On the 2nd of July, Toronto-based poet and film-maker, Leena Manimekalai announced the launch of their new film ‘Kaali’ at the Aga Khan Museum. The film was announced as a part of the week-long Rhythms of Canada festival at the museum.
In the poster, a person with long hair and various adornments such as a crown and jewelry across their chest, seems to portray the blue-skinned deity, Kali. They are wearing prosthetic arms and are carrying accouterments like a trident and a sickle made of cardboard. In another of these arms is a rainbow flag (signifying the queer rights’ movement), while the person themself sips on a cigarette.
There have been myriad responses to this release on social media, with some people highlighting Kali’s significance as a deity who rejects social norms & pressures. It is worth noting that Kali is often depicted with her tongue sticking out, which is interpreted as her rejecting the moralistic pressures of society and her mockery of the people who defend them without examining their own desires and shadow selves.
Others, however, issued threats against Manimekalai, who was born in Tamil Nadu. For instance, Saraswathi, who is the leader of a Hindutva group in Tamil Nadu, Sashti Sena Hindu Makkal Katchi, threatened to ‘bash up’ Manimekalai with slippers via a viral video, if the latter didn’t take the poster down in 4 days’ time.
Saraswathi’s video went viral around the 5th of July and the Selvapuram police began their investigations into the threat soon after, ending in Saraswathi’s arrest.
Several complaints have also been filed with the police, demanding punitive action against Manimekalai, in various parts of the country. For instance, the Hindu Suraksha Manch and the United Trust of Assam have filed an FIR in Dispur, Assam.
The Indian High Commission too urged Canadian authorities to take the promotional material down, showing how the State’s solidarity often takes the form of enforcing respectability politics, instead of encouraging democratic discourse through free speech and media expression. Following this, the Aga Khan Museum has apologised for ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
Ironically, this reminds me of that Dabur Fem ad that tried to position itself as inclusive by portraying a queer couple engaged in the rites of Karwa Chauth. While several in the community welcomed this, even as others (including myself) rejected it as an attempt to rainbow-wash casteist and colorist practices as queer-friendly, the brand itself took the video down after Hindutva advocates complained about hurt religious sentiments.
Also read: Unpacking the Fem Ad
The moral of the story to me is that positioning ourselves as ‘well-behaved queers’ will never earn us the liberation nor the validation that we so desperately seek from a society that espouses values that reject and alienate us in systemic ways.
In a display of misogynistic and queerphobic algorithmic bias, Twitter too took down the poster, prompting Manimekalai to ask: “Will Twitter withhold the tweets of the 200000 hate mongers?”
In response to the Hindutva-led reprimand of Manimekalai’s work and related promo material, Art Historian and Associate Professor at UC Berkeley, Sugata Ray, shared a lithographic print from the collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The print was a wrapper for cigarettes manufactured as part of the Swadeshi Movement (that boycotted foreign-made/branded goods as part of India’s fight against British imperialism).
Ray translated a few lines from the label as saying: If you care to improve the manufacture of swadeshi [national} products, if the welfare of the nation’s poor laborers is your concern, if you have a sense of good and bad, then O Hindu brothers, smoke these Kali cigarettes.
Soon after, an anti-caste Twitter user also asked if the famous Mangalore Ganesh Beedis will also be re-branded in the face of the imposition of Brahmnical values on various deities that have been part of various regional cultures and pagan groups in the Indian subcontinent.
Which begs the question: Whose Sentiments were hurt anyway? And whose sentiments do we care about? Art may not be an imitation of life in many ways, but its censorship certainly seems to be.