In the sets

In the sets
With Sethurakku, the fish hunter

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Three Women

By Aijaz Gul

The Indian documentary Goddesses is one of the best documentaries seen in years. Director Leena Manimekalai may be an engineer by profession but she has worked in the media and knows all about the creative aspects of digital filmmaking, production and editing.

Leena's Goddesses is no ordinary film. Filmed on HD in 2007, it runs for only 42 minutes and still jolts you, interests you and, above all, enlightens you on what women in India can achieve in spite of the bare minimum they have to live on.

Goddesses grabs you from the beginning with its extraordinary characters. The women are aged, ugly, dirty and fat. They are dressed in gaudy and dirty saris. They are the people you would not like to see, let alone meet with pleasure. Why would Leena or anyone make a film on these women! The answer is that these are the most interesting characters on screen. They are the women from Tamil Nadu, single and brave. They are the lowest in social strata but they don't give a damn. They earn just a handful to feed themselves but help others from their meager earnings. They are not moving mountains or changing the Tamil Nadu society but simply surviving and yet serving the purpose in what they are doing.

Lakshmi is a professional singer and dancer at funerals. People in Tamil Nadu actually invite professional mourners to bring them (and others) to cry at funerals. The more Lakshmi dances, sings out loud, beats her chest and the drummers bring out the ear-shattering sound, the more the family sheds tears and joins in chest beating. It is rather grotesque and morbid doing that in front of the dead body of the grandmother.

Krishnaveni is our second heroine who makes her living by burying and cremating unclaimed dead bodies from the rivers and streets. She carries them in a partly broken worn out cart. She gives these corpses bare minimum burials. She digs ditches outside the village and dumps the bodies in with or without the help of a couple of other males. No emotions, no sentiments, no grief, just matter-of-fact rituals performed day in and day out. Krishnaveni talks her heart (and lungs) out to the camera on how she has survived in the ruthless man's world. She curses the men folks who have used her over the years to relieve themselves of their physical needs and lust. And then she pays them back in the same currency. She knows all the policemen around and has even been in the slaughterhouse business, selling meat on the streets. She was born streetsmart.

The third woman Sethuraku never went to school and instead took to the sea at an early age. Now she has aged and earns her living through fishing which everyone knows is a man's job. She goes to sea which no other women could imagine, let alone do it. With modern fishing gadgets and machinery used by others, there are days when she returns empty handed and knits small shells into strings to make ends meet by making cheap trinkets.

The director captures these three women in their reality, with their loud gestures and even louder street talk. Goddesses is a powerful yet risky commentary which only a rare filmmaker would choose to film. Leena Manimekalai has done it brilliantly and with simplicity without unnecessary production effects or the razzle-dazzle of film technology.

"Goddesses" hits where "Slum Dog Millionaire" misses

Hit by Slumdog Millionaire fever? Tamsyn Dent suggests you come watch a deeper and more realistic portrayal of women in India in Leena Manimekalai’s award winning documentary Goddesses.

India is everywhere at the moment! Even pre-last night’s Oscars smash, you could barely turn on your television or open the newspaper without seeing something about Danny Boyle’s wild card hit of the awards season, Slumdog Millionaire. Like it for its feel good factor and rags to riches storyline or loath it because of the negative image of the slum inhabitants of Mumbai, you can’t deny that this is a visually stunning film and through it Bollywood, and more importantly, India is seeping into the mainstream.

But what about the women in the film? To me the women lose out, the love interest is unconvincing and never fully explained and the only other strong female character is the stereotypical traditional mother.

Leena Manimakalai’s award winning documentary Goddesses gives an entirely different perspective of Indian women and one that if you’ve been inspired to learn more about Indian culture you should definitely go and see. This documentary looks at the lives of three women; Lakshmi, a professional funeral singer and canny businesswoman; Krishnaveni, a grave digger who is given the abysmal task of taking unclaimed bodies in whatever state and burying them with her own bare hands; and sea-going fisherwoman, Sethuraku, who was given a man’s profession by her uncle in order to survive and support her family. These women are incredible: hilarious, cunning and strong. They each display power in their own self awareness and assertiveness.

Moments to watch out for: Lakshmi singing loudly through the streets about her ‘m*ther f*cker’ husband who tried to ruin her life, Krishnaveni telling another (male) interviewee to shut up and stop crying and Sethuraku snapping at her husband for spending her earned money on alcohol and playing up to the camera. The role reversals in this documentary are fantastic. These women know they live on the periphery of society, yet they work and have dignity and pride in their professional choices.

The position of women in Indian society has always been both wonderfully complex and mysterious to me. The Goddess Shakti represents power, force and cosmic energy and yet women are still treated as second class citizens.

This documentary grapples with this contradiction. Perhaps what Leena Manimakalai is trying to portray is the power of these ordinary women, elevating them in her title to the position of ‘Goddess’ through their ability to survive.

Goddesses by Leena Manimakalai was awarded the Golden Conch award in Mumbai International Film Festival.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Note on Goddesses

Kanavuppattarai Presents


A documentary by Leena Manimekalai

Notes from the lives of three extra ordinary women –
a funeral singer; a fisherwoman; a graveyard worker


Here is the story of three ordinary women who live extra ordinary lives surviving darkest of times and gone against society's norms to live and work according to the rules they have set for themselves.

Lakshmi, a professional 'funeral singer': She visits death houses with a troop of drummers and for a measly pay, she wails and laments and shares the grief of the other mourners. The throb of the drums and her ankle
bells resonate in the house long after she has left.

Krishnaveni, the ‘grave-digger’: Dead unknown earn her the daily meal.Veni accepts unclaimed bodies from the local Police and gives them a decent burial or cremation, digging and maintaining the graves herself.

Sethuraku, the ‘fisherwoman’: What is normally considered as taboo for women? is confidently done by this lady. She goes out to sea, every morning with a few fellow fisherwomen to collect fish and prawns, singing to welcome the day.

Goddesses Written and Directed by Leena Manimekalai

Produced by C Jerrold Cinematography Sunny Joseph

Edited by P Thangaraj Sound Santhaana Nambi

*Running Time 42 Minutes * Color *2007 *English Subtitles

© kanavuppattarai


Golden Conch, Best Documentary, Mumbai International Film Festival 2008,


The young filmmaker, Leena Manimekalai, is faced with three old material goddesses who for different reasons find themselves naturally emancipated from Tamil tradition and orthodoxy. Leena creates for Goddesses a trusting filming arena that was never manipulative so that the three women opened up and revealed their total strength and power bordering on the archetype. They emerged free, master of the very tradition that had earlier kept them shackled.

Nominated for Horizon Award, Munich International Film festival, 2008,

Mention, IAWRT International Documentary Film Competition, Women Building Peace, Nairobi, Kenya 2007,

Jury Award, John Abraham National Awards for Cinema Of Resistance, SIGNS 2007, Trivandrum, Kerala.

Best Documentary, National Competition, One Billion Eyes Documentary Film Festival 2008

Official Selection, International Competition, Tri Continental Film Festival, South Africa 2008

Official Selection, International Factual Competition, Roma Fiction Film Festival, Rome, 2008

Official Selection, National Competition, International Video Film Festival of Kerala, 2008

Nomination, Asia Pacific Awards, Brisbane, Australia, 2008

Official Selection, Birds Eye View Film Festival, London, March 2009

Official Selection, Belgrade Documentary Film Festival, May 2009