Leena Manimekalai On Witch Hunting In Our Folklore And Why Art Cannot Cater To Market Forces

“Narratives of resistance cannot be based on hyper-masculinity,” says the filmmaker.
A still from Leena Manimekalai's Maadathy
A still from Leena Manimekalai's Maadathy

In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, independent filmmaker Leena Manimekalai talks about why Maadathy's central character, Yosana, represents a suppressed voice, why she prefers to work actors from the community, instead of actors, and how hyper-masculine responses to existing social structures are problematic. Edited excerpts…

The young girl through whose eyes you tell the story in Maadathy, Yosana, is dressed in clothes that have natural patterns and she's always surrounded by nature and animals. She has a parrot on her shoulder, a subversive image…

Meenakshi Amman is a tribal goddess who got Sanskritized as a mainstream goddess. And Andal was adopted as a child by flower vendors. She lived as one of us. She, too, got Sanskritized as someone who was in love with Vishnu. Now, they're in mainstream temples and institutionalized. 

Yosana is a female goddess and someone like the other things you see along the Western ghats: the plants, flowers — you can't separate her from that. She's the embodiment of innocence. When you're thirteen or fourteen, you're unseeable, but you're blooming out of nowhere — you have desires and lust for life and you want to experience things. That's how I remember that age. I wanted to see the entire world through her eyes. 

She's the last woman, born in a community that's in the lowest rung of the caste structure. In fact, in the puthirai vannar community, they actually practice female foeticide and infanticide, because they're afraid of protecting females constantly. Caste-based sexual violence is so normalized that's it's probably not even based on sexual urge — it's a mode of punishment, way to show power. That's how sexual violence is so normalized in many villages of Tamil Nadu. It's the point that drew me into this world. It's the core I wanted to weave around. 

Yosana's mother in the film suffers just as much. Why doesn't she become a deity?

Her mother, Veni, starts to come to terms with her existence as a quasi-slave and the same is true of her mother, too. But Yosana doesn't want to be defined by her birth and wants to follow her heart. You don't have a male term for a witch. Because women who want to follow their desires are hunted and called witches. This is a part of our culture. A lot of folklore and history is about witch hunting, whether it's documented or not. 

There's a 'commercial' logic that if you put a big hero in your film and make a film about caste, more people will watch it. So, the message goes out to a bigger audience. What do you think of that?

When you cater to market forces, it's not art. It's a commodity. When you try to subscribe to market demands, you buy into systems of exploitation. You have to tell a story but still live up to the expectations of a mainstream film. If you do that, then don't say you're marching towards an annihilation of caste because you are now being a part of a problem. I might be telling different stories, I still feel very cheated by these narrators. I've never seen superhero-like figures who resort to take law into their own hands, killing and slaying enemies as portrayed in hero-vehicle films, bringing real solutions in conflicts like caste. 

Narratives of resistance cannot be based on hyper-masculinity. We have to fight it politically. As an artist, I want to be in solidarity with people and tell them that I see them and understand them. I want to share with the world stories that are being suppressed. 

When you make a film with a female gaze, do you prefer to work with established heroines or unknowns? Or is the art more important to you than the reach?

It really would help to work with known faces. Both Ajmina [Kassim] and Semmalar [Annam] are not from the community. So, I do use actors. We rehearsed everything thrice. We even stayed with the community that cooked for us. Ajmina didn't know how to swim, but her character loves to be in water. Semmalar's body language is different and so are the dialects they speak. We had a series of workshops before shooting the film. I shot the entire film in 23 days on a shoestring budget with a cast that's mostly inexperienced. So, I need actors who can cooperate dedicatedly with me.

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