Tete-a-Tete with a Firebrand – Part II
Continuing the interview with Leena Manimekalai…
Just as a recap, we stopped at her camp in the USSR, when she was 13 …
“It changed my life, I tell you. I spent 40 days among hundreds of children from all over the world – and it was as though the ground had dropped from under my feet! Everything was so new, so interesting,” she murmurs. And it was after this turning-point that the significance of such great litterateurs and writers as Jayakanthan, Dhanushkodi Ramaswamy and others visiting her father dawned on her. “I never had even an inkling of their greatness, all those times I spent giving them coffee,” she remarks candidly. “But later … everything sort of magically unveiled itself.”
The influence of literature did lead her to start her own magazine called Puthiya Thalaimurai, in college, for which she did cover-stories on director Cheran and the like. Her team was even selected by the magazine Ananda Vikatan, under their Student-Editor Scheme – which opened new doors in journalism for her. But family constraints made her bundle away such pursuits, and led her towards the sordid life of a software engineer in Bangalore – until she realized that the life held no charm for her.
“I was bombarded with negative comments that I’d lost my future, when I gave up my job,” she says. “But when Director Cheran asked me to join him, there was no way I could refuse. Films are my passion.”
She worked in television too, which, she feels, was more rewarding than movies. Movie-world, though artistically fulfilling in some areas, was a little too commercial for her taste. “There was no room was serious cinema, social issues that needed to be addressed. There are some directors and actors who work that way, yes – but I wanted to immerse myself in activism completely. And I wanted to do it through films. What was the point of everything I’d learnt in my childhood, otherwise?”
And so, the effect of all those years of learning and assimilation were to have their inevitable effect: Leena went on to firmly entrench herself in the world of social activism via films. Thus far, she has made the following groundbreaking works:
Mathamma – a 20 minute documentary, capturing a peculiar but heart-wrenching practice of devoting the girl-children of the Arundhati community to their deity, in Mangattucheri village near Arokonam, Chennai.
The film was screened in more than 200 forums such as Women and Dalit Movements, Grassroots’ NGOs, Development Societies, Educational Institutions and Film Societies, initiating discussions and debates in the press, and even a change in the locality. The film also won the Best Film Award in the Paris and Norway International Documentary Film Festivals; the Best Documentary Award in Europe Movies Festival; was screened in the 8th Kolkatta International Film Festival 2002 and IVFEST – CDIT International Video Festival 2003, Trivandrum. Numerous screenings all over the world followed. Till date, this is her most famous work.
Parai – a 45 minute documentary film, reveals the status of Dalit population, particularly women in India, caught, as an example, in the south Indian village Siruthondamadevi. The film triggered a successful video participatory movement, which ultimately demanded the immediate government intervention, securing protection to women who were harassed in the name of caste in the documented village.
Parai was selected for Chicago Women in Director’s Chair International Film Festival in the International section, March 2004 and also premiered in Vikalp International Films For Freedom festival, Mumbai, 2004.
Break the Shackles – a 50 minute documentary focusing on how the three track policy of globalization, privatization and liberalization without the interest of social justice in a highly unequal structure of country like India becomes more discriminative to Dalits.
The film premiered in the World Social Forum, Mumbai 2004. International screenings were done in Zurich, Paris , and London .
Love Lost – Video poem – an experimental five minute musical on a poem from her own poetry anthology, which psychologically portrays the deteriorating relationships in the realm of urbanization.
Love Lost won a Best Video Poem Award in Toronto International Film Festival 2005.
Connecting Lines – a short cross cultural documentary on student politics in Germany and India, the film addresses conflict stirred up due to the recent introduction of student fees and elite studies in Germany in comparison to the already flourishing privatization and elitism in Indian Education System. It weaves through the student lives of four protagonists, two each in India and Germany. Their background, indulgences, activism and struggles pragmatically reveal the conflict and indeed the hope for resolution.
The film was screened at the following centres:
University Of Tampere, Finland, 2005, University Of Cardiff, UK,2005, India Habitat Center, Thomson Media Foundation – India, New Delhi, 16th World Conference of Students and Youths, Venezuela 2005, European Week, Combined Screening by Max Mueller Bhavan/Alliance Francaise, British Council in New Delhi and Chennai, The Swaralaya International Film Festival 2006 (Retrospective).
Waves after waves – a docu-feature that explores how art forms magically rejuvenate the lives of children, disrupted by the major tsunami disaster of 2004. The relief activists in the field narrate their experience and the film slowly evolves. Music, Theatre, Stories, Art works and Painting workshops, slowly but immensely provides the required psychosocial care for the affected children.
This fascinating process is captured by the film, thus reflecting the various aspects and wonders of art therapy. The kind of space, the art forms spreads before the children to express and outlet is intimately traced. Nagapattinam – the worst affected part of India by the Tsunami disaster is the focus of the film.
“This was such an uplifting experience,” remembers Leena. “When we saw a group of people doing psycho-social care for the children in the tsunami-affected areas, I felt I had to do something to help them out. That’s how we gathered a band of artists and sculptors to help the children release their fears. The film just sort of evolved.”
The film was screened at the 16th World Conference of Youths and Students, Venezuela, August 2005, Billion Eyes Documentary Festival, Chennai, August 2005, EarthVision Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival October 2005, Disaster Travelling Film Festival / Coastal villages of Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Kerala 2005, Duke University, College Park University, Invitation Screening, USA, the Federation Of North American Tamil Association, Invitation Screenings Across Chapters, USA .Swaralaya International Film Festival 2006 (Retrospective).
Altar – an ethnographic documentary intervention on the prevailing customs and traditions of a community called Kambalathu Naicker, hailing in central parts of Tamilnadu.
The film analyses child marriages; how women and children become victims of religious beliefs and practices.
Chellamma – Leena played the lead role in this celluloid feature film on Sex Trafficking and feminization of poverty, directed by award winning filmmaker Sivakumar. The film won the Best Fiction Award in New York International Film Festival, June 2005.
The movie was also invited to be screened in San Francisco International Film Festival on prostitution, May 2005, and in the Czech Middle Length International Film Festival, 2005.
Vellaippoonai (White Cat) – Leena played the lead role again, in this celluloid short film on Italo Calvino’s short story, about how couple combats their life working on different shifts. The film won the Best Short Film Award in Toronto International Film Festival, 2005.
At the moment, she’s working on a film based on Chennai’s water crisis. “The trial a poor woman goes through, wringing a kodam of water while swimming-pools brim full in other areas …” her eyes fire up. “It has to be seen to be believed. Metrowater pays Rs 380 for 40 lakh litres to the average farmer who lets them use his water. The poor man would much rather have this relatively easy money, than the pitiful sum he makes off his crops.” Her voice turns sober. “I never could make films without touching on society in some form or the other. It’s an inevitable part of who I am.”
Her journey hasn’t been easy, not by a long chalk. “I had identity issues,” she states a trifle wearily. “I wasn’t born into unconventional surroundings – I had to unlearn everything that had been drilled into me; grow out of self-imposed conditions. You can see that conflict sometimes, in my films. But my growth is measured by my conflict, the effort I make to break out. My path is full of thorns. Every woman’s is, in some way. Essentially, it’s a man’s world, you see. We’re all made to feel guilty, when we want to desperately achieve something. How I detest that!” she announces. “Even if it does make you strong – I’ve often felt the uphill struggle in just staying afloat. My mother and aunt, for example – they’ve all been educated – but they are still relegated to the kitchens. They don’t make it beyond that. All their study and knowledge is concentrated on marriage and raising a family. Nothing wrong with that,” she smiles. “But I can see their yearning to make some difference in the outside world – and it’s unfair, to bind them up like that. They’re capable of so much more.”
C Jerrold, her husband, also a filmmaker, definitely understands her motivations. “We are two distinct individuals, completely aware of who we are, what we want,” she states categorically. “I don’t believe in outward signs of fidelity and commitment. What matters is what’s in our hearts, our minds.”
Surely she must have encountered typecasting – an inevitable defect, in a male-dominated field such as hers. What does she feel about that?
“It exists, yes – but I’ve never heard anything as ridiculous as the statements that float around,” she flashes back. “They say, for example, that possessiveness is a trait common to women. I say that it’s common to both sexes. These are psychological traits that have no distinction between male or female. I think I understood this best when I worked in the movie industry – quite a feudal set-up, if you will believe me. We need more sensitized women over there. That will destroy all the typecasting.” She grows quiet. “Women with fire in them find it so difficult to be accepted by society. They’re instantly branded as girls who won’t buckle down in a family. All their positive energy is destroyed in a moment.”
To an artist, such negative vibes can spell doom.
“True,” she sighs. “I’ve often felt the need to hear someone utter a word of appreciation.” Then, she brightens up. “But in the end, I think of my work, and nothing else matters. That’s where I’m free. Someone, out there, understands what I’m trying to do. It touches people. In that moment, it’s worth it.”
Talk turns to Kanavuppattarai, the publication house she runs, and she is immediately enthusiastic. “We’ve done translations of books by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Padma Rajan, M T Vasudevan Nair – even Director Mahendran’s book. I’ve always wanted to run a magazine on filmmaking, with plenty of technical expertise, know-how, and provide a platform for aspiring filmmakers.”
In the end, that is what she wishes to be identified as. “I’m a filmmaker,” she declares quietly. “To me, it’s the highest form of literary achievement. Our movie industry is money-oriented, which frustrated me in the beginning – but I found that I couldn’t blame them, in the end. I couldn’t stick with it, though. I’m an activist, through and through. I have principles, my own way of life. I created my own democratic space within a system. It’s exhausting to fight, yes, and my own family sees my work as Greek and Latin – they don’t really get it, sometimes,” she laughs. “Times like those, I wish they would see the reception my work receives in places like Canada. Artists are treated like royalty, over there. Art, itself, is evolved – it receives the respect it is entitled to. And when I sit on the grass at IFFI In Delhi and talk to Mrinal Sen or Anand Patwardhan, I’m elevated to greater heights – and that experience is sublime.”
She has never been happier that she gave up her original career of a software engineer to pursue her dreams. “This is what I wanted to be, right from school – when I ran my own magazine, and even when I was confronted by the pseudo-equality and feudal set-up of today’s professional movie-world,” she states frankly. “People underestimate me all the time. But I go on, anyway. What I do is what I am.”
She smiles, and then releases a parting shot. “Because somewhere, somehow, I make a difference.”