Leena Manimekalai About Her Latest Film ‘Maadathy, An Unfairy Tale’

Interviewed by Vaishnavi Sundar

It has been a few months since I last spoke to Leena, but it is so heartening to see how much she’s accomplished in this course of time. In yet another straight-from-the-heart conversation, she talks about her new film that is taking International film festivals by storm. Discusses the state of indie cinema, and gives a no-nonsense take on being a woman in the filmmaking business. Read on…

Q. What inspired you to make Maadathy?

Leena Manimekalai

I don’t know if it is an inspiration. I would say I was deeply affected when I first read about how the women of the “unseeable” Puthirai Vannar, the washermen community at the bottom of the pyramid of the caste system – who traditionally wash clothes of the Dalits, the menstruating women and the deceased – are enslaved both by gender and caste. I ended up telling the story of a young girl who refuses to be defined by her birth identity, an “unseeable.” Why she gets hunted for her primal desires and how her spirit cannot be destroyed. Even though I had collected heaps of research documents, work of literature and essays on them that can back a documentary, I decided to make a fiction film in order to create my own goddess. A goddess, whose story that can haunt generations and keep knocking their conscience. 

Q. How did you go about the casting process?

It is a people-participatory film similar to my earlier work ‘Sengadal, the Dead Sea’. I used a lot of documentary tools to tell the story in Sengadal. But I treated Maadathy as pure fiction to retain the mystery of the landscape, the wild western ghats and the harmony of the community with the ghats. People of Anavankudiyiruppu, VK Puram and Papanasam are the actors in the film except for the key characters which were played by theatre artists. I wrote a few drafts of the script with Rafiq Ismail and Yavanika Sriram but kept it open to be improvised by the community. The crew and the theatre actors stayed with the community, did a series of workshops on dialogues, mise-en-scene. It was a fascinating social sampling process where we all learned and unlearned each other. We experimented with role reversals where people from the oppressor caste donned the roles of the oppressed and vice versa and lived the film as one big extended family. 

Still from Maadathy

Q. How do you work with children (minors) with subject matters so grievous in a way that it doesn’t traumatize them?

The whole point in making the film for me is to wear the skin of the victim and breathe her in cinema – a medium where the gaze is of the powerful. Ajmina Kassim who did the role of Yosana the adolescent girl is well aware of the script and did extensive homework and training with dialogues, swimming, inhabiting the wild forests and mountains with bare legs, climbing the trees and also the scenes of sexual assault. There were a set of adolescent boys as well in the film as key characters and the workshops we had before the actual shoot were very much on gender sensitivity.

Leena & Ajmina during filming

Q. Are you happy with the film’s reception at the International film festival circuit?

In the world of International festivals, Busan is the window of the east. The experience was quite overwhelming and without a Busan pick, a small independent film like Maadathy, dealing with the subject of nobodies, would not have gotten any attention in a country so drunk with populistic cinema. I was astonished by the patience and commitment of the South Korean audience to Art cinema. They stand in long queues for hours to fill the cinema halls, stay and watch films from all over the world with deep involvement. They honour the filmmakers with vibrant discussions post-screening. After all this they also queue up to get their tickets signed by the filmmakers. It is a five-hour commitment and this moved me so much. The next stop is International competition at the Kolkata International Film Festival and the festival inquiries are growing. The plan is to create a discussion with one good festival round and do a modest theatrical release locally, however hard and impossible it may sound.

Misogyny is one of the primary reasons for my isolation and why I operate out of my own little world. I want to bring forth the message that we can’t be erased, through my films and poetry, however lone a voice it could be. 

Q. You’ve shared your dismay on the plight of indie filmmakers, and their visibility locally. Especially in the south, it seems to be a far bigger problem. Films might do well abroad, but the local press is often clueless about it. While we do rely on funds through grants and co-productions, our city/country is where our prospective producers could be, and it is a shame that the situation is so. How do you think can we circumvent it? Do you think being a woman is an added problem of such erasure?

Still from Maadathy

It is true that I feel like a Puthirai Vannar as a female filmmaker practicing independent cinema out of Tamilnadu. Nobody cares about Puthirai Vannars and no one is ashamed that such slavery still exists in our society. One that claims to follow the secular and democratic constitution. The same is the plight of art cinema and female authorship. We are the Nobodies. But we exist. I want to bring forth the message that we can’t be erased, through my films and poetry, however lone a voice it could be. 

Q. You’ve spoken openly about the sexual harassment you faced in the hands of Susi Ganesan, how has your allyship within the industry changed? Has the industry come together in any way to support you? I am afraid, I might know the answer, but I would like to hear it from you.

I was never part of this industry and I started working independently very early on in my journey as a Writer/Filmmaker. Misogyny is one of the primary reasons for my isolation and why I operate out of my own little world. What happened with #Metoo in Tamilnadu is everybody wanted it to die. By everybody I mean the feminists, the progressives, the liberals, the artists, the scholars, the civil society, etc. Media was making a vicious laughing stock out of the #metoo voices because it is media that was the worst hit by it. Everybody had blood on their hands and they were acting all ugly out of fear of expose. Silence was employed as a nuclear weapon to destroy the most powerful mass disobedience movement of this century. Witch-hunting still continues for me in the form of a criminal defamation case. I want to imagine myself as one of those granddaughters of the witches, they couldn’t burn. 

Still from Maadathy

Q. What do you hope to achieve with Maadathy, locally – are you planning to find local distribution and theatrical release?

Yes, a modest theatrical release is my plan. I want to execute it after one good festival rounds. 

Q. You struggled so much while raising funds for the film. You came up with creative ways to provide rewards for donations. Can you share your experience with that?

I raised the entire post-production funds by selling my old films and books on facebook. It gave me a lot of hope to pursue what I believe in when people from all over the world participated in the fundraiser and bought my books in Tamil even when they didn’t know the language. The gesture was extremely moving and I owe my existence to each and every soul who backed the realisation of Maadathy. When I make a film, I have nothing other than the film in front of me. It is either death or realisation of the film. So every rupee that came in the form of contribution helped me breathe and continue to believe in what I do.

Q. Are you already working on your next project?

At the moment, I am in the post-production stage of my documentary feature project “Rape Nation.” The film follows the journey of sheroes like Bilkis Banu, Soni Sori, Bhanwari Devi, Manorama, Rehanas and how they triumphed their past of sexual violence and became leaders in their own right. A political thriller web series and two international coproductions are underway too.

Q. Anything else you wish to add?

Sing, Sing through the darkest times so that you don’t feel lonely.