Earlier this month, the Regional Passport Office, Chennai impounded the passport of poet, writer and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai on grounds that she has a pending criminal case against her. The case they are referring to is a private complaint of defamation that director Susi Ganeshan slapped on her for sharing her experience of sexual violence during the #metoo movement in 2018. Here is the timeline of the case and Leena's ordeal with it.
In February 2017, a Malayalam actor was abducted and sexually assaulted in a moving vehicle. This incident gave rise to an industry-wide movement that demanded more respect and inclusion for women in cinema. A couple of days later, Leena Manimekalai, a poet, writer, independent filmmaker, and director of the award-winning film Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale, wrote a Facebook post expressing solidarity with the Malayalam actor. In it, she also recounted her own experience of sexual violence.
She wrote that in 2005, when she was working as a television host and producer, she interviewed a film director. After the shoot, he offered to drop her home in his car, which she accepted. He locked her in the vehicle, snatched her phone, switched it off and threw it away. He threatened her to go to his apartment with him. When she refused, he continued to drive around the streets of Chennai, unwilling to let her off.
"As someone who speaks about human rights today, I didn't even have the courage to tell my own friends that day," Leena wrote in her Facebook post. She shared how even while struggling to get out of the terrible situation, she was scared of the repercussions of speaking up. She got some solidarity and support from her friends that day. But the buzz soon died down, as these things are known to do.
Several months later, on 14 October 2018, during the peak of the #metoo movement in India, Leena named her attacker as Susi Ganeshan. "The film director who locked me up in the car when I started as a television anchor is Susi Ganesan. Hope more voices join me to be heard," she wrote.
Susi Ganeshan (52) is a Tamil film director who began his film career as an assistant to Mani Ratnam and went on to make films of his own, including Five Star, Virumbugiren, Kandasamy and more recently, Thiruttu Payale 2. In response to Leena's Facebook posts, he took to various Tamil media to assert his innocence. He suggested that Leena is using #metoo to settle scores for not giving her an opportunity to work with him.
Actor Amala Paul released a statement in solidarity with Leena. "Me too, despite being the leading actress of Thiruttu Payale 2, was subjected to double meaning talks, misrepresented offers and unchivalrous bodily contacts," she wrote. Following this, Amala Paul alleged that she received intimidating calls from Susi Ganeshan.
So did actor Siddharth, who spoke in support of Leena. "Susi Ganeshan spoke to my aged father on the phone and threatened us with dire consequences if I continue to stand by Leena. So I just want everyone to know that now more than ever… I Stand With #LeenaManimekalai. Stay strong and fight the good fight sister!" he tweeted.
A month later, Susi Ganeshan slapped a criminal defamation suit against Leena alone under sections 500 of The Indian Penal Code (Punishment for defamation) and section 200 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. In his complaint, he asserts that he did not visit any TV studio in 2005 with Leena. He suggests that Leena is a person with a "truly blinkered moral compass." He accuses her of promoting enmity between religious groups and publishing obscene sexual images affecting children's morality.
To make his case, he attached copies of poems and writings of Leena, where she is questioning patriarchy and social prejudices. He included screenshots of her Facebook and Twitter posts criticising Prime Minister Modi, then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapaddi K. Palaniswami etc. He also included a meme she shared of Bergman and Tarkovsky kissing each other with Godard watching them. This case was posted to the Saidapet Magistrate Court, where the proceedings began.
After several days of appearing in court to iron out legal processes, the trial began on 28 February 2020, with cross-examination of prosecution's primary witness Susi Ganeshan himself, continuing till 07 March 2020.
In his cross-examination, Susi Ganeshan said that all the documents he has submitted are to demonstrate Leena's mental state and political inclinations. He accused her of being someone who rides every controversy wave.
He also characterised her as publishing "aabaasa kavithai (pornographic poetry)" . "In my eyes, the poem was 'kangal koosugira aabaasam (obscenity that irked eyes)' ," he added.
Soon after this cross-examination, the country went under lockdown owing to COVID-19, deferring all proceedings by months. So far, Leena's mental state is the only thing that has been discussed in the trial. Before continuing the cross-examination, Susi Ganeshan filed a petition in the Saidapet Magistrate Court to impound her travel documents, constraining her from leaving the country.
Leena has received a fully funded position at the York University Graduate Film Program in Canada. She is the first international applicant to receive such an honour in the history of the program. She has been attending her classes online due to COVID-related restrictions. When the borders were opening up, York University invited her to come to campus.
Susi Ganeshan presented this as Leena's intent to flee the country. In his petition to the Saidapet Magistrate Court, he compared Leena to Vijay Mallya, suggesting that her extradition from Canada — where she would be on a limited student visa — would be impossible. "Realizing the adage 'prevention is better than cure' this petition is filed by me to prevent the accused from escaping India," he wrote.
In late 2020, the court heard this petition and closed it without impounding Leena's travel documents or recommending the regional passport office (RPO) to take action. She even voluntarily gave an undertaking that she would not leave the country without informing the court.
Despite that, Leena received a show-cause notice from the RPO in February this year asking why it should not impound her passport as a criminal case is pending against her. She has submitted her response in writing, post which her passport wasn't seized.
On August 27, 2021, Susi Ganeshan's counsel requested the court to reopen the petition to impound her travel documents. On that day, Leena had submitted her intent to travel to Canada for her graduate program, assuring that her legal counsel would be present at all hearings and conduct the case on her behalf. Moreover, she reasserted her commitment to travel back to India whenever absolutely necessary. Susi Ganeshan's counsel wouldn't hear of it. They argued that Leena's travel documents need to be impounded or she be remanded to judicial custody.
On 09 September 2021, Leena was notified by email that her passport was being impounded. She has filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court contesting the impounding. The judge has demanded an explanation from the RPO, giving them two weeks to respond.
Sixteen years since the incident, four years since writing about it, three years since naming her abuser, Leena Manimekalai is now the accused in a criminal defamation case. She has been going to court for dozens of hearings, addressing petition after petition. She is constrained from travelling abroad — a fundamental right that she has as a citizen of India. She is also unable to travel to screenings of her latest award-winning film Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale. She is restricted from pursuing education that was offered to her fully funded in recognition of her filmmaking career.
To say nothing of the physical, mental and emotional trauma, she continues to suffer for merely speaking up. "The process is the punishment, Ranjani," she once told me, somewhat poetically.