By Amanda Wilson, August 9 2022—
The art of film is intended to open the mind of viewers but unfortunately, Indian-born and Toronto-based filmmaker Leena Manimekalai has had to endure sentiments of extreme hate and face threats from a large group of right-wing Indian nationalists — the supposed cause for such violence being a response to her 2022 documentary poster for her film Kaali which had offended conservative Indians who are targeting her online.
The backlash against Kaali has highlighted the violent intentions of extreme right-wing citizens in India that claim to preserve Hindu culture. Rather, these citizens have explicitly ignored the practice of tolerance within Hinduism and have decided to practice a doctrine that is oppressive, hegemonic and embraces toxic conservative ideals.
In Hindu culture, Kaali is the goddess of ultimate power, time and change. She is highly revered amongst Hindu people, so when the poster for Kaali depicted the goddess smoking a cigarette and holding the LGBTQ+ flag was released, many had found the portrayal to be offensive and sacrilegious.
“My film Kaali will be offensive to misogynists, to queer-phobics, to the absolutists who want to establish a monolithic patriarchal Brahmanical Hinduism,” Manimekalai had stated to Frontline.
Although the film was to be screened by the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto as a part of its Rhythms of Canada festival — many anti-LGBTQ+ Indians had felt the need to take it upon themselves to launch attacks of harassment and voice death threats towards Manimekalai.
Most of the harassment has taken place over social media, but Manimekalai has utilized the platforms to expose nationalists and misogynists. Although she has been living in fear, she refuses to succumb to the terror.
“These trolls are not only after my artistic freedom but also academic freedom,” said Manimekalai in an interview with Scroll.in. “If I give away my freedom fearing this mindless mob mafia, I will give away everyone’s freedom. So I will keep it, come what may.”
The threats had ranged everywhere from sexual assault to beheadings. There were multiple messages threatening Manimekalai to never land in India or she would be killed — even more frightening, there have been attempts to doxx her location. A court in India has even called a summons and notice order against Manimekalai. But where did the popularity of right-wing extremism in India stem from?
Recently in India there has been a widespread surge of extreme nationalism, and many blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since Modi was elected as leader in 2014, his government has enacted some developments to improve the quality of life for Indians — but his party is known for valuing protectionist international trade policies, a commitment to Hindutva, anti-farmer laws and has been running an exclusionary agenda against the Muslim population. Combining these sentiments from the party, it was inevitable that some of the party’s followers would further push a nationalist and Hindu extremist agenda online as well.
Kaali, as a film, makes for an interesting case study when looking at extremism inspired by the state because the ideology of Hindutva. In a sense, Hindutva operates as the same doctrine as Hinduism. The difference is that Hindutva seeks to accept Hinduism as a universal ideology, and purposely ignores Hinduism’s sentiments of tolerance to suit the political agenda of the BJP.
Within India there are Hindutva loyalists who feel entitled to voice threats towards a film that is being made in Canada and is being screened in Canada. Ideological entitlement, protectionist policies and extremism seem to come together as a package. A similar case can be seen with Québec’s Bill 21 — where citizens who work in public service are forbidden from wearing religious symbols. Bill 21 directly affects marginalized citizens that identify outside of Christianity groups — as it is easy to hide a cross, but not a hijab or a kippah.
The controversy surrounding Manimekalai’s documentary also highlights issues of ideological censorship. Supporters of the BJP are entitled to their opinions just as much as Manimekalai is hers. However, the sentiments of hate and death threats are unacceptable. One of the biggest issues stemming from BJP supporters is the idea that many wish to push India into a state that is homogeneously ethno-religious — and laws being passed are supporting this sentiment.
The active use of censorship within the media is the most powerful tool that extremists may wield to push their agenda of state homogenisation. By attacking Manimekalai, extremists are also setting a precedent for any other Indian-nationals that may feel the need to express opinions that go against the BJP’s ideology. The real danger is that these minorities may not afford the same type of distance as Manimekalai, and their only options are giving into suppression or facing violence.
One of the most prominent examples of issues pertaining to censorship was the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — where thousands of protesters were murdered by government soldiers for opposing the ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The massacre has since been censored by the CCP within China to discourage retaliation against the government and to maintain a uniform ideology towards the government. If censorship laws persist in India, there runs a risk that minority groups are more vulnerable to acts of hate and violence.
“Art must be free. Because it gives freedom. It is free art that gives room to all of us to collectively resist,” said Manimekalai to Frontline, despite there being attempts to censor her. “Collective resistance is the only hope in defeating fascism.”
Kaali was a piece that was intended to reflect on multiculturalism within Canada, but rather it was met with brazen threats and sentiments from a group of nationalist Hindus whose agenda holds no moral implications or jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the voices of extremists in India have been loud enough to reach the Indian High Commision in Canada. The embassy had put out a statement urging a pull of the poster that is a “disrespectful depiction of Hindu Gods.”
Within Canada the Aga Khan has pulled the screening of Kaali amidst the controversy.
The brutal critics of Kaali wish to promote Hinduism as a homogenous, intolerant and repressive religion. However Manimekalai resists these attacks and stands by the belief that Hinduism encapsulates diversity and atman — belief of the soul, regardless of race, religion or sexuality. The erosion of Hinduism is not through the representation of Kaali as a feminist and LGBTQ+ supporter — the erosion takes place through sentiments of hate.
This article is a part of our Voices section.