Cinema Leena Manimekalai’s documentaries Mathamma and Goddesses address the issues women face in marginalised societies

Three women make up the pivot of Leena Manimekalai’s documentary, Devadaigal (Goddesses). Lakshmi is a professional mourner. She wails at the homes where there has been a death and gets paid for it. Krishnaveni earns a living as a grave digger. She accepts unclaimed bodies from the local police and cremates or buries them, and maintains the graves. Sethuraku is a fisherwoman who ventures into the sea to catch fish. It is unacceptable for a woman in her community to do so, but she does it to run her family. Mathamma, speaks of the devadaasi tradition, still prevalent in the Arundhatiyar community.

“Every film of Leena Manimekalai faced problems. They evoked varied responses from condemnation to appreciation,” says Pon. Chandran of Konangal Film Society. Arundhathiar women protested that the documentary denigrated their society. Later, when the film triggered a participatory movement and called for government intervention, they understood that the film actually advocated their rights, and sought to protect them from exploitation.

Honest stories

According to Chandran Leena’s films are honest compilations of the struggles many marginalised women face in a male-dominated society.

“Her films sensitise the society on issues from a woman’s perspective. The women are forced to take on certain roles out of necessity, yet there are societal resistances and compulsions. Her films are called films of resistance, and she always keeps a window of hope open.”

M. Chandrakumar or ‘Auto’ Chandran, the auto driver/author of six books, says in a vicious society the devadaigal emerge victorious.

A new beginning

“The filmmaker highlights issues that go unnoticed. The society plays havoc with the lives of marginalised women. They are pushed to battle situations, and are also chained by the norms based on caste, gender and mythological traditions. The documentaries express their angst and how they choose to break the norms and feel liberated in their own way.”

Chandran picks a scene from the documentary where Lakshmi, the funeral singer dances in ecstasy and throws herself off balance on the ground. “She is unmindful of the norms and is completely in peace with her life. The fisherwoman, faces untold difficulties at sea. at seathe problems are plenty. They get bitten by snakes, and crabs, Yet, she braves it all for a decent living. Another devathai lifts dead bodies. They emerge out of the boundaries.”

He also adds that the images of religious worship places send home the point about how these places are mere mute spectators.

Leena Manimekalai shows the ruggedness of lives as it unfolds without any aesthetics, observes S. Anand of Konangal Film Society. “She highlights realism instead of beautifying the environment. We just have a handful of women film makers and she fights it out to have her message heard. Her films have won many international accolades.”

Konangal Film Society and Thamizh Studio screened the documentaries.

Learn filmmaking

Thamizh Studio based in Chennai regularly screens short films and documentaries that highlight societal issues. They also train upcoming film makers in script writing, camera work and editing. Every year, they select a film maker for the Lenin Award (instituted in the name of film editor B. Lenin) who highlights social issues. In 2011, film maker R.R. Srinivasan won the award. In 2012, it went to Amshan Kumar. Leena Manimekalai, who has made nine documentaries and one feature film Senkadal, has been chosen for the Lenin Award 2013. Thamizh Studio will screen the documentaries in 13 districts in Tamil Nadu and give away the award on August 15. For details, visit www.thamizhstudio.com

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