Smoking goddess poster sparks row

Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai has courted controversy by tweeting a poster of her recent documentary in which Goddess Kali is shown smoking.

The poster has been slammed for its objectionable content and on Tuesday Delhi Police filed a case against her for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.

The director, who is from Tamil Nadu, is a film student in Toronto. She was among 18 graduate students chosen under a multiculturalism programme by the Toronto Metropolitan University.

Hours after the poster created an uproar last Sunday, Manimekalai issued a clarification on Twitter, saying the film centres on the events that take place one evening when Goddess Kali strolls on 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), people of African, Asian and Persian descent, Jews, Christians, Muslims and the mini-universe that one can capture across any cross-section of Canada," she told the BBC.

Manimekalai added that the goddess she depicts in her film "champions humanity and embraces diversity". "As a poet and filmmaker, I embody Kali in my own independent vision," she said.

Manimekalai, who tweeted in Tamil, went on to say that she did not have anything to lose and that she wanted to speak without fear.

In a subsequent tweet in Tamil, she said: "If the price is my life, I will give it."

The picture she tweeted last Sunday shows a woman dressed as the Hindu goddess and smoking a cigarette. A pride flag flies In the background.

The Madurai-born filmmaker tweeted that she was "super thrilled to share the launch" of the film at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto as part of its Rhythms of Canada segment.

The poster sparked outrage among Indians in Canada and India, with netizens slamming it for hurting Hindu sentiments.

Kali is sacred to Hindus, who consider her to be a source of power and symbol of good over evil.

Hours after her tweet, the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai trended on Twitter, with some seeking Indian Home Minister Amit Shah's intervention. A police report was made against the filmmaker in New Delhi by lawyer Vineet Jindal. He said such depictions should not be tolerated and legal action should be taken against her.

"The way this lady has portrayed Goddess Kali is completely offensive and objectionable," he said.

The Indian High Commission in Canada said it has received complaints from leaders of the Hindu community in Canada about "disrespectful depiction of Hindu Gods on the poster of a film".

"Our Consulate-General in Toronto has conveyed these concerns to the organisers of the event," it said. "We urge the Canadian authorities and event organisers to withdraw such provocative material."

The Aga Khan Museum on Tuesday expressed "deep regret" for inadvertently causing offence to the Hindu community.

"Toronto Metropolitan University's project presentation was hosted in the context of the museum's mission to foster intercultural understanding and dialogue through the arts," it said. "Respect for diverse religious expressions and faith communities forms an integral part of that mission."

Manimekalai asked people to choose "love over hate" amid the negative feedback.

"If you see the picture, don't post the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai, post the hashtag #loveyouLeenaManimekalai," she said.

"This Kali talks about choosing love instead of hate amid racial differences."

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

Deities are a recurring theme in Manimekalai's films. 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 is immortalised as a deity.

Manimekalai said 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 added that in village festivals in south India, people often dress up as Kali, drinking country liquor and dancing.

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

Indo-Asian News Service

"This Kali talks about choosing love instead of hate amid racial differences."

- Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai


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