I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would become friend of a firebrand lady who is full of life. She is everything; I don’t have words to say more. As you go through the interview by Sadik for Malayalam Magazine Mathrubhumi, you will know what a determined person Leena is right from the word go. She has that spark in her eyes and her face is always very expressive. It is enough to make anyone happy. She is so full of life and energy. Leena is active in so many fields from poetry to theater to film making. She is determined to make a change in lives of many.
As a filmmaker she touches upon subjects of deep sensitivity, a poet who writes without any hindrance about the truth within. She loves to address issues that are hardly touched by mainstream media or writers. She is a charged up activist who is in a mission of exposing the cruelties and injustices done to a large section of the powerless population. The voices those are unheard and unheard. Her works speaks a million stories.
Born in a family fully immersed in Left Politics she had a good understanding of politics at a very young age. Her grandfather and father were part of the “Communist Party of India” and its cultural front ‘Kalai Ilakkiya Perumandram’. Leena grew up listening to passionate discussions and reading of the Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pablo Neruda among other authors. Tarkovesky’s films, a mixture of nostalgia and mirror work intrigued her, prompting her to explore the canvas of cinema more.
She grew up in a rarefied atmosphere aspiringl of social change and activism. She was a young journalist and wrote in Children magazines like Gokulam and Poonthalir.
She spent hours with M.P.Sreenivasan and Gunasekaran the maestros in creating music around issues on education, empowerment and social intervention. Though she was taking part in so many extra curricular activities she was always a topper in school and college.
She was a student of Bharatanatyam for 12 years and Classical Music for 6 years, Leena however decided that she would pursue these arts no longer. These forms of dance are too elitist according to Leena. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of performing something which she wasn’t sure to communicate to her audience at relevance. Film making on the other hand is a right mix of every art form she felt and appreciated.
Memories of childhood have a huge impact on Leena. Holidays spent in the countryside always brightened her childhood considerably. She used to gather kids around and hold cultural events. Leena always was a rebel; she could never ever stick to rules.
Her defining moment of her childhood came when she was 13yrs old. She won a painting contest conducted by the Young Pioneers Association and was selected among three students to attend an International Camp in USSR. It changed her life. She spent 40 days among hundreds of children from all over the world. The USSR visit was a turning point. But the significance of great litterateurs and writers as Jayakanthan, Dhanushkodi Ramaswamy, Ponnelan and others visiting her father dawned on her. She had no clue of their greatness, but all those times she spent giving them coffee. The influence of literature did lead her to start her own magazine called Puthiya Thalaimurai, when she was in college. She was soon selected by the magazine Ananda Vikatan under their Student Editor Scheme which opened new doors in journalism for her. Family constraints made her bundle away many such pursuits and she led herself towards the distasteful life of a software engineer in Bengaluru until she realized that the life held no charm for her. She was bombarded with negative comments that she lost her future when she gave up her job. Films were her passion so she joined with director Cheran when he asked her to join him. She worked in television too. She learnt about every medium through her experience. She found there was no room for serious cinema. She always used to imagine what was the point of everything she learnt as a child? Leena went on to firmly entrench herself in the world of films, literature and activism.
Leena’s journey hasn’t been easy. She wasn’t born into unconventional surroundings. She had to unlearn everything that had been drilled into her. Her path was full of hardships. She says, every women’s life in someway is similar. Leena feels it is a man’s world. The women are all made to feel guilty for no reasons though they are desperate to achieve something, adds Leena. Her mother and women in the family for example are educated but they are still confined to the kitchens. They don’t make it beyond that. All their knowledge is concentrated on marriage and raising a family.
Leena wished to write, create and travel. For Leena, Cinema is a brilliant form of literary expression. She is an activist by heart, through and through. She has principles of her own. She has created her own democratic space within a system. She gets exhausted fighting, but never loses hope, she is a fighter for life. Her own family sees her work as Greek and Latin, they don’t really understand it, but still she juggles with it. She is happy since she is able to pursue her dreams. Her happiest moment is when she left the software engineer job to pursue her dreams. People might underestimate her, but she will go on. “What I do is what I am, says Leena”. She adds, ‘somewhere, somehow, I make a difference’. Isn’t it a gift to be a close friend of such a lovely human being? I thank my stars and the universe for having given me this gift.
Leena Manimeghalai is in a fight for her artistic freedom, let it be poetry or cinema, the two art forms, she is committed to.. Leena’s poetry is considered as obscene and her film gets banned by the Censor Board, all this makes her fight for freedom of expression more intense. The language of the body, when it comes to writing, how can it become vulgar, she asks? When the human life is depicted candidly why is it censored, asks Leena.
When Leena writes poetry, there is almost a bomb blast in Tamilnadu. Hindu Makkal Katchi(Rightist Political Party),
(Ultra Left Group) and Tamil Nationalists protest against her. The writer in her does not want to classify anything vulgar or not worth reading.
The so called good writers who leave out those words even while speaking; Leena joins them beautifully and honestly.The so called moral policing people feel like vomiting reading Leena’s poetry. But, Leena tries to reclaim those words from the cultural clutches and gives new definitions through her continuous writings.
Leena writes to intervene, create a dialogue and she has clear thoughts and views about why she has to shock the senses. Beyond the self criticism, woman’s writings is a kind of liberation from all the pain including inequality, violence, suppression, etc faced by woman. When women write about their body, it blasts the institutions like religions, caste, state and the language itself which are clearly the tools in the hands of chauvinistic power.The main function of the poetry is, whether it is Male or Female, to resist and subvert. Leena keenly believes that, it is not the job of poetry to follow the path already laid and shown as safe.
Huge obstacles come when one tries to create new paths and show an unknown direction. The art and literary activities of the people like Leena becomes meaningful with their constant battles.. As far as Leena is concerned, women is neither lower than man nor higher not even equal, but totally different. Leena believes in Politics of Difference and envisions cultural deviance as the first step to liberation.
Parathaiyarul Raani (The queen of Sluts (prostitutes)) Leena writes
“On my side some words,
Only one language.
I am anxious about the security of you,
I write poems then and there
Cutting across my anger…
History is a blue film
and I am its star “
Leena dreamt of red revolutions during her childhood. She deeply believed that a new world will come once the inequality comes to an end. Almost all of the male members in the family were functionaries in poltical parties and her family is well known communist family in the village. Leena’s grandfather’s brother Mr. Srinivasan, one of the National Secretaries of C.P.I., was the contemporary of the famous Communist Leaders named Nallakannu, Manikam, etc. Grandfather Mr Venkata Swami was a Party State Secretary. Ex. C.P.I. M.P. A.V. Alagiri Swami is Leena’s uncle. There are other many other males in the family who are in the top most positions in State Committee or District Committee. Leena’s dreams as a child and teens were always painted with red. She woke up everyday with the hope that a new world will emerge.
In the family library, the main collection was Russian Literature. She read Marx, Engels and Lenin in earlier stage of her life. She read Periyar. Her father Dr.R. Raghupathi was a Professor in Tamil Literature. She got an exposure to the wide world of literature in her childhood itself and her quest for reasoning everything started very early. She started searching for answers to the questions constantly haunting her like,
Why so many castes in country? Why the names of people are different and how are they connected to religion? Why people live in different areas? Why there is a seperate area for Dalits?Why huge problems emerge when someone challenges it? Even her father’s brother also has experienced fallen from family. He was not allowed to see his child when his wife delivered.
Caste disputes led by her uncle made him fall from family since he fought for rights of lower caste people. As a very big agriculture family all the workers were Dalits. Uncle used to stand with them when they face problems. Same caste people used to help police to catch communists who hide in forest while the party was under prevention. Fighting for the cause of Dalits and being unloyal to the own caste were the reasons behind the enmity of own caste people.
Male Female inequalities and Caste differences are two major conflicts, Leena was facing in her teens. The male family members are revolutionists and top leaders. When the party was under prevention her grandfathers have gone under jail for punishment.But all the women folk are only at home and never took part in politics. Women take care of family and agriculture inspite being courageous and leaders in their own spheres.. Leena always wondered about why women were not brought on the field for revolution and politics. Why they are not sent for education? Are they meant only for preparing Coffee and Dosa? This male – female inequality made her more restless and she was searching for answers.
Q. Leena Manimekalai is a writer, film worker and an activist who makes debates in Tamil Nadu through her sparking poetries. What is your family background?
A. In my family father is the first generation degree holder and I am the first generation proffesional among women folk. My mother tongue is Telugu. 300 yrs ago Tirumalai Naicker who came to Tamil Nadu brought a group of people along. That is our sect of people and our area was their colony. We are settled in Virudhunagar taluk at a village called Maharajapuram close to the Western Ghats. I grew up like a mountain valley village girl (Malayora Graameena girl). Even though mother tongue is Telugu, I don’t know to read or write it.Tamil is my father language.Father learnt Tamil literature. My mother language is infact a mix of Tamil and Telugu. This area is known as Karisal Region and there is division known as Karisal literature with renowned writers like Ki.Rajanarayanan, Ku,Alagirisamy.. My father was also a writer in Children’s literature (Bala Sahithyam).
In my area I was known as Vadhiyar Ponnu (Teacher’s daughter).
I got chance to do my education in Tiruchi, Chennai and Madurai even though I was a village girl. I passed Engineering with University rank.
My Father expired at a very early age of 48, when I was just out of my college.
Childhood was filled with Sangeetham (Music), Dance, Chitrakala (Painting). My mother wanted me to learn music and dance. Also my mother used to send me for athletic practice daily.Besides I also had one hour class for Hindi.My parents gave me the best education. They were very strict on that front while other children in the family led a comparitively independent life.Only summer vacation was a holiday time. I used to go cycling and swimming, then go to temples and I was close with village deities. Apart from learning Carnatic Music I learnt the revolution songs of M.P.Srinivasan and folk music of K.A.Gunasekharan.
If I don’t study, they will not send me to school and as soon as possible they would have got me married. So, whatever I do, try to do well. Have to prove myself every time to keep my education going.
In our family we generally used to marry the maternal uncle (Thai Mama). My Thai mama was 9 yrs elder to me. He was a lawyer. My father only looked after him from childhood; we all grew up in the same house together. He went on to become MP. Even they forced me to marry him by saying that I can continue my studies after marriage.I consciously detested the marriage and rebelled my family to continue with my own dreams and choices.My mother also married her Thai Mama that is my father. Mom was very young when my father expired. Mom `Rama’ owns a lot of energy. She is my source of inspiration. I get moved when she used to say that, I was born when she never even knew how a child was born.
Q. As a Communist family member, Soviet Union may be a dream of Leena? What was the experience of that trip?
A. It was a two months journey and as per our family concerns, Soviet Union is our country then. It is there our Gods reside. I went during the time when Glasnost and Perestroika happened. After I came back within six months Soviet Union collapsed. My father jokingly used to say, after you went Soviet Union crashed. I wrote a 13 weeks long serial article in several issues of C.P.I. weekly named Janasakthi regarding my journey to Soviet Union as an young pioneer. When I wrote about new Global Order and about the youth who wish to go America, it was censored by the editiorial. My father forcefully removed me from the stage of a public meeting while I was supposed to talk about the Glasnost and Perestroika. That kind of blind belief they had in Communism.
Q. How did you get to theatre?
A. I got attracted to theatre activity (prasthaanam) when I was in college. I love communicating with people regarding the local subjects through street plays. We did street shows on most of the issues like water, transport, medicine, child care, health etc. I used to get very enthused by people theatre. Those experiences started to make changes in my perspectives about the society I live in. Like all other middle class parents, my family also planned to make me an Engineer or Doctor. But I felt it is not my path of life. I always felt I am a misfit even after I had passed Engineering with rank. I strongly believed that I cannot live with numbers and machines.
Q. Did you start writing poetry from childhood?
A. My father taught me the songs of Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan. He introduced Dravidian poetry. I practiced giving orations in Dravidian style. All the quotes of Anna, Periyar etc were by heart to me. I used to read small magazines like ‘Thamarai’, ‘Semmalar’, etc and my love towards language evolved. I used to write poetry from my school time. It was a time with full of dreams on revolution. Those were the days, I was sincerely thinking that if I go with a song or poetry on stage, I could make revolutions instantly. The first poem printed in a small magazine when I was 13 years. It was a big achievement at that moment and I started believing that the universe was my canvas, my mind the brush, my experience my palette and am an ever improving self portrait.
During college days I was a student Editor with Anand Vikatan. One of my first features in it was on Child Labor Issue in Sivakaasi. I was all joy with tears when my article was published in Vikadan.
Initially I never wanted to publish my poems. Poetry was very personal to me like a diary art. I confess, inquire, resist, cry, hope, fight, disown and it was like a disclosure for me. I used to ask why my brother is not taught household work. I used to question why women who do house help are not called akka with asked but called by their names? I used to scribble those questions in my diary. Frequently wrote poems. Later, I got opportunities to recite poems in literary meetings and participate in the programs of Kalai Ilakkiya Perumanram, Art – literary section of C.P.I.. I participated in their `Poetry Retreats’ kaviyarang and considered it was a big achievement. Poetry was happiness. Poetry was sense of achievement. Poetry was liberation.
Q. When did you start writing poems as a serious media for aathmaavishkkaaram?
Even I was in good term with my father I never showed my poems to him. I wrote and kept everything in my diary. But, when I got to work with Bharathiraja, I showed my poems to him and he encouraged a lot. That gave me a sense of recognition. He had asked me to write songs for his movie. But it didn’t happen because I found it was not my cup of tea. I wished to be there in the team of directors.
Communist Manifesto and the book named ‘Pen Aen Atimaiyaanaal’ of E.V.R.Periyar influenced me a lot. I read it so many times. I owe my political consciousness to those texts. When my poetry got widely published in Tamil literary journals like Theernadhi, Kanaiyaazhi, Thaamarai etc, Then I went ahead and compiled my first poetry collection in the age of 22.
Q. You entered into the field of cinema by assisting with Bharathiraja. What was your experience in cinema?
A. My father got doctorate for his work on ‘the expressions in Bharathiraja films’. Bharathiraja’s movies will always be running in the V.C.P. in our house. I by hearted so many dialogues of Bharathiraja and through that I came into film industry. I reached Chennai when I was doing the last year project and the same year my father expired. I approached Bharathiraja seeking help to publish the research thesis of my father. It was the time when he was doing ‘Taj Mahal’ movie. He asked me to join as an assistant. I participated in script discussions and I wrote those in my own way, and the Director spotted and encouraged me. I was there working with him in three schedules.
I was 20 during that time and I had the responsibilities of my family after father expired. I was very much stressed up regarding whether I have to continue in cinema or join for job. By that time,I had also grown my passion for Cinema. But, I couldn’t digest the feudal set up of cinema. I am from middle class family and had opportunities to sit along with and participate in the discussions of senior political leaders, writers and intellectuals. But, in cinema, we should not even sit in front of the director. But Cinema, as an art form overwhelmed me and my creative urges. The greatness of director and the entire unit working for him to create some thing and I wondered what it is. That was the time I was getting job placement interviews. So my mother didn’t allow me to continue in cinema. Father is an academician and he did P.H.D in cinema. But mother was objecting to my choice as cinema.
Bharathiraja was planning to cast me in his movie and he was as dearer to me as my father. I was infact obssessed with him as a person who loved me a lot..I was prepared to even jump in a pyre, if he had asked me to do. I did accepted to act but my Mother went on a hunger strike and called me back.
Q. You were there in television field for a long period?
A. When I had big issues in family I came back from Bharathiraja’s movie and joined in an IT company in Bangalore. After a very short period I resigned from there without informing even my family. Company was planning me to send abroad after probation. But I was interested to join cinema. But, I didn’t go to Bharathiraja after that. I assisted Mr. C. Jerold who was doing television serials and who later became my life partner.. It was a time when television channels and serials became popular and I used to get the same salary which I got from the IT Company. So, income was not a problem. It was important for me to be there in the media, so that I can always shift to Cinema. I worked in almost 11 companies within 2 years as producer, anchor, etc. I had associated with all big names in production and channels in Tamil.Television is a place where women could freak out. I didn’t face any problem in entry as I had already worked with Bharathiraja.
Within one year I understood that I don’t have anything to do in the main stream television also and felt to go back to cinema. I joined with director Mr.Cheran who was not an actor then. I was restless then too.I used to go to the party office in Chennai and became active by joining in National Federation of Women as well as in All India Youth federation. Used to write in ‘Thamarai and worked as volunteer journalist for the magazine of Youth Federation named ‘Thalaimurai’. I send poetry and articles to all magazines. I got noticed by others once the poems got published. It was the time when the female poets named Salma, Kutti Revathi, Malathi Maithri etc were in stardom. It was a very encouraging time and kind of put me into a right track.
Q. Leena Manimekalai was always creating debates with her poems. How your poems did stood different in matter and creativity?
A. Every one adopted different style and choice in form and content. Just trace the women expressions from Sangam age to contemporary and you will be amazed.There was a big change when Non brahmin and Dalit started writing poems. Their experiences came across as differnt milieu. Body Politics, feminist experiences, Man woman relationship, Sexuality, Identity, Existence like themes were my forte. There was a debate when my first collection of poems named `Ottrailaiyena’ (solo, as a lone leaf) got published. The cover picture was a naked woman and the poetry was about naked expressions. Cultural police started to intimidate and criticize me. There was a constant threat from their side to my expressions and space. They call me names like prostitute, slut, loose woman. Anonymous letters and vulgarity through phone became order of the day and anonys message me to sleep with them. They considered me as a woman who is ready to lay down with anyone. When a woman talks about sexuality, she is considered a threat to the existing cultural patterns and ownerships.
When the second collection of poems named ‘Ulakin Azhakiya Muthal Penn’ (The first beautiful woman in the world) went on to become controversial. I wrote a series of poems on thoomai and questioned the concepts of purity and pollution and the people got allergic. Obscenity to celebration was my attempt and I used different stylistic and aesthetic devices to redefine words in the common cultural context. For me, Poetry is all about discovering a new language and meanings.When woman start to rediscover their own body and sexuality, language has to bow to them.
Q. Critics accusing you as a obscene write and even Hindu Makkal Katchi gave complaint in Police ?
A. My trial of coming out of the image of “Hindu Woman” was creating a debate and disapproval. I was trying to destroy the image of Nationalist woman (Bharathiya Naree sankalpam) through poems. I was questioning why wars start and end in woman body.I was in critique with Marxian practitioners who are insensitive to feminist ideals.
For me, poetry and cinema was the political activity. Right from my first collection Otraiyilaiyena, I am facing challenges to my expression. A person who had to review the book had covered the book with a newspaper. He answered that he dint like it to be read by wife and children, when somebody asked.He was “extra careful” about his literary ambitions and morality of his family. He branded it as obscene and it is such a shame to take it home.
I always believed, for a poet, no word is obscene in a language. “Obscene” is a word spitted out of chauvenistic tongues.I don’t have a chauvinist mind and for me, each word is important a piece of flesh in my body. Words smell of blood to me.. Hindu Makkal Kakshi filed a police complaint asking for a ban for my collection of poems ‘Ulakin azhakiya muthal penn’. Ma.Ka.I.ka held a hate campaign and scandalised my very existence with their violent interference in my spaces.My question is why Political parties interfere in literature?What is their business in the work of Art?
Chauvenists send register posts with foul language and hate text. If I don’t respond they send another mail and even there is no response, they do phone calls and swear on me. They say to lay with them. It is a kind of rape. Yes, the chauvinists tried to raped me emotionally.. Around 60 writers decided to protest the situation and express solidarity on securing my artistic freedom..During the protest meeting, Ultra left thugs leashed violence and tried to stop the meeting. They shouted at all the writers to fuck me than to read me.
As a self determined feminist, I had to come out from family and marriage. In my concern, these are the first units of suppression (atichchamarthal). The objection will raise naturally when the marriage, family, men – women relations, etc got to be questioned. Male – female inequality is the one which was there before the caste class inequalities. History is all about it. People from Ultra left Party did hate campaigns which was an excess on a woman artist’s space and it was a sheer human rights violation. They still do it in their websites. For them, Marx is god; so I did daiva ninda. They can’t digest the questioning, doubting or criticizing Marxism. Marxian Study taught me questioning, critiquing and introspecting. I don’t have any blaspheme notions. I am not religious with my ideological beliefs. I cant be owned by a country, religion or caste. I am the pure child of E.V.R.Periyar. The one who detested chauvinism by all means. I follow his ideologies. That is why Tamil Nationalists, Ultra Left and Ultra Right parties object me and my works
These Tamil Nationalsit were objecting the statement of Khushbu on pre marital sexual relation. When a boy and girl at the age of 18 decide to have sex, it is their choice and it is our duty to tell them to have safe sex and use condom. That is sense. What else can make sense? What one means by chastity? Black or white? In my new collection of poems, I declared I am a bisexual.I am at times attracted to woman as well. Cultural revolution is the want of the day and everything else will follow. There are people who publish and propogate cultural fundamentalism in the name of Periyar. It is atrocious of periyarists promoting “Tamil Hindu Feminism” and marxists being moralists and culture chauvenists.
Q. How did your family react to this?
A. Family has it own reservations on my activities. . I am always concerned about my mother and grand mother who are two souls responsible for all my existence and I try to kind of convince them to believe that I do so sense in my life.They do out of their love for me.
Q. The poems of other Tamil poets also became debate in several times. Critics accused as ‘The people who writes vulgarity for vulgarity’?
A. For Critiques, woman’s text is not text but a woman herself. They do intellectual measuring of busts and hips.They try to single out the poet whom they cant analyse with their age old rusted devices. Scholarship to the work of art is denied to women and their literary merit is always questioned. I grade women poetry as the most vibrant expression in the entire Tamil art history. Tamil literature is substantially evolved in terms of language and expression with the women blasting into the scene.Non Brahmin, Dalit and Srilankan(Eealam) Poetry has created a new essence to Tamil literary scenario.. Hijaras and Sexual minorities has found their new language. There is new wave of strength and freedom actually with the widening of publishing possibilities..
Q. Is Leena also against Left party even though you grew up in a Communist family and was a part of Party? How did you get included into this?
A. When I seriously took poetry and feminism, my battle started. I was attracted to radical feminism. The writings of Anna Akhmathova, Judith Butler, Helan Siksu, Julia Kristeva, Silvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ann Sextan, Germain Greere, Trin Min Ha, Cathey Acker really caught my imagination. And I was also influenced by Kamala Das and Maha Swetha Devi. I got my new light. I understood that I can’t continue in party. When I read Hartman’s Unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism so many questions raised in my mind. There is no space for dialogue within the party. When I went to Venezuela in 2005 for a camp of Democratic Socialist Youths, the male colleagues were asking that ‘why amI not wearing a saree, why not Bindi,’ etc. they all are just males even though they are Marxists. Comrades who asked were National Youth Leaders. I wrote long letters to the National Leaders Bharathan and D.Raja informed that I have no interest in continuing in the Party.. I didn’t wish to continue in party even as a volunteer. My dialogue with Marxism became strong, especially in my writings, when I seriously started to practice feminism.
Q. You told that Kamala Das has influenced you. How she influenced the person Leena and your poetry?
A. I was one of the young female poets who got soul fuel from Kamala Das. Kamala Das was the ‘Kaali’ for me in literature. I can’t see her life and literature differently. The hardest inquiry for freedom and challenging approaches of her have very much inspired me. `I love her a lot’. Writer Jayamohan critically wrote against Kamaladas that, she writes her sexual poverty and she is ugly, etc. I strongly objected his views and criticism
Q. Then, Leena noticed as a documentary film worker different than poetry. Each documentary was different influence. Why did you turned into documentary field by leaving mainstream cinema?
A. I didn’t feel mainstream cinema and televisions are my spaces. I started practising independent cinemas. I did documentaries as my own intervention in the fields of culture, politics, sex politics, environment, etc. The possibilities of cinema as an instrument for intervention attracted me a lot. Independent films gave me opportunity to learn and unlearn.I travelled with a handy cam, microphone and a Mac book exploring dark sides of my society. The first documentary named ‘Mathamma’ was against the custom of offering girls to God among the Arundhathi community in Arakkonam District. The documentary named ‘Parai’ was about the problems faced by Dalit women in Siruthondamadevi village. Government interfered in both the localites and the videos were more a movement.. The documentaries named Breaking the Shackles, Waves after waves, Connecting lines, ‘Devathaikal’, ‘Balipeedam’ ‘A hole in the bucket; etc. discussed the problems of the downtrodden and created a discourse. I don’t believe that a cinema can make changes in over night. Change is quite a long process. But am sure, it creates a democratic space for dialogue and follow ups. It is not so easy to earn the trust of people and organise them to be part of the cinema exercise.I always felt that my films become complete when the viewers also participate. When the readers responds then only the poetry becomes complete.
My schooling and professional education never gave me this experience. All my learning is through my practise of art. My people are the source of my spirit.I
Q. The first feature film of Leena ‘Sengadal’ is also in dispute. It didn’t get censor board permission?
A. ‘Sengadal’ is the story of fisherfolk who are abandoned by the state. It is the story of Srilankan refugees who cross the dark seas in their last hope to life. It is the story of a documaker who is trying to bring the truth to light.
Tamil fishermen who are being killed by Srilankan Navy just for the reasons of being Tamil and black skinned express their anguish in the film. Dhanushkodi, a piece of land crux ed in between the two extremes of 30 years ethnic crisis in Srilanka and an equally politicked situation in Tamilnadu is the land where Sengadal story happens. The humanitarian crisis is what the concern of the films and the narrative unfolds the compassionate fisherfolk and their daily trials with their life.
Fishermen of Dhanushkodi live constantly in fear. Name any enforcement, they sorround them, say, Police, Q branch, CB CID, Coastal Police, Navy, Customs. When they venture into the sea, they can anytime shot, maimed, plundered and harrassed by Srilankan Navy. Sengadal captures their plight with utmost honesty. Their trust in sea is the basis of their very existence. Their destiny is uncertain and that is the core of the narrative of Sengadal.
When I started interviews, I came to know that there are widows in each and every house. Mothers who have lost their sons, orphaned children in the household add more tears to the sea. I felt I have to do something for them. Even though I did ‘Sengadal’, it is nothing before their life.. It is a night mare to count your time to death or life.
I completed the script after several times of my travel and spending almost six months at Dhanushkoti.The Srilankan writer Shobha Sakthi and C.Jerold participated in the script writing. It is Sobha Sakthi who wrote the dialogues to score 100% loyalty to the refugees’ conversation. The main roles in Sengadal are done by common fisher folk. I trained them to act in front of camera. It was a huge task indeed.
Q. How do you consider the decision of Censor Board?
A. It is a political film. There is no political cinema culture in Tamil. I have gone through this censorship issue through my practice as documentary director, poet and an activist. As an artist one needs to tackle many forms of censorship, self, market, societal, cultural etc. I wonder, when we write a poem, we write a poem. When we do cinema, we do cinema. We have to disseminate it. But why we have to avail the certificate from a government official? It is meaninglessand very colonial in concept. The film costs 80 lakhs. Producers want to release it. We need censorship certificate if we have to commercially release it in theatres. We need censorship certificate to submit for festivals and awards. When I contacted the organizers to send a copy for G.Aravindan Award today morning, they told censorship certificate is a must. Why should a government need to decide what we have to watch? Read? Or create? Ofcourse It is not its business.Afterall we have elected it and we are not “Subjects”. What is this Censor Board for in a democratic state? People have to decide whether they have to watch a movie, celebrate it or reject it .It is their choice.The State cannot think that the public are stupid .We are not in colonial set up.And we live in 24/7 internet and television era. Does it make sense at all to have a CBFC?
Q. Censor Board explains that there is unparliamentary words and denigrating statements on the governments of India and Srilanka. What you say?
A. Yes. One of the reasons of refusal of censor certificate is usage of unparliamentary words. Concern to me as an artist, the word censorship itself is unparliamentarly. I used the same dialect which is used by the fisherfolk. It is the language of common people. It maybe unparliamentarly to bureaucrats. The other reason is it has conversations which critiques Indian government. And the film documents the anger of the community. Which is quite natural! How else they could they be when the government is silently witnessing their own people being shot! As an artist, I too have the right to criticize my government. One more reason is it critiques Srilankan government. The government of Srilanka is a racist government. They did a genocide. They killed thousands of people. There is always a possiblity of making remarks about the racist government when you deal with a tale about refugees and fishermen who are ditched all their life.It is an eye sore when our National Medias turn the blind eye to the government of Srilanka and Rajapakse. I wonder if I sit in Chennai or Colombo when I get to see ‘The Hindu’ Newspaper daily. It is pitiful when a national newspaper takes such a stand and become a face of a genocide government. So far, only ‘The Hindu’ news paper has not written anything about ‘Sengadal’.
Q. How you see the changes that is coming in the Tamil Cinema arena with films like Paruthiveeran, Subramaniapuram etc?
A. I don’t think that there is any change in basic content. They treat the same old content more naturally and realistically. Love, revenge, so on. There is no change in content. Politically dangerous cinema infact! Is there any movie in Tamil which has fairly handled the caste problem? Just think about the women portrayal in Tamil Cinema?
Bharathiraja is a trendsetter and there are many young filmmakers who try to capture subaltern lives and untold backdrops.But narratives never changed..
One of the film maker who influenced me is Ritwik Ghatak and I want to follow his traces.
(With major inputs from the interview that appeared in Mathrubhumi and an article by Pavithra)By
Ullash Kumar RK Freelance Journalist firstname.lastname@example.org