A Toronto-based filmmaker says she has received a deluge of death threats and abuse from Hindu nationalists in India after she depicted the goddess Kali smoking a cigarette.
The image, which featured on a poster for her independent film “Kaali”, has sparked nationwide debate in India, with politicians, diplomats and local police reportedly among those accusing director Leena Manimekalai of offending religious sentiments.
The film, which uses an alternative English spelling of the goddesses’ name, was among 18 works intended to explore multiculturalism at the Toronto Metropolitan University’s “Under the Tent” showcase at the Aga Khan Museum.
Described as a “performance documentary,” it imagines the Hindu goddess “descending onto a queer female filmmaker” and viewing Canada — and its diverse people — through her eyes, Manimekalai explained.
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“She is a free spirit. She spits at 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, who is from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is currently a graduate fellow at Toronto’s York University, shared the poster to Twitter on Saturday. It soon went viral, eliciting furious responses from some Indian social media users — many of whom called for her arrest. Within days, tens of thousands of tweets had appeared with the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai.
In a statement published Monday, the Indian High Commission in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, urged the country’s authorities to “take action” against what it called a “disrespectful depiction.” The Aga Khan Museum — having screened an excerpt of the film over the weekend — then announced that Manimekalai’s work was “no longer being shown.”
“The Museum deeply regrets that one of the 18 short videos from ‘Under the Tent’ and its accompanying social media post have inadvertently caused offense to members of the Hindu and other faith communities,” the museum said in a statement Tuesday.
Toronto Metropolitan University also distanced itself from the film, expressing “regret” at having “caused offense”.
In a statement, the school added: “We are committed to equity, diversity and inclusion while at the same time respecting the diversity of beliefs and points of view in our society.”
Manimekalai expressed her disappointment with the two institutions, accusing them of having “traded off academic freedom and artistic freedom to save their skin.”
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“It is sad to see these institutions operating in a sovereign country like Canada bowing down to the international enforcement of Hindutva’s totalizing narrative and relentless quashing of free expression.”
The controversy played through the week on TV debates, where critics argued that Manimekalai’s portrayal had disparaged a sacred figure. Parliamentarians in India have also weighed in, with Vinit Goenka, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calling the image an “insult to all Indians.” Indian-born Canadian politician Chandra Arya also expressed concern, writing on Twitter that seeing the poster had been “painful.”
Police in both Delhi and the state of Uttar Pradesh have filed formal complaints against the director, according to CNN affiliate CNN-News18, though Manimekalai said she has not been served any official notices.
The director blames the angry online response on what she called a “mercenary troll army” of BJP supporters and right-wing nationalists. She said that members of her film crew have been doxed, while family and friends have also received online abuse.
Manimekalai claims that she has been subjected to “hatemongering” from thousands of social media accounts. Dozens of screenshots, shared with CNN by the director, appear to show threats of violence, including direct death threats.
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In Uttar Pradesh state, Hindu religious leader Mahant Raju Das published a video in which he threatens the filmmaker with beheading. The Times of India meanwhile reported Thursday that police in Tamil Nadu had arrested a woman over another video containing threats against the director.
The controversy is one of a growing number of instances in which depictions of Hindu gods have attracted accusations of religious insensitivity — from Nestl? withdrawing KitKat chocolate bars wrappers featuring various deities to Rihanna facing backlash for posing topless with a pendant of the god Ganesha.
Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, time and doomsday, is worshipped throughout India. The wife of Shiva, she is often portrayed as blue or black, with a long tongue and multiple arms.
Giant statue of the Hindu Goddess Kail at a Hindu temple in Kadaloor, Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images
Manimekalai maintains that her depiction of the goddess is consistent with her own religious interpretation.
“In rural Tamil Nadu, the state I come from… she eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks (the alcoholic beverage) arrack, smokes beedi and dances wild(ly),” she said, adding that this is the version of Kali that “I grew up with and … have embodied 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.