JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Leena Manimekalai

January 24, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Leena Manimekalai is a published poet and award-winning filmmaker from the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu whose works promote human rights, particularly those of marginalized people, such as the Dalit, Refugee, LGBTI+ community. Her fifteen plus films have covered subjects such as caste, gender, globalization, art therapy, student politics, Tamil right to self-determination, eco feminism, Indigenous and LGBTI+ rights. Her films have been internationally acclaimed and have also generated reprisal, censorship attempts and death threats. She is a BAFTA India Breakthrough Talent, 2022 and has recently completed an MFA (Film) at York University. She joins the JHI in 2022-23 as our Artist-in-Residence.

JHI: Can you give us a short summary of your work?

LM: My chosen fields of creative practice are poetry and cinema. I am a poet, screenwriter, film director and producer. I chose being a storyteller because I am very good at it. It is the gift my mother and grandmother have passed on to me. I hear my own voice very clearly when I tell stories, be it mine or others. If you go through my filmography, you will get to know that the stories I chose to tell would have never been told without me. As a perpetual asker of uncomfortable questions, I constantly try to shed light on unseen, unheard, unaccounted, unvalued human lives and struggles.  My films and poems are my show of solidarity to the communities whose stories I try to amplify. Solidarity is always a chain reaction. Nobody is a nobody here until there is one more soul to care, love and support. 

JHI: What project(s) are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it (them)?

LM: During my tenure, I will be meditating on the subject of labour. My films on gender, caste, refugees, queer communities, while shedding light on the invisibilized lives and stories also captures the plight of indentured labour. I see myself in the mirror that my work of art holds high. As a queer female Tamil shudra indie artist from a third world country like India, why is my art non labour? I will be investigating why cultural work remains a blueprint to precarity and marginalisation, with specific pointers to where I come from.

JHI: What are you hoping to experience as a JHI Fellow? What are you most looking forward to (or what have you enjoyed the most so far)?

LM: It feels special to be in the midst of brilliant minds and scholarship from various disciplines and fields of research. It is definitely stimulating to be part of the discussions during Thursday lunches and presentations. I look forward to learning more and making connections that may nurture my creative work and collaborations that may lead to significant cultural productions.

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

LM: I recently traveled to Amazon and spent quality time with climate action groups and activists. The whole experience is so compelling and rewarding. I am inspired by the resilience of Indigenous communities who are at the receiving end of human greed. As someone who has centered my two decades of art practice in people participatory movements, I am truly driven to join the climate action and be the creative tool for the communities to be heard, seen and cared for.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

LM: I procrastinate so much that I lose the sense of time and space at times. I eat cereal for dinner and drink wine early in the morning when I stay in that bubble.