Kali poster: India court summons director Leena Manimekalai

·4 min read
Leena Manimekalai
Leena Manimekalai's tweet of the poster from her new film Kaali sparked anger in India

A court in India has summoned a filmmaker who earlier shared a poster depicting a woman dressed as Hindu goddess Kali smoking a cigarette.

Director Leena Manimekalai's tweet of the poster from her new film Kaali had sparked anger in India.

The Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali is worshipped by millions of people.

Ms Manimekalai's tweet on 3 July had generated thousands of responses from angry Hindus, who accused her of offending their religious sentiments.

Her name trended on social media in India as many called for her arrest.

The Indian High Commission in Canada said on 5 July that it had asked the organisers of the event, where Ms Manimekalai's film was to be screened, to withdraw the "provocative" poster.

It added that it had also conveyed "complaints from leaders of the Hindu community in Canada" to the organisers.

On 6 July, police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh registered a complaint against Ms Manimekalai for the "disrespectful depiction" of Hindu gods. Subsequently, two more complaints were registered by the Delhi police.

And a lawyer filed a case in a court in the capital, Delhi, accusing Ms Manimekalai and her company of depicting the goddess in "a very uncalled for way" and asking that they be restrained from further promoting the poster or any videos from the film.

The court has issued a summons and notice to the director and her company. The case will next be heard on 6 August.

The filmmaker, who is currently studying in Canada, earlier told the BBC that the goddess in her film "champions humanity and embraces diversity".

"As a poet and filmmaker, I embody Kali in my own independent vision," she said, defending the poster.

The director, who is from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is a film student in Toronto. She was among 18 graduate students chosen under a programme managed by the Toronto Metropolitan University to make works on multiculturalism.

The film, Ms Manimekalai says, is a "candid shoot" of herself dressed up as a goddess walking the streets of Toronto.

"In my film, Kali chooses me as a spirit, holds a Pride flag and a camera in her hands and meets the First Nations (indigenous people), the People of African, Asian, Persian descent, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims and the mini-universe that one can capture across any cross-section of Canada," she says.

Ms Manimekalai says that the scene in the poster depicts the goddess showing love as she "kindly accepts the cigarette from the working-class street-dwellers at the park around the Kensington Market".

She also adds that in village festivals in southern India, people often dress up as Kali, drink country liquor and dance.

"We artists cannot be choked by the climate of fear. We need to be louder and stronger," she said.

Goddess kali idol, Tarapith, West Bengal, India - stock photo
Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, is worshipped by millions of people

Deities are a recurring theme in Ms Manimekalai's filmography. Her 2007 documentary Goddesses was screened at the Mumbai and Munich film festivals. Her 2019 film, Maadathy - An Unfairy Tale, told the fictional story of how a young girl from a marginalised caste group is immortalised as a deity.

But the depiction of religious figures on screen is a sensitive issue in India. In 2015, the country's censor board demanded several cuts in the Bollywood film Angry Indian Goddesses, which showed images of Hindu goddesses.

Many other filmmakers and actors have faced protests for portraying religious themes or references in their movie.

India has also recently seen major protests from Muslims over comments made by a Hindu politician about the Prophet Muhammad. Police in Rajasthan state arrested two Muslim men who allegedly killed a Hindu man - in a video, they said the act was in retaliation for his support for the remarks. Five others have also been arrested in connection with the murder.