Tete-a-Tete with a Firebrand – Part I
Some time ago, I read an article about Leena Manimekelai, the firebrand filmmaker in Chennai, in the Kumudam Theeranadhi. The interview was long, but very detailed. I found myself intrigued by this young lady with such decided ideals – and thought it might be a good idea to talk to her. Well, we talked. Gods, how we talked. I ended up memorizing every inch of Amethyst as we spent an entire afternoon – and apart of the evening there.
And I managed to make some notes too. You know how my – er, interviews are. They’re hardly the proverbial birds-eye view of anyone or anything. Rather, the worms-eye view: of the ground. Therefore, I’m splitting up the contents.
On to Leena, then.
You sense the fire deep underneath her laid-back white shirt and orange skirt ensemble, flickering at the edges, threatening to burst into an inferno. Then there’s a brilliant smile, a beguiling chuckle, and the firebrand becomes a gentler being. Her eyes glitter with animation, her face is expressive – and Leena Manimekalai is quick to draw you into her intensely active world, filled with images, poems, film, theatre and worthy causes.
A young filmmaker who touches upon subjects of sensitivity, a poet who writes about the truth within, a writer keen on bringing up barely addressed issues – Leena Manimekalai sees herself, most of all, as an activist, charged with the mission of exposing the many cruelties and injustices heaped upon this world, unseen, unheard. Till date, all her work has reflected this facet of hers, in one way or the other.
To quote her latest work of poetry, Otraiyilaiyena … (As a lone leaf …), Leena sees herself as an anachronism, an entity struggling to make herself understood in the ocean of malaise. The language she delights most in is the visual medium, and her work is always sure to present a side of society that is shrouded from public eyes – but which she tears open with the strength of her will and talent.
Her latest work “Love lost,” a video-poem based on her poem Theernthu Poyiruntha Kaadhal- in which she herself has acted – triumphed in a number of Art Film Festivals: it won the Best Video-poem Award in the Toronto Independent Art Film Festival, 2005. Leena considers it a “nice experience, something in the nature of an experiment.” Shot in just a day on a zero-budget, it was shown at various Film festivals all over Europe, the United States, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia and Venezuela – a simple work, and taken completely from a woman’s perspective.
“I took my poetry collection with me as well, when the video-poem was screened at the festivals,” remembers Leena, as she sits back in her chair at the Amethyst. “The Tamil Diaspora was keenly interested in the work, and they naturally wanted to read the poem as well, when they saw the work. I worked on less than a shoestring budget,” she laughs. “My home and office were the locations, and when I wanted a headless guy, I simply roped in my husband Jerrold.” The poetry reading in Vandavasi in Tamil Nadu, brought mixed results for her, though. Objections to the front cover made her stage a walk-out. The cover turned out to be of a woman, who, she says was lying in the nude with a particularly satisfied expression on her face. It didn’t sit well with the organisers. “I’ve written a poem on the subject – the title is: Inimel ungalidam kettuvittuthaan ezhutha vendumenru irukkiren (Henceforth, I shall write only after consulting you)” she grins.
Leena’s projects started very early – while others were only just considering viable career options, she had already made herself known in literary and art platforms across the world. Her bio-data reads like the to-do list of Youth’s ambition: she is everything, from an Independent Filmmaker, to the Editor of Thirai, a Tamil Monthly Magazine on films. With about eight independent documentaries and short films to her credit – all have traveled almost twenty international film festivals, and won about five international awards and mentions – she is the Creative Director of Kanavuppattarai, a Media House, Touring Talkies Mediaworks Pvt Limited, a Video and Film Production-Media Training-Advertising and Event Management House, and Media Crafts, a complete Post Production Studio in Film and Video. Its website is: www.kanavuppattarai.com .
She is also a media consultant with Initiatives in Women and Development, an NGO with UN ECOSON Status, specialized in Gender Training and Women Issues. She lectures as guest faculty with SAE in Digital Film Making Diploma and Degree courses, and is a private producer for National Geographic, Star, Vijay TV, Zee TV, DD, Vasantham Central Singapore, Aljazeera International, Telezur – Venezuela TV channels.
Whew. That is quite a list. Leena grins. “I was called OD Leena at school, you know – On-Duty Leena! I guess I’m still running, now that I’m out of school. There’s a fire within me that burns higher everyday. I can’t afford to let it be extinguished.”
Carrying so many responsibilities with aplomb is nothing to her, though – she worked as assistant director to high-profile film-directors like Bharathiraja and Cheran before branching off to become a professional filmmaker, not to mention holding positions such Executive producers with the Sun and Star Channels, and had to endure back-breaking production and filming schedules.
A qualified engineer in Instrumentation and Control from the Madurai Kamaraj University, Leena’s childhood and adolescence were markedly different from that of her peers – and paved the way for her future career as filmmaker extraordinaire. Born in a family fully immersed in Left Politics since the independence – both her father and grandfather were part of the Kalai Ilakkiya Perumandram, the IPTA; had held conferences and poetry gatherings for as long as she could remember and her father, a professor of Tamil, had further been Secretary for the State’s chapter of the ISCF (Indo-Soviet Cultural Federation) – Leena grew up listening to passionate discussions and readings of the Thirukkural, Gorki and Pablo Neruda, among other authors. Tarkovesky’s films, a mixture of nostalgia and mirror-work intrigued her, prompting her to explore the world more.
“I grew up in a rarefied atmosphere full of social change and activism,” she reminisces, and the fire kindles in her eyes. “I wrote in Children’s magazines like Gokulam and Poonthalir, about our activities – and everywhere we went, village, town or city, we would band up with the local children and perform skits on social awareness. The hours I spent with M P Sreenivasan and Gunasekaran, maestros in creating activities around issues on education and child abuse were amazing. None of this affected my schoolwork either – I was a topper. And I carried on my work with the All India Student Federation, the All India Youth Federation …” she pauses. “When you’ve got a middleclass background and upbringing, it’s very essential to excel in your studies, or extracurricular activities,” she advises. “You’ll find that unlike others, you’re given the freedom to pursue your dreams. And no obstacle will ever matter: male chauvinism, sexism … nothing can pull you down.”
A diligent student of Bharatanatyam and Classical Music for 12 years, Leena decided that she would pursue these arts no longer. “They are too elitist,” she announces. “I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of performing something which I wasn’t sure would reach my audience at all. Filmmaking, on the other hand, is a conglomerate of every art form. There’s nothing you can’t do – and it’s got the widest reach. Films are 3D. They’re exciting!”"
Memories of childhood pile on thick and fast, as she goes over those years when she was originally a sports addict. Having studied in both Chennai and Trichirapalli, she might have been immersed in social issues since three – but athletic pursuits were a strict no-no. This, she explains, is because of the conservative approach her family adopted. Originally agriculturists, her father was the first to move to the big city, doing a thesis in Movie Director Bharathiraja’s movies, of all things. His work opened new doors to her – but though she devoured books on movies, it was her brother who was expected to enter the world of art. “I was always meant to be the academician. Everything I did was censored – and entering fulltime politics and activism was barred completely,” she says wistfully. “There wasn’t much radical thinking when it came to my upbringing. I so wanted to join the NCC, but Appa would never consent. I hadn’t the freedom to get a camera, or even a haircut! I rectified all that the moment I earned my first salary, through,” she chuckles.
Holidays spent in the countryside, however, brightened her childhood considerably, she confides with glee. “I had complete freedom – no one to ask where I’d been, what I did. Even then, I used to gather kids around and hold cultural events with Rs 10 as admission fee. I guess performing has always been in my blood,” she grins. “But I was a rebel. I never could stick to rules, much.”
The defining moment of her childhood for her, however, came in her 13th year, when she won a painting contest conducted by the Young Pioneers’ Association, and was selected among three students to attend an International Camp in USSR.
(to be continued …)