Leena Manimekalai’s rebellious spirit pushes her into dangerous waters

From the sufferings of Sri Lankan Tamils, CBFC chief’s controversial cuts to the way mainstream cinema works -- Tamil filmmaker Leena Manimekalai has an opinion on everything and she doesn’t shy away from saying so.
Tamil filmmaker, actor and poet, Leena Manimekalai is an engineer by qualification who started out as Bharathiraja’s assistant.
Tamil filmmaker, actor and poet, Leena Manimekalai is an engineer by qualification who started out as Bharathiraja’s assistant.
Updated on Mar 11, 2017 03:44 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chennai | ByGautaman Bhaskaran

In a very strong way, Tamil filmmaker, actor and poet, Leena Manimekalai, reminds this writer of the fiery Bollywood star, Kangana Ranaut. Both have this overwhelming passion about what they believe in and what they stand for. Ranaut’s earlier battle with someone as powerful as Hrithik Roshan, and her present verbal duel with an even more powerful figure in the world of Hindi cinema, Karan Johar, go beyond the niceties of so-called feminism. To this writer, Ranaut’s anger against Johar’s accusations are perfectly justified. In a similar way, Manimekalai’s grievances with mainstream cinema are worth pondering over. We all know how the big Indian cinema houses/producers muffle the voices of small, independent movies – many of which are remarkable in a myriad ways.

Last week, this writer heard Manimekalai speak for almost two hours addressing a gathering of wide-eyed film enthusiasts – students, young documentary makers, writers and so on – in Chennai. And she minced no words while airing her views about what was wrong with Indian cinema. She said that people like Anurag Kashyap were part of a “mafia” that was controlling festivals like Cannes, by aligning with some French producers. She called the Central Board of Film Certification names, and said that Pahlaj Nihalani was bent on silencing the fascinatingly created small, independent movies like Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (Lipstick Wale Sapne) and Jayan Cherian’s Ka Bodyscapes.

And it only seemed to fit in perfectly well with Manimekalai’s mood and thinking that she ought be all set to make a film on Kamala Das, the Malayalam poet, known for her forthrightness and rebellious streak. Manimekalai’s script on Das was ready three years ago, and Malayalam helmer Kamal (not Haasan), had agreed to direct Leena’s work. She herself was to play Kamala.

But then, at some point Kamal dreamt big, roped in Vidya Balan – who subsequently fearing a Hindutva backlash (Das had converted to Islam in her later years), walked out of the movie. And now – as Manimekalai told this writer during a chat the other evening in Chennai – Malayalam actor, Manju Warrier, would essay Kamala Das. “I was appalled by Kamal’s decision, because we also know Manju’s political leaning... So I have decided to take my script and make the film myself.”

Manimekalai has never been afraid of speaking her mind or making a kind of cinema that was bold and honest. The movie on Kamala Das will fit in perfectly well with Manimekalai’s views.

Going back in time, Manimekalai is a engineer by profession who floated into Tamil director Bharathiraja’s team as an assistant – an assignment her family was dead against, even though her father had a done a doctoral thesis on the helmer. It was okay for a man to dabble in cinema, but a woman could not.

So Manimekalai had to leave Bharathiraja, but she could not forget the medium. After a short tryst with another mainstream Tamil director, Cheran, she got into Tamil television serials as a producer and anchor.

“But something was pushing me towards independent cinema,” she quips, and in 2003, she began making documentaries, and it was one such project which took her to Dhanushkodi – on the island of Rameshwaram that was wiped out during a severe cyclone in the early 1960s.

“I thought I would do a documentary on Rosemary, a character who appears in my fiction feature, Sengadal (2011). I began my project in 2009 – the year the 30-year ethnic war in Sri Lanka between minority Tamils and Majority Sinhalas ended with the death of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). I had also been a part of the Tamil resistance movement in Chennai. I will call myself pro-Tamil, but not pro-LTTE. So you find yourself in a no-man’s land, and you are at once seen as an enemy,” Manimekalai avers.

Sengadal or Dead Sea is a 2011 Tamil film written and directed by Leena Manimekalai.
Sengadal or Dead Sea is a 2011 Tamil film written and directed by Leena Manimekalai.

This is one reason why Sengadal or Dead Sea attracted problems. “But I was fascinated by the stories of the Sri Lankan Tamils who had suffered at the hands of both the country’s predominantly Sinhala military and the dictatorial attitude of the LTTE. One of them, Rosemary, was the widow of a Tamil fishermen who was killed by the Sri Lankan Navy. She then landed in the refugee camp in Dhanushkodi. There are 300 families there. And Rosemary helped me discover the distraught families. When I found that each one of them had a story to say, I decided that I must cross over to the realm of fiction to narrate something powerful. Sengadal happened,” Manimekalai says.

She had a massive issue with the censor board before Sengadal got a screening certificate. But of course. She wonders why when there are so many movies on the Nazis and Jews, we should be so touchy about the Sri Lankan Tamils. A million of them were displaced during the war, and there are so many stories to be told about them.

Sengadal, Prasanna Vithanage’s With You Without You and Jaques Audiard’s Dheepan – which won the Palm dÓr last year at Cannes – are perhaps three of the very few films on this subject.

But, before Manimekalai will embark on Kamala Das, she plans to film Sunshine – a story about the tragedy of the cargo ship, Sun Sea, which sailed with 492 Sri Lankan Tamils from Thailand to Canada, but was not allowed to dock. A lot of people died.

Manimekalai seems all set to sail on one perilous journey after another, passionate as she is with opening the Pandora’s Box of heart-wrenching tales of simple suffering folks from an island nation.

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