing on Twitter that seeing the poster had been “painful”.
Delhi and Uttar Pradesh state police have filed formal complaints against the director, according to CNN affiliate CNN-News18, although Manimekalai said she had received no official notification.
Torrent of abuse
The director attributes the anger of the online response to what she called a “mercenary troll army” 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 has been the victim of “hate” 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.
In the state of Uttar Pradesh, Hindu religious leader Mahant Raju Das has released a video in which he threatens the filmmaker with beheading. The Times of India meanwhile reported on Thursday that police in Tamil Nadu had arrested a woman over another video containing threats against the director.
The controversy is one of many instances in which depictions of Hindu gods have drawn accusations of religious insensitivity – from Nestlé removing wrappers from KitKat chocolate bars featuring various deities to Rihanna facing backlash for posing breasts nudes with a pendant of the god Ganesha.
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 I come from… she eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks (the liquor) arrack, smokes beedi and dances wildly (ly),” she said, adding that it’s the version of Kali that “I grew up with and… embodied in the movie.”
Manimekalai plans to complete a director’s edit 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.
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