Art & Entertainment

I Understand Kali As My Denied Existence: Leena Manimekalai

Before she sits down on a bench at night and shares a cigarette with two men of African descent, the woman dressed as a goddess had been loitering around in Toronto’s downtown for quite some time.

I Understand Kali As My Denied Existence: Leena Manimekalai
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Before she sits down on a bench at night and shares a cigarette with two men of African descent, the woman dressed as a goddess had been loitering around in Toronto’s downtown for quite some time. The people weren’t bothered but bemused. It’s a scene from Leena Manimekalai’s latest film Kaali, which has enraged many people in India for allegedly hurting their religious sentiments. Multiple FIRs have been lodged against her for depicting the goddess smoking a cigarette in the film’s poster. For Manimekalai, however, there isn’t any commentary except the gaze of the people on the streets. She says she is questioning the gaze, the exotic gaze on brown skin which can be a metaphor for Kali. The filmmaker, poet and queer activist says she embodied Kali, the termagant deity she knew of growing up in a remote village of Tamil Nadu.  She had earlier written a Kali poem in her 2013 collection Antharakkanni, the first-ever Tamil poetry collection on lesbian eroticism. In an exclusive interview with Outlook Editor Chinki Sinha, Manimekalai spoke from Toronto about her film and creative freedom. Edited excerpts:

What is the gaze that you question in your film Kaali?

I got bored of myself, my miserable reality and its limiting scenario. So I decided to become a fable. I embodied Kali, added an ‘a’ to it and that extra ‘a’ is the ‘is’ of the time and space I captured with the lens. And I create a fable by my embodiment and the time and space it unravels. I write and unwrite. I write by my  embodied presence. I unwrite by how the world around me is disrupted by my embodied presence. I perform and document the rupture the performance creates while it is happening. I gaze at the world with the indigenous feminine spirit and invite the gaze of the Torontonians of various descents and cultures and ethnicities. The illusive fabulousness of embodied Kali’s sudden appearance erupts the sense of reality and allows people to react from their subconscious. What we get is the exoticisation of dark skin and its illustrious presence by people of other shades of colour and white.

Your film has been described as a performance documentary. Could you tell our readers in brief what your film is about?

My preoccupations these days are embodied arts and language of cinema. Kaali is my creative piece submitted as an academic project for the programme ‘Under the Tent’ managed by the Toronto Metropolitan University. I embodied Kali, walked around the streets of downtown Toronto—the grand city of immigrants—and filmed the candid reactions of people across ethnicities, colour and cultures. As Kali descended upon me,  the embodiment included a pride flag and a camera in Kali’s gracious extra hands. The cigarette is the moment of love and sharing she had with a man of African descent at the park.

'Kali is my ancestor. Kali’s hands are my egregious excess. Kali’s tongue is my unsuppressed desire. Kali’s blue is the water in my mother’s and mother’s mother’s womb. Kali’s hair is my nest. Kali’s anklet is my language.'

Who is Kali? How did you come to understand Kali?

Kali is my ancestor. Kali’s hands are my egregious excess. Kali’s tongue is my unsuppressed desire. Kali’s blue is the water in my mother’s and mother’s mother’s womb. Kali’s hair is my nest. Kali’s anklet is my language. I grew up seeing Kali descending upon my people in my village, allowing them to live an anarchic existence briefly, eating blood soaked meat, intoxicating enough to urinate the land possessively and dance with their primal energy. I understand Kali as my denied existence.

Why did you use performance and embodiment in your film?

It is my way of hybridising the present. It is a temporal dis-identification, a displaced, a de-territorialised, disoriented performative survival strategy. I repeat, reject and instrumentalise cause-effect, subject/object temporality. I use the mythological and timeless figure to live in the long moment and to stage the dialectics of feelings. The killjoy comedy of the performance part is truly experienced in the relief of calling out the anachronism. Are we still dealing with this old thing? Is my body still read through the prism of this mythological image? It is about acknowledging my own contradictions.

What is multiculturalism and why did you think as an artist to address it?

To be honest, I feel multiculturalism is like a zoo. A social animal farm. Where everyone is made to believe that they are this species and this is how they behave and this is their legacy and this is their name. As an artist, I am trying to temporarily take everyone out of their cages briefly while roaming in my own safari.

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Life in a metro A still from the movie Kaali.

Your film addresses a lot of topics like land acknowledgment. Why did you decide to use an indigenous goddess to address those?

What I enjoy in documentary filmmaking is how it makes the whole process a sudden spring of surprises. In the film, an indigenous man comes directly to Kali to say how he was made a refugee in his land. He also says, “It is your land.” Indige­nous wisdom believes nobody owns the land.

What does the street mean to you? Is it a performance place?

As a Tamil, brown, queer woman, the street never belonged to me. Even performing as Kali on the streets of downtown Toronto, I did face borderline harassment. Someone was asking if we are shooting for a porn site. I walked the street with my bare legs for six hours of shooting. Even the goddess walks past the shit.

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As a woman, how do you see the world as a performance of gender roles?

Gender is a performance. Sexuality is conditioning. For me, coming of age is identifying my queer self. My adulting is to realise being queer is not about sexuality or gender. Being queer is about “flowing”. It is about being free of “meanings”. It is about “non-performing”.

What is artistic expression and what’s freedom? There has been a lot of debate over the years about the portrayal of deities by artists. How does that affect your expression as an artist?

Art is both being god and a devotee. Did god create humankind? Or humankind create god? I find total sense with this question, because sometimes I wonder if I write the poem or the poem writes through me. I live my freedom in art. I cannot express myself from a place of no freedom.  When it comes to religion, I want to quote Marx, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creatures, the heart of the heartless world and the soul of the soulless conditions.” I love to toy with the idea of god but I want to be free from religion. Maybe I can say my faith is in resistance. Resisting anything that accumulates power and starts violating the powerless.

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How do you see the female gaze as opposed to the male gaze?

I am pre-occupied these days with “queer gaze”. I am experimenting with queering the language, queering the lensing. Queering the time, queering the space. I want to disengage with the “dominant”.

Current political climate?

The world is becoming the tent of monarchies that are interested in one thought, one religion, one race. The supremacist forces want to throttle difference, pluralism and tolerance. Hate is their weapon to crush the population that refuses to obey. History is one single narrative repeating itself. Fascist monarchies have taken a long time to rise but have also fallen in less time. I want to believe in history for once.

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