Female Idol Blog Series: An Interview With Leena Manimekalai

I open all interviews with a small paragraph about what it contains, what can the readers expect etc. – but today I won’t. (Because) And this is what I told Leena when I finished the interview: reading your answers made me feel like I tasted something extremely delicious, which I remember eating, as a child. Honestly, I would fail to elaborate on that, but I can only lay this across for you, as a treat that is about to ensue – read on.

Do you think your upbringing is next to perfection? A patriarchy bashing, pro-equality upbringing? To you the outside world must have seemed odd – is that right?

leena1No, that wasn’t the case. I was born in a farmer’s family caught up with communist ideals but rooted in casteist feudalistic patriarchal values. One can say I was brought up in an “in between” world marred with conflicts. In fact, I was conditioned by those “conflicts”. There was a huge gap between what I was taught and what I was forced to practise in life. My father was a first generation graduate and my mother was married to him at her age of 15, only because he was her maternal uncle. And this marriage that was conducted as a “so called” progressive left ritual-free marriage swearing in on Thirukural, was actually a child marriage. My family paradoxically remains a comrade shudras family while I remain an outcast marrying, divorcing and dating men/women outside my caste.

Is it the inherent street theatre culture that brought you close to films and writing in general?

13817140_10154311567257645_1889072885_nMy grand fathers and great grand fathers were communists and we(myself and my brother) as children got baptised in party conferences, rallies and hartals. Along with rhymes, we were taught party slogans dreaming of socialist future. Street theatre was very much a propaganda form of communist parties to mobilise grass root community. I remember acting in those kinds of plays in my childhood. My Father being a Tamil Professor was in Progressive Writers Movement and I used to attend art camps with him, learning folk songs and theatre. As I grew up, it was my right to passage to be enrolled in youth movements AISF, AIYF. Traveling to remote villages and acting out plays in the streets with an objective of creating awareness interested me than the boring party classes on Das Kapital. My mother’s lost dreams were the ghosts I was forced to ride upon. She religiously trained me in bharathanatyam, carnatic music, sanskrit, hindi and what not. I was in constant pressure to perform, compete, score, win and always in the good grades.

imagesAll this brought me close to create and express. My parents wanted to be this champion Engineer/Doctor, earning in dollars, playing ideal wife/mother to the caste lineage. But I was attracted to the “losing” side of life and ended up as an artist with few volumes of published poetry stinking with body-politics/erotica/”bad” words and a set of banned/almost banned/unholy films as my repertoire.

Could you share the origin of Touring Talkies – when did you set it up and how did you successfully establish it as a fine production company?

That was my Ex-Husband’s company and I was never part of it. Touring Talkies as a  Production House was into making commercial teleserials/films. He closed the loss-making company and now works as independent writer-director. I guess you picked this information from Wiki page. Someone else has created that page with misleading facts. I should stop being careless and edit the wiki page myself. Actually, I was producing my independent films and publishing books under the banner “Kanavuppattarai” (Dream Workshop) for some time. But all my current projects, I co-produce under my company LM Productions.

Do you think cinema is a powerful tool for engaging in social justice activism? Have you seen tangible outcomes from the films that you have made, in terms of social change?

leena2I am an artist. I am also an activist. One must be born privileged to exist as an artist without activism. To be born equal is a privilege. We can’t pretend to be living in an egalitarian society. We are not free. We are denied our due respect and dignity. There is misogyny, capitalism, patriarchy, caste, religion, class, color, transphobia, homophobia and we are constantly getting thrown in the battlefield. We look around for weapons. If we don’t find one, we scream. I scream poetry. Enough is not enough. I express in images and sounds. All I do is to punctuate my art with relentless questions. Sometimes I think social change is some kind of salvation.

In your experience of traveling abroad for films, writing etc – what is the one striking difference that comes to mind about the position of women pursuing arts?

10987384_909157572467994_3526259474581128688_nEast or West, female artists face the same. Maybe the percentage vary. Maybe there are no honor killings or female feticide  in the first world. But here, there and everywhere, women pursuing arts really pay a big prize to pursue what they are passionate about. Asian, African or American, when a woman refuse to play roles assigned to them, she is always branded, witch hunted and isolated. For me, when I meet a woman who manages to live her dreams in spite of the cruel mean macho worldly suppressions, I feel her as my family. Of course there are many layers to it and identities like caste, religion, color, sexuality  doubly oppress woman. But one striking similarity is discrimination. There is no official history for women. Female artists, throughout the human history, silently left the clues in the form of poetry, stories, paintings, plays, sculptures and films and as a woman who care about my lineage, I dig seven oceans, ten seas and fifty mountains to pick those clues, put the pieces together and locate myself.

Do you think there is a convergence of politics and arts, of any kind?

12728993_10153875731522645_6403028911947357036_nEverything is political. There is nothing apolitical according to me. Even if someone claims that she or he is apolitical, that for me is a political stand. Brahminical apologists who play into the tunes of power, to maintain status-quo, constantly de-art the scholarship from the margins, be it a black, a lesbian or a transwoman or a dalit. But who cares.

Could you tell us about your love for poetry – if you should pick a favourite from your anthology of poems – which one would it be?

I came of age through Poetry. Poetry is my erratic non-periodical menstruation. If I menopause, I stop living. You may say, I am excluding my trans woman friends with this kind of body politique bullshitting. There is something called the metaphor.

It is 2016 and there still is a very obvious class divide in our country – added to homophobia, misogyny, and rampant saffronisation – with this in the periphery, how can arts thrive?

We have to thrive without giving ourselves to self-censorship. We have to become more brave and fearless. Sing more if we are stopped from singing. Dance more if we are stopped from dancing. We have no other go.

Why has the censor board become the self-proclaimed moral police – your own film Sengadal was not released without you having to put up a strenuous fight?

sengadal-e1370106496926-600x450Censorship is a big fight for any committed artist in a country like India that is a faux democracy. The very word censor is rooted in fascism. If I had been spared by the draconian censor board and the moral police, I would have written more and made more films. Censorship makes one run in the long and never ending corridors of power, begging to be uncut and unsilenced. It is terrifying but I still chose those battles because I want to live and express unchopped. For constitutional censorship, at least we have a legal system to mediate with. What I dread is non- constitutional censorship because you are left with no agency to fight them most of the times. Tamil chauvinists, Religious fundamentalists, Ultra right, Ultra left, Caste Outfits  and I lost count on how many other idiots and bigots to fight with.  But I suppose, having to witness the fate Govind Pansare, Dabholkar and Kalburgi, we are living in the darkest times since independence. It is shameful to have a CBFC Chief Nihalani proudly declaring himself as Modi Chamcha.

maxresdefaultWhat do you think about the dearth of avenues where liberal arts and feminism be a subject matter of discussion, be it in schools or city in general?

One who does Liberal Arts is a Lumpon. And one who is a feminist is a witch. As simple as that. Our schools and colleges are a sold out case to manufacturing coolies to the multinationals. Privatisation paved to the death of free and equal education in this country. Globalisation is just painting the graves.

What do you think is the problem with Indian cinema distribution system, that is shutting its doors to most of the female filmmakers or scripts that are centred around a female protagonist?

The entire world is like a mall these days. Sometimes, I browse through my body for a price tag. A market thrives by commodifying women. If you refuse to sexualise women, you are a lost case in the market. If profit is not your god, you are unfit. Only when female filmmakers get prepared to play the gamble, they can survive the market. Very rarely, off day games work.

13501916_1192633680787047_2132493590567691663_nRadical art had been always on the margins throughout the history. The choice is ours! I think we should know what exactly we want to do and comfortable with.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have been working on a narrative documentary feature “Rape Nation” tracing the life and struggles of five survivors. I have been filming in Manipur, Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi. The more I put myself in it, the tougher it gets. I should be able to complete it sooner or later. I am editing a mockumentary “Is it too much to ask” on the journey of two of my transwoman friends hunting for a rental house in the city of Chennai. I will be launching it this November.

I am collaborating with writer Jayamohan on directing a musical road film, a fiction feature and writer-actor Shobasakthi on an international co-production again as a director.

Leena-ManimekalaiWhat would you like to tell little girls and young women who wish to pursue cinema or arts?

I don’t feel myself very important to advise my next generation. Maybe one should follow her/his heart, come what may!

Anything else you wish to add? I want to go back to nature. I want to choose love always. Peace!