The image, which featured on a poster for her independent film “Kaali”, has sparked nationwide debate in India, with politicians, diplomats and local police reportedly among those accusing director Leena Manimekalai of offending religious sentiments.
The film, which uses an alternative English spelling of the goddesses’ name, was among 18 works intended to explore multiculturalism at the Toronto Metropolitan University’s “Under the Tent” showcase at the Aga Khan Museum.
Described as a “performance documentary,” it imagines the Hindu goddess “descending onto a queer female filmmaker” and viewing Canada — and its diverse people — through her eyes, Manimekalai explained.
“She is a free spirit. She spits at patriarchy. She dismantles Hindutva (an ideology that seeks to transform secular India into a Hindu nation). She destroys capitalism. She embraces everyone with a thousand hands.”
Kali “chooses love” and accepts a cigarette from “working-class street dwellers,” Manimekalai added in an email.
A promotional poster, which features the director dressed as Kali, shows the Hindu goddess smoking and holding aloft a rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBTQ community.
Manimekalai, who is from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is currently a graduate fellow at Toronto’s York University, shared the poster to Twitter on Saturday. It soon went viral, eliciting furious responses from some Indian social media users — many of whom called for her arrest. Within days, tens of thousands of tweets had appeared with the hashtag #ArrestLeenaManimekalai.
In a statement, the school added: “We are committed to equity, diversity and inclusion while at the same time respecting the diversity of beliefs and points of view in our society.”
Manimekalai expressed her disappointment with the two institutions, accusing them of having “traded off academic freedom and artistic freedom to save their skin.”
“It is sad to see these institutions operating in a sovereign country like Canada bowing…