US-based Hindu rights group backs ‘Kali’ film: ‘extreme, blatant reaction’

By our representative
The US-based diaspora group Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) claimed that “it stands in unequivocal solidarity with filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who has faced a barrage of threats and censorship for the poster advertising his upcoming documentary ‘Kaali’, which shows the goddess Kali smoking a cigarette and holding a pride flag.
In a statement, HfHR said, “This poster has upset a subset of Hindus who seem unaware of not only the cultural practices of those who worship Kali, but also the incredible diversity inherent in Hindu traditions more broadly.”
He says, “The real inner strength of Hindu religious traditions is that different communities have found spiritual inspiration in different ways. It is common in many parts of India for Kali devotees to offer alcohol and meat as naivedyam (food offerings) – including at the Kalighat temple in Kolkata, which is one of the 51 most most sacred to Shakta Hindus.
The statement reads, “At the Viralimalai Temple in Tamil Nadu, cigars are offered to Lord Murugan. These practices are an integral part of a diverse Hindu tradition, and Manimekalai has every right to explore these traditions through his art.
“Furthermore,” he asserts, “many LGBTQ+ Hindus view our traditions and sacred iconography as an affirmation of their own dignity and identity, and the pride flag Kali holds on the film poster is a way of acknowledging the meaning of divinity for LGBTQ+ Hindus.”
HfHR says: “It is deeply disturbing that the Aga Khan Museum and Metropolitan University of Toronto have apologized for collaborating with Manimekalai and have withdrawn the opportunity to present his work. Twitter also took the unconscionable decision to remove the image from its movie poster.
He regrets: “By bowing to the Indian government’s unreasonable demands for censorship, these institutions have betrayed the basic democratic right to freedom of expression while empowering Hindu nationalists who seek to silence critics and artists.”
Supporting Manimekalai, it is written: “Hindus who believe in the freedom of expression, diversity and plurality inherent in Hindu traditions and the sanctity of Mahakali, we fully support Leena Manimekalai and call on our fellow Hindus to end all hateful threats and trolling.
Sunita Viswanath co-founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, in a article in Religion News Service, says Leena Manimekalai’s 2019 film ‘Maadathy’ was about the brutalization of a Dalit girl who becomes a village deity, pointing out, it begins with the words, “Behind every deity in India, there is has a history of injustice.”
Stressing that “those words have proven to be prescient”, says Viswanath, “An injustice is brewing around Manimekalai’s new film ‘Kaali’: the film and its poster have earned the filmmaker threats of arrest, rape and murder. “

Kali first appeared in Indian culture as an indigenous deity before being absorbed into Brahminical traditions

Viswanath remarks, Manimekalai calls ‘Kaali’ a ‘performance documentary’ – a personal and poetic meditation on the divine feminine. In a six-minute excerpt shown at a multimedia exhibit in Toronto last week, Mother Kali, Hinduism’s mighty goddess of death and end times, walks through a Pride festival at night in Toronto; observing groups of people in town, she takes the metro, stops in a bar; people take selfies with her; and in the last image, she is on a park bench “where a man gives her a cigarette”.
Image in the Hindu University of Benaras; 19th century Kali cigarette advert

Meanwhile, says Viswanath, not only did the Aga Khan Museum and Metropolitan University of Toronto “give in to pressure from the Indian government and publish excuses for the screening of the film”, and the Twitter deleted Manimekalai’s tweet showing the movie poster, “wanted for arrest for hurting religious feelings in Assam, Uttarakhand, Haridwar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and several other states and received numerous death and grated threats.”

Viswanath remarks, “In an email, Manimekalai said the controversy prevented him from returning to India. “My safety is a big question mark now and I feel totally derailed to be honest. But I don’t want to give up, so I fight at full strength”.
Viswanath insists, “Someone unfamiliar with Hinduism could say that Hindus are justified in their outrage. It is important to understand, however, that the film and its poster are part of a long tradition of diversity of Hindu practices and beliefs and immense personal freedom in one’s relationship with the divine.
Supporting Mahua Moitra – who said, “For me, Kali is a goddess who eats meat and accepts alcohol. I am a Kali worshiper. I’m not afraid of anything. Not your henchmen. Not your font. And certainly not your trolls” – for which she faces “criminal charges”, says Viswanath, Kali first appeared in Indian culture as an indigenous deity before being absorbed into Brahminical traditions and texts. Sanskrits. “like a dangerous, blood-loving battle queen.”
According to Viswanath, “Neither cigarettes nor queer pride are forbidden in Hinduism. Hinduism is historically very open to sex and sexual difference. Countless stories in Hindu scriptures speak of same-sex relationships, children born of same-sex relationships, and characters – some of whom are gods – who are gay, queer, or trans.
According to her, “The extreme and blatant reaction to the film ‘Kaali’ and its poster denies the Hindu idea that we all have tendencies towards goodness (satva), passion (rajas) and lethargy (tamas) and that our job is to make sure the best parts of us win out. We have room for our mistakes because even the gods are wrong.
Viswanath points out, “The violence and misogyny that Manimekalai faces is unconscionable, but the biggest problem for Hindus is that his critics are bent on creating a homogenized Hinduism stripped of its glorious diversity. If there is a story of injustice behind every deity in India, the injustice today is that the deities themselves are constrained, reduced, strangled.
“This homogenization promotes Brahmanic and Sanskritized texts and practices and erases the religious practices of non-Brahmin communities,” she adds.

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