Brutally honest and emotionally raw, Leena Manimekalai speaks about her controversial and acclaimed film ‘Sengadal' and her life's many missions
She has constantly taken the side of the oppressed, fought the system, gone against the tide and continues to rebel, mincing no words to express what she feels. Brutally honest, emotionally raw and naturally poetic, 30-something independent filmmaker Leena Manimekalai is a real-life heroine battling the odds to fight for her artistic freedom and a passionate activist whose heart bleeds for her people.
Her tenth film “Sengadal — The Dead Sea”, also her debut feature, a docudrama on the plight of the fishermen community in Dhanushkodi who are caught between the devil and the deep sea for their survival, has created quite some buzz at the recent film festivals in Mumbai, Goa, Kerala and Chennai after winning a battle with censors.
One would assume that she feels vindicated and relaxed given the reception to “Sengadal” but ask her if her faith in the State is restored and she shoots back: “When you see the tooth of the lion, can you think it is smiling at you? I was born here. I vote every year and pay taxes. But this does not mean that the State can dictate or control my artistic expression. As a poet and a filmmaker I have been suffering hurdles in the way of free expression,” says Leena.
But the fact that “Sengadal” was chosen for the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India and the international competition at MAMI and the World Cinema section at the International Film Festival of Kerala gives her hope and has boosted her morale.
“What worries me is the politics of control working behind the system but I detest censorship of any form, constitutional or extra constitutional, as an artiste. Censorship is like mutilating my body organs.”
“Sengadal” has also been internationally acclaimed. “NAWFF Award at Tokyo, Montreal and Durban International Festivals and some ten more invitations for competitions at various International film festivals gives me a hope that I can aspire to do that one good film before I die.”
Given the rebel she has been all her life, has she ever felt patriotic? “No”, she says. “Don't you think identities are a cross to carry? A woman, a Tamil, an Indian, an independent artiste, a Leftist all are thrust upon me. All these identities create borders and make us refugees or eligible citizens according to their lawbooks. How I wish I were a bamboo in a wild forest plucked by a musician to be sculpted as a flute.”
“A refugee will know what it means to have a country of his or her own. I feel I am from this ancient village stone weathered by kingdoms, occupations, colonial rulers, wars, emergencies, democracies but still immortal. An MNC may come and install a McDonald in my village but I will eat honey from my backyard. I am from that village the surveyor skipped to map on the atlas. And, of course, I will continue to vote for our democracy to mature, pay taxes and hold an Indian passport.”
She vents her angst through her art. “I am not loyal to any establishment. I challenge and betray my race, religion, caste, gender and everything encrypted on my existence and am a traitor in that sense. Fortunately I learnt to write — writing keeps me sane and non-violent. But I consider my own language as my first enemy. Like a blurb on one of my poetry anthology says: ‘History is pornography and I am its star'.”
Early influences
“I was born to a farmer mother and a Tamil professor father. My cradle was tied to the neem trees of the Western Ghats and I am this typical Kurinji (hills) woman. All my intensity is dedicated to the mangoes and the torching sun of my village. And my passions are drawn from the wild rivers and heroic stories of my village deities. Still my fore mothers hold my spirits and my fore fathers spell my knowledge. I owe my political existence to my readings on E.V.R. ‘Periyar' and Marx. Ambedkar is one whom I yearn to master before my life term and I continue to draw inspirations from the whole ‘She' gang.” And Leena lists them all — “Kamala Das, Mahashweta Devi, Andal, Rosa Luxemberg, Alexandra Kollantai, Sylvia Plath, Judith Butler, Arundhati Roy, Kathy Acker, Maya Deren, Agnes Varda, Sofia Coppola, Simone De Beauvoir, Frida Kahlo, Catherine Breillat and so many women who have lived fearless lives.”
On politics and criticism
Does it hurt her if “Sengadal” is criticised as a one-sided emotional propaganda film? “It is a simple depiction of our Tamil fishermen's ability to live in the border shores of India and Sri Lanka amidst violence and oppression. It is about a failure of a filmmaker to make an impossible film. ‘Sengadal' is about a lost dream of the Tamils of Sri Lanka to own their piece of land. It is people participatory work and not an author's cinema, not perfectly made and never completed,” she says.
“When a film deals with current politics, it is immediately seen as some loud, explicit work. It is as delicate and complex and challenging for an artiste to handle politics around contemporary times. And the amount of energy you end up spending in activism than making the film itself is way too much and people should understand making an independent personal film in this country is actually a suicide attempt.”
Leena doesn't let any of that come in her quest for perfection. As she completes work on her poetry film “My Mirror is the Door”, her tribute to the women poets of the Sangam era, she leaves for London next week as a Charles Wallace Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She has a couple of other scripts and is also working on “Passport”, written by Shobasakthi that she plans to pitch to producers. “Hope my cloud rains and there's a harvest.”