A film poster that depicts a woman dressed as Hindu goddess Kali smoking a cigarette has sparked anger in India.

Director Leena Manimekalai tweeted the poster of her new film Kaali – described as a “performance documentary” – on Saturday.

Since then, it has generated hundreds of responses from angry Hindus, who have accused her of offending their religious sentiments.


Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, is worshipped by millions of people.

On Monday, Ms Manimekalai’s name trended on social media in India as many called for her to be arrested.

The filmmaker, who is currently studying in Canada, told the BBC that the goddess she depicts in her film “champions humanity and embraces diversity”.

“As a poet and filmmaker, I embody Kaali in my own independent vision,” she said.

The depiction of religious figures on screen is a sensitive issue in India. In 2015, the country’s censor board demanded several cuts in the Bollywood film Angry Indian Goddesses, which showed images of Hindu goddesses.

Many other filmmakers and actors have faced protests for portraying religious themes or references in their movie.

India has also recently seen major protests from Muslims over comments made by a politician about the Prophet Muhammad. Last week, police in Rajasthan state arrested two Muslim men who have been accused of killing a Hindu man – in a video, they said the act was in retaliation for his support of the remarks.

Several Twitter users said the depiction of the goddess on the poster was an insult to Hinduism, and called for legal action against the filmmaker.

Others asked for all religious sentiments to be respected.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, is worshipped by millions of people.

Vinit Goenka, a spokesperson for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said the projection of the goddess hurt “the sentiments of Indians across the world” and asked the Indian government to take down the tweet.

A lawyer in the national capital Delhi tweeted that he has filed a police complaint against Ms Manimekalai.

The director, who is from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is currently a film student in Toronto. She was among 18 graduate students chosen under a programme managed by the Toronto Metropolitan University to make works on multiculturalism.

The film, Ms Manimekalai says, is a “candid shoot” of herself dressed up as a goddess walking the streets of downtown Toronto.

“In my film, Kaali chooses me as a spirit, holds a Pride flag and a camera in her hands and meets the First Nations (indigenous people), the People of African, Asian, Persian descent, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims and the mini-universe that one can capture across any cross-section of Canada,” she says.

Deities are a recurring theme in Ms Manimekalai’s filmography. Her 2007 documentary Goddesses was screened at the Mumbai and Munich film festivals. Her 2019 film, Maadathy – An Unfairy Tale, told the fictional story of how a young girl from a marginalised caste group is immortalised as a deity.

Ms Manimekalai says that the scene in the poster depicts the goddess showing love as she “kindly accepts the cigarette from the working-class street dwellers at the park around the Kensington Market”.

She also adds that in village festivals in southern India, people often dress up as Kali, drinking country liquor and dancing.

“We artists cannot be choked by the climate of fear. We need to be louder and stronger,” she said.