'Maadathy' Director Leena Manimekalai on Making the Tamil Indie
An interview with Leena Manimekalai, director of the acclaimed Tamil indie 'Maadathy'.
Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai has a confession. “I think I am done with documentaries. I was in the space of Jean Rouch and cinema verité when I started out. I believed that it is unethical to write and make imagined stories about real people. They must be co-authors.”. She still believes in it but working with the people whose stories she was telling – Eelam refugees and enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka (White Van Stories and Sengadal), a documentary on Dayamani Barla (Ballad of Resistance), trans women looking for an apartment in Chennai (Is it Too Much to Ask?) – affected her deeply enough to reconsider her journey in cinema. “Working with real people and making documentaries created a constant sense of PTSD, something I want to break out of.” Leena’s “first pure fiction” film Maadathy – after a festival run beginning in Busan in 2019 – is out on Neestream.
Maadathy too, in a mythical tale, documents the Puthirai Vannar community – washer people who wash the clothes of the dead and menstruating women among the Dalit community. The Puthirai Vannars come below the Dalits in the hierarchical caste system, they are paid in kind with rice or staples and until recently rarely shown any form of currency. They are termed “unseeable” because “their sight is enough to cause pollution” as Ambedkar described in his writings. Maadathy tells the story of a girl from the community – Yosana (Ajmina Kassim) with elements of local folklore of goddess Maadathy. Yosana is a wild cat, like a Greek nymph, one with nature, standing on hilltops as vantage point for her observant gaze, finding freedom in the streams, diving underwater and keeping the company of fauna – a donkey, rabbit, monkeys and fishes. “The more you move towards the subaltern, the more integrated life is with flora and fauna. Especially when it comes to Puthirai Vannar – the further they move away from people, the closer they get to forest, birds and animals. The human race finds reasons to divide, not nature. They are aligned with it spiritually and economically.”
‘Cricket’ Moorthy (a commentator in local cricket tournaments), a first-generation graduate from the Puthirai Vannar community, helped Leena in her research. She lived with them and recorded hours of interviews. Leena admits that the first draft of the script had a civil society perspective, a documentarian lens. “You want to tell the story for intervention, for dialog so your gaze is towards reality. But this is not an anthropological experiment, it is storytelling. I refrained from documenting every single facet of their life. As a fiction feature, the audience participation is necessary. Let them connect the dots.”
She explained how local folklore is made up of real people, women who lived and walked the earth, suffered sexual violence and were later turned into the deities or goddesses by the community that inflicted that violence. “I see folk gods as an assertion of resistance. They are memorialised for a reason – what if they return to extract vengeance? They are an embodiment of our collective guilt. And I am also influenced by filmmakers like Kurosawa who used folklore, which then became cinema lore.”
The gaze, in subsequent drafts, shifted to Yosana, her desire and curiosity in the outside world. This is especially relevant in the context of filming the sexual violence in Maadathy, which unfolds in darkness with only the perceived presence of Yosana. “It’s not about the blood and gore. It’s about the environs, the events that happen parallel to the violence. She is present in the situation, and it must be her point of view, and I composed the shot conscious of the fact. Often there is a tendency to “consume” in camera angles when sexual violence is portrayed. There is a hidden call to participate in the violence when it comes from a male perspective. Here, I wanted to create a moment where you become one with the woman.”
She liked Neestream’s model. “The major OTTs are all after a subscription base. They work with big names, production companies and stars. Why will they take my film? Neestream supported something like The Great Indian Kitchen, a success story I cherished. It’s a more filmmaker friendly revenue model.” Leena likes the film’s vision to continue into its distribution and screening. “This is possible only with an indie partner like Neestream. It doesn’t end with an OTT buying the film and the filmmaker’s participation ending there.”
According to Leena, the distinguishing factor between indie and mainstream is not the kind of cinema they make. It’s about how it is presented, funded, distributed and covered by the media. “I can make only one film. Even if you give me money or a star, Maadathy is what I’ll make. Maybe I could have given the actors a larger remuneration but beyond that I don’t see the difference. Did anyone ask Ray this question? I can’t make a film for a market. I’ll never do that.”
She comes down heavily on Tamil media, for whom, she feels, only the stars and films created for the market is cinema. “This has never been the climate in a state like Kerala. Tamil media creates and nurtures fan clubs and not appreciation for cinema. They’ve created a toxic atmosphere by giving goodies and “covers” during press meets,” Leena says. In Tamil film media, the lines between PR and journalists blur, it is widely known that producers or production houses pay some media organisations to cover their events, from production to release to projecting box office numbers. “They are destroying the cultural scene. They are too enamoured by star vehicles. We rent the camera from the same shops; we work in the same ecosystem but if this cinema is not given the same respect what do we do? Can you call only pulp literature as Tamil literature? If you are writing about a film after receiving a cover then you don’t respect your own profession,” she adds.
Leena also opens about the roadblocks created by bigger productions for independent filmmakers like her who crowdfund their films. She narrates how feeding into an exploitative system further stifles their situation. “A location that would otherwise be available for 5000 bucks would be booked by a big production house for 50,000 because time is of the essence and a star might be involved. It’s not big money for them. Later when someone like me goes for the same location, the price is now set at 50,000. Or in a different scenario, we are denied permit to shoot in a forest because a large crew polluted the location with plastic. While we shoot with eco-sensitive measures, eat local food and practice zero waste production. Nobody is questioning this exploitation or the insult in getting your film certified by the CBFC. Instead, they celebrate getting a U certificate. My budget includes the cost of running to courts and I am forced to think twice before writing a single line. I hope the film fraternity wakes up to this fact.”
Many of Leena’s films including Maadathy went to the tribunals for clearance. Known as the FCAT, they have since been abolished and there is a new bill proposed to amend the 1952 Cinematograph Act allowing the Centre to order recertification of already certified films.
With films like Nasir, Pebbles, Kuthiraivaal and Maadathy, there is a notion of a boom in Tamil independent cinema. “Now we have people like Arun Karthick (Nasir) and others coming in, which is good. I don’t know how many come consciously, at an ideological level, or come in because of lack of resources but now things are possible with international collaborations. But rarely does anyone know we exist, at least independent films used to be telecast on Doordarshan before. I hope this wave changes that.”
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