In 2022, when the filmmaker Leena Manimekalai released a short documentary entitled Kaali, the poster for the film alone attracted a large controversy, resulting in FIRs against her across different states.
The film’s poster shows Manimekalai costumed as the goddess Kali, smoking a cigarette while a blue hand brandishes a queer pride flag. The image contains motifs of modernity, but taps into an ancient impression of the goddess: as one who exists beyond all bounds and boundaries, who is untameable, who is self-possessed and free.
The Supreme Court of India has just given the filmmaker a reprieve that protects her from arrest or any other coercive processes in relation to the FIRs. While this isn’t the same as dismissing the FIRs, it is still a welcome step in reaffirming certain fundamental rights – not just of creative expression and free speech, but also the right to be safe from persecution because of the bogeyman of “hurt sentiments”. The safeguarding of those who assert these rights, ultimately, depends on whether ordinary people recognise and appreciate these rights. But the extension of legal protection goes a long way in keeping the misuse of the machinery of state and state-allied threat and censorship at bay.
When the Kaali poster became an issue, people with a lived understanding or a nuanced witnessing of how religiosity plays out in non-theoretical, dehegemonized practices pointed out that numerous deities of folk origin who have been subsumed over time into Hinduism are propitiated through offerings of tobacco, liquor, animals sacrificed then cooked and other items that are prohibited or taboo according to some ways of life. Kali, who is both indigenous and universal, is certainly worshipped in many ways, including those deemed sacrilegious in some worldviews – be it in forest groves in Tamil Nadu or iconic monuments in Bengal or in the traditions of formerly indentured populations in the Caribbean. She is myriad. A smoking, queer-affirmative Kali is offensive only to those with a very specific and rigid concept of the goddess, one that does not take into account the many other manifestations that She has in other imaginations and cultures.
Let me state here that I have not watched Kaali. So this is not about whether or not I think it’s a good piece of art (a subjective opinion, in any case). I don’t know whether, as someone with more than a fleeting connection to the feminine divine, I will find it a stirring work or a superficial one. I may adore it. Or I may cringe. Even if I were to find it offensive for some reason, that’s my problem. Not Manimekalai’s. The filmmaker’s right to make and release the film without facing threats remains.
These threats arise in the first place because of close-mindedness, which calls itself by numerous names. Then, there is the fact that a mere “hurt sentiment” results in truly disproportionate corollaries, from assassinations to riots and more. Being able to discern between something that bugs us and something that does harm to us, and not reacting to both to the same degree, is a sign of maturity – not just in a person, but in a nation too.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in January 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.