Toronto filmmaker receives backlash, death threats over Hindu goddess poster

A Toronto-based filmmaker from India says she is facing death threats and police investigations after uploading a poster for her documentary on social media featuring the Hindu goddess Kali.

Leena Manimekalai says she has received thousands of threatening messages over portrayal of goddess Kali

Leena Manimekalai, a Toronto-based filmmaker from India, uploaded a poster for her film on social media earlier this month that featured the Hindu goddess Kali. (Raghunathan)

This story contains an image of the film poster.

A Toronto-based filmmaker from India is facing death threats and police investigations after sharing a poster for her documentary on Twitter that depicts the Hindu goddess Kali holding a Pride flag and smoking a cigarette. 

Earlier this month, filmmaker and York University international graduate student Leena Manimekalai shared the poster to promote a screening of her film Kaali at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

She told CBC News she never expected the poster for the film — which uses an alternate spelling of the goddess's name — to garner this much attention.

"Any artist would expect a discussion, a discourse post her work being exhibited. But I never thought I would be attacked by this type of organized violence," she said.

The post sparked heated debate among politicians and religious leaders in India. Among them are those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindu ideology of Hindutva, including some who seek to transform India from a secular democracy into an ethno-religious country.

Some researchers and groups, including Human Rights Watch, say the ideology has led to discrimination and violence against minority groups in India, such as Muslims and Christians. They say it is also used to silence academic criticism of Indian politics in Canada.

In less than two weeks, Manimekalai said she and her family have received thousands of messages of hate through her social media pages, including rape and death threats. 

She wrote on Twitter that she was thrilled to share the launch of her film, which was hosted by Toronto Metropolitan University and presented at the Aga Khan Museum as part of a larger screening of films on multiculturalism. 

The tweet received immediate backlash, prompting the Indian High Commission in Ottawa to urge Canadian authorities to "take action" against what it called a "disrespectful depiction of Hindu gods" after it said it received complaints from leaders of the Hindu community in Canada.

The Aga Khan Museum apologized for screening the film, saying the presentation is "no longer being shown" and it "deeply regrets" that one of the short videos and "accompanying social media post have inadvertently caused offence." 

Toronto Metropolitan University distanced itself from Manimekalai as well.

When asked whether it received any correspondence from the Indian High Commission about its concerns with the film and poster, Global Affairs Canada would only say in a statement that "diplomatic correspondences are confidential" and  "Canada will always uphold freedom of expression." 

Laura Scaffidi, press secretary for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, also responded in a statement: "Threatening to commit acts of violence or rape against someone online is unacceptable and should never happen. We know that what happens online doesn't stay online.… Canadians want social media companies to do more to fix this."

Legal action launched in India

According to local reports in India, there are several police cases against Manimekalai in various states for her depiction of Kali and a lawyer in New Delhi filed a court case, asking the filmmaker and her company be stopped from promoting the poster or videos from the film. The New Delhi court issued a summons to the director and her company, which Manimekalai said she will respond to.

Chandra Arya, a Liberal MP representing the Ottawa-area riding of Nepean, also weighed in. He said it was "painful" to see the poster and welcomed the apology from the Aga Khan Museum. In the past few years, "traditional anti-Hindu and anti-India groups in Canada have joined forces," he wrote, "resulting in Hinduphobic articles" and "attacks on our Hindu temples."

Manimekalai disputes that characterization. "I have a right to claim my text, my cultures, my gods, my sexuality and my knowledge from the fundamentalists." 

The filmmaker said the version of Kali in the film is based on the Kali in her southern state of Tamil Nadu — an Indigenous feminist spirit that renounces patriarchy and accepts meat, alcohol and smokes from villagers. 

In the short film, Manimekalai embodies Kali herself, as she wanders the streets of Toronto at night searching for belonging. At one point, she accepts a cigarette from a man on a park bench.

It is her take on multiculturalism in Canada and a celebration of its diversity, she said.

"It is my ode to Kali," said Manimekalai.

"I also feel the gaze of brown skin being constantly exoticized, so [the film] is a parallel commentary on what I feel as a brown, queer person living in Toronto and what other people from various cultures feel seeing a person like this."

A sacred figure

While supporters say Manimekalai has every right to her artistic freedom, critics argue the director's portrayal of Kali is disrespecting a sacred figure.

For Arti Dhand, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's religious studies department, specializing in South Asian religions, including Hinduism, seeing the poster was "a little bit personally jarring, but not in a terribly offensive way," because she said she hasn't seen the goddess depicted smoking before. 

But, she said, she also doesn't have a problem with the representation, because Kali is a "counter-normative figure" who drinks alcohol and dances naked in the streets.

Hinduism has historically allowed for a considerable amount of flexibility on the images of deities and has been inclusive of various representations, Dhand said. People taking offence is a recent trend. 

"There are people more sensitive now about this kind of thing than they would be in the past," she said, adding there are different standards for what deities can do in mythology compared with real women.

"Things like [women] smoking are still shocking in some circles in Indian society."

According to some cultural experts, many of those critical voices are part of an organized political movement that's eroding people's freedom of expression, even beyond India's borders.

India's Supreme Court building in New Delhi is pictured in 2016. Legal action has been launched against the filmmaker in India at a different court. (Tsering Topgyal/The Associated Press)

"The government in power … uses all kinds of mechanisms — whether it's law, whether it's censorship — to stop any kind of conversation," said Chandrima Chakraborty, an English and cultural studies professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Chakraborty said she understands some of the backlash to the film and adds "creative choices have consequences."

However, she said, the political pressure and the calls for violence are a concerning trend. "It is ironic that you are so concerned about protecting the sanctity of goddesses, but you are not protecting the sanctity of living, breathing women."

Chakraborty said the appropriation of Hindu gods to drive a political agenda has become the norm in recent years. 

"A number of gods have been remade in order to meet the agenda … the manifest of this majoritarian Hinduism. It's a huge concern," she said. "There does not seem to be a space where you can be a nationalist, but you can also critique."

'Deeply troubling'

Since the controversy erupted, several Hindu groups have also come out in support of Manimekalai. including U.S.-based Hindus for Human Rights, which issued a statement Monday saying the filmmaker has "every right to explore these [Hindu] traditions through her art."

It called the apologies by Toronto Metropolitan University and the Aga Khan Museum "deeply troubling." The organization wrote a letter to the museum, urging it to consider the "broader social and political context" and explained how the apology feeds into the "Hindu far-right's disturbing and utterly false narrative of a homogenized, monolithic Hindu identity."

Despite the support, Manimekalai said she doesn't feel safe returning home to India until her legal battles are resolved.

However, she said this experience won't stop her from making art. 

"I will die if I don't make films I believe in. I will die if I can't defend my films."


  • An earlier version of this story defined Hindutva as an ideology which seeks to transform India into an ethno-religious country. In fact, there are a range of interpretations of Hindutva.
    Jul 29, 2022 4:03 PM ET