Leena Manimekalai on India's #MeToo movement, fighting defamation case: 'Absolute truth is my absolute defence'
Poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who has just finished the tenth hearing of the case filed against her on 7 March by Tamil film director Susi Ganesan (named by her), says the MeToo movement in India is an example of how the society consistently continues to fail the women.
A year on since the #MeToo movement in India, things seem to be back to normal. After being in a brief phase of ‘infamy’, most men continue to hog the limelight, barely losing their social capital or the benefits they continue to derive out of it. The women steadily find themselves on the road to downfall. Some were denied opportunities, like singer Chinmayi who spoke out against lyricist Vairamuthu. Others like Priya Ramani and Leena Manimekalai find themselves fighting a defamation suit.
That this happened to the women who wielded some sort of power in their respective fields, who commanded some kind of visibility, perhaps tells more of the failure of the movement, that it had also sufficiently failed to reach out to women who lacked it.
Poet and filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who has just concluded the tenth hearing of the case filed against her on 7 March by Tamil film director Susi Ganesan (named by her), says the #MeToo movement in India is an example of how the society consistently continues to fail the women. Following are the excerpts from her interview with Firstpost.
Yours were among the first of voices from Tamil Nadu to join the #MeToo movement. Do you think the movement has achieved its purpose in India?
My expression was part of a collective moment. I spoke because I thought I was not alone. It was like a catharsis. But what actually happened was all hell broke loose. The spotlight was burning my existence. I have never felt awkwardness to this amplitude ever in my life. I was reduced to a victim in no time, and all my work as a filmmaker and poet was of no importance.
Susi Ganesan indulged in a wild spree of slut-shaming and character assassination. His legal complaint is a classic example of how normalised this slut-shaming is and how one can go to court with it to file criminal defamation against whom he is actually shaming. It was like he had a social licence to slut-shame me because I had called out his predatory behaviour. Most of the regional media acted as self-appointed moralist gatekeepers. The silence of friends, allies and comrades was most hurting.
Professionally, I was more of an independent artist and always on the margins. I was pushed to much more to the margins post #MeToo but I have been there before. I have been witch-hunted for my poetry and political opinions earlier. I have faced hate for my films. I have been trolled for my radical positions all through my existence. But what was specific of #MeToo is the loss of friendships, collaborations and networks, and an acute failure of feminist solidarity. I have a strong feeling that #MeToo movement at large was despised and made to die down even in the most liberal and intellectual spaces in this country. Finally, every single voice was reduced to just this person vs that person cases. It is tragic but true.
You continue to go to the courts for a case filed by the person you had named. How has this affected you, personally and politically?
The criminal defamation case is a new beast in my life. This time of my life is so eventful with my second feature film, Maadathy, an Unfairy Tale, going places globally and bringing home so much acclaim. But I come back from an international film festival every time to serve a hearing notice from the court. When I had to miss the first screening of my very own documentary, My Story is Your Story, because of the court hearing, I felt that I am already being convicted for speaking out on sexual harassment.
It is a paradox that while #MeToo movement itself was formed because the women population of this universe lost faith in the system that always failed them, I am dragged to court for defamation in this country because I chose to out my predator. I know of quite a few women who have faced the worst kind of sexual violence in their lives and fighting all their lives for justice and closure. I draw my strength from them.
Has this affected your work? Have you found yourself with fewer opportunities?
Mainstream magazines often ask to publish my poems and columns. They have stopped now. Ironically, many mainstream newspapers went ahead and published Susi Ganesan's slut-shaming rejoinder to my #MeToo testimonial without any context or even printing my version. It was an anarchic dance of sensationalism and insensitivity in every sense. People stopped inviting me to literary and cultural events. I stopped existing for many. I was suddenly invisible.
Do you regret naming Susi Ganesan, considering that you have to face a case?
No, I don’t. I will use his own legal case to expose him, his cowardice in trying to prejudice the court with my anti-establishment views, political opinions, queer identity, sexuality, poetry expressions, my way of dressing, my personal life, my Facebook posts, my tweets, my work of translation framing me as an anti-social, anti-national, dangerous feminist person. I want to take it to its end, and tell the world that predators can be challenged. Absolute truth is my absolute defence.
If the #MeToo movement had not achieved its purpose, what do you think — as someone vocal on these issues — is the reason?
I think a majority of men have blood on their hands. Silence is the worst oppressor. I suspect each and everyone is complicit – [even] those who haven’t taken a stand. At the same time, I also empathise with women who didn't open up. With the kind of humiliation a woman has to undergo just because she chose to out the predator, she has all the rights to not choose to speak.
Do you think the 'failure' of #MeToo movement is reflective of the intrinsic gender bias in our country?
#MeToo failure is a stellar example for how this society continues to exceptionally fail women, her rights, her safety, her very existence.
What are you working on currently? How has the #MeToo movement and your own involvement in it, has influenced you, your work?
Since 2014, I have been working on a long documentary feature, Rape Nation, on the 'she'roes who triumphed their past of sexual violence and turned into leaders in their own spheres. The film closely follows the lives and struggles of Soni Sori, Bilkis Banu, Bhanwari Devi, Rahanas and Manorama. I am currently editing it. I am not sure if art lurches out of life or vice versa. I question and I am part of the question too. Maybe I had gathered courage through the life-altering experiences that filmmaking keeps giving me.
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