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With social change as goal

S. R. ASHOK KUMAR

Visual medium is the best to tackle social issues, feels Leena Manimekalai.


Most of my films have been instruments in starting a dialogue and have ultimately brought about the change - Leena



WITH A MISSION: Leena Manimekalai at work.

Actor, writer and film-maker, young Leena Manimekalai has made a mark as creator of quality stuff. `Kanavupattarai' is her media house through which she has published 20 titles on world cinema and literature. Recently, she launched `Thirai,' an alternative monthly film journal that she edits herself. Excerpts from an interview with this multi-faceted personality:

With versatile skills, how would you like yourself to be identified?

Leena Manimekalai is a producer and director of documentaries. She would like to identify herself as a media activist rather than as a filmmaker. Documentary as a visual medium is very close to my heart because it deals with life and experiences in their raw form, which cannot be substituted. I have always tried to use video as a participatory tool for development. Most of my films have been instruments in starting a dialogue and have ultimately brought about the change.

And that explains the themes of your works.

Yes. My first film was "Mathamma," a 20-minute documentary about devoting girl children to the deity, a practice prevalent among the Arundhatiyar community in Mangattucheri village near Arakkonam, Chennai. "Paarai" reveals the plight of the Dalit population, particularly the women, with the south Indian village Siruthondamadevi as a classic example. This film triggered a successful video participatory movement, which forced the Government to intervene.

"Break the Shackles," (50 minutes) focuses on how the three-track policy of globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation could work to the detriment of the downtrodden.

"Love Lost" is an experimental five-minute video poem (from my anthology) about how urbanisation leads to deteriorating relationships.

"Connecting Lines" is a short cross-cultural documentary on student politics in Germany and India.

"Waves after Waves," docu-feature, explores how art rejuvenates the lives of children, disrupted by tsunami. The relief activists narrate their experience and the film slowly evolves.

"Altar" is an ethnographic documentary on child marriage customs prevailing in the Kambalathu Naicker community in the central parts of Tamil Nadu.

Almost all the films have participated in several international festivals and forums. Quite a few have won awards including best documentary award in the Europe Movies Festival 2003, Paris, and Norway International Film Festival.

Did you show interest in social issues even as a child?

Well, I had an inquiring mind. Being raised in a politically aware family, I used to bombard my father, Prof. Dr. Raghupathy, with questions about whatever I came across. As he made me read the writings of Bharati, Marx, Vivekananda and so on I would imagine myself to be these characters. That instilled confidence and leadership qualities. My mother Rama made me learn classical dance and music. She firmly believed that life was all about appreciating art. My personal interest was sports. That was how I grew up as an all rounder.

So your family was a source of inspiration.

Yes. Apart from my parents, my grand fathers on both sides and uncles were all leaders in their own spheres. I think that kindled the spark in me to achieve something in life.

You have worked as an apprentice with director Bharathiraaja and also as an assistant to director Cheran and C. Gerald. But you have been content with doing documentaries. Why?

To watch film festivals was an eye-opener. I yearned to participate. And I discovered the scope docu-features had. Coupled with my natural inclination to social issues, I settled for documentaries. I decided to dedicate my career to making films for social charge.

To be a well-rounded personality, it is important to balance all aspects of life. Have you managed to integrate work, family, social obligations?

I have taken a road less travelled, both personally and professionally. Mine was an inter religious, inter caste, and inter lingual marriage. And I am the first generation filmmaker in my family. My husband Jerrold is my big strength. My mother and brother Elango will never let me down.

What, according to you, are your personal strengths?

I never stop learning and I never give up! Hard work is my biggest asset.

What are your future projects?

My immediate project is a documentary feature on the Cauvery. I am planning to do `The Water Dispute' as an extensive video participatory movement. I am planning a fiction feature as well.

Apart from festival screenings, how do you take your messages across?

I have done at least 500 screenings personally across villages, universities, schools, festivals and civil society forums. If I had made one person in each screening to think, my effort would be worthwhile. I would request viewers to help spread the message. Friends with infrastructure can organise screenings all over the world.

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