Maadathy–An Unfairy Tale: Leena Manimekalai, Bhavana Goparaju, Ajmina Kassim, and Semmalar Annam in conversation with Roja Suganthy-Singh

On October 15th, 2021, AGITATE! launched the North American tour of Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale in collaboration with the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota.1 The event included a screening of this film, followed by a panel discussion with the film’s director, Leena Manimekalai; Bhavana Goparaju, a co-producer of the film; Ajmina Kassim, who plays the protagonist, Yosanna; and Semmalar Annam who plays Yosanna’s mother. The conversation was facilitated by Roja Suganthy-Singh, the author of Spotted Goddesses: Dalit women’s agency-narratives on caste and gender violence.

Maadathy is a powerful film that tells the story of Yosanna–a young girl who belongs to the “unseeable” Vannar caste. Since its premiere at the Busan film festival in 2019,  the film has garnered much critical acclaim and accolades for its nuanced and searing depiction of the pernicious intersection of gender and caste. 

 Here, we share with our readers an edited recording of the panel discussion that followed the film screening. In the conversation, Manimekalai and Goparaju discuss the challenges of being women filmmakers committed to telling stories from the margins in a deeply male-dominated and casteist industry. The panelists point to the urgency and risks of bringing attention to the rampant sexual violence that takes place at the intersection of caste and gender. Also important are Manimekalai’s reflections on her process of community-based filmmaking in multiple genres and the way in which she arrived at Maadathy. She mentions how meeting women’s rights activists from across India and documenting their stories of overcoming sexual violence, casteism, and sexism were critical in her journey to becoming a feminist filmmaker. The panel discussion illuminates the process, stakes, and importance of telling a story of caste oppression and sexual violence through a female gaze. Indeed, as Drishadwati Bargi argues in her insightful and moving review of Maadathy, it is the feminist lens in the presentation of Dalit lives and the unspeakable violence that determines their everyday existence that make this film stand out among other anti-caste movies. Together, the film and the panel discussion leave us with haunting creativity, inspired perspectives, new possibilities, and previously unseen stories brought to life through a fierce collective of feminist filmmakers, producers, and actors. 

Click here for Drishadwati Bargi’s review of Maadathy. 

Image copyright: Team Maadathy

Leena Manimekalai is a  a leading Tamil poet and filmmaker from India. Her films and writings are deeply driven by social justice.  Her narrative documentaries on the dynamics of caste, gender, globalization, art therapy, student politics, eco-feminism, indigenous people’s rights and LGBTQ lives have been internationally acclaimed and have won several awards in prestigious international film festivals and civil rights circuits. Manimekalai’s directorial debut Sengadal: The Dead Sea won her NAWFF Award at Tokyo for the Best Asian Woman Cinema and also was recognized with prestigious Indian Panorama selections. Her documentary Goddesses won her the Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival and nominations for Horizon Award in Munich and Asia Pacific Screen Award in Melbourne. Manimekalai has received the Charles Wallace Art Award (2012) in Visual Ethnography, the EU Fellowship (2005) in Media and Conflict Resolution and the Commonwealth Fellowship(2009) for her work in cinema and gender.
Bhavana Goparaju is an Indian filmmaker and one of the co-producers of Maadathy. She worked with veteran Malayalam director Anil Kumar on the script for Maiya and was the Associate Producer of Mantra which premiered in USA and was selected for Indian Panorama at IFFI, Goa. In 2017, She produced the Bengali short film Ek Poshla Rupkatha, an international collaboration between India and Russia which won six international awards. Goparaju founded Jeevi Films and is co-producing a Hindi Feature film In the Belly of a Tiger directed by Jatla Siddhartha. She is currently developing films and web series projects in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu languages. 
Semmalar Annam is an actor from Coimbatore, India, who rose to fame with the critically acclaimed Tamil film Ammani (2016) directed by Lakshmy Ramakrishnan. Semmalar is well known for her street plays on social and environmental causes performed in Coimbatore. She studied acting and theater at the Stanislavsky Acting School, Chennai.Annam’s debut film Malarmathi, about a sexually abused orphan won the state’s best film and best director award. Semmalar has also acted in several advertisements, documentaries, and short films.
Ajmina Kassim is an actor and design student from the state of Kerala, India, who debuted in the Malayalam movie, Udaharanam Sujatha (2017). Maadathy is her second feature length film.
Dr. Roja Suganthy-Singh is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, Women and Gender Studies, at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York. Her activism and research primarily focus on the intersections of race, class, caste, and gender using post-colonial and transnational feminist lens. Singh provides dialogues on a wide range of subjects focusing on race, gender, sexuality, and healthcare, cross cultural interactions, world cultures, indigenous cultural studies, and global gender studies. She continues to be deeply involved in Human Rights advocacy in India, especially focusing on education of girls and youth from Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu. Her writings have appeared as book chapters and her recently published book, Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women’s agency-narratives on caste and gender violence.

  1. The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Institute of Advanced Studies Collaborative on Memory, Movement, Montage at the University of Minnesota and made possible through the collective labors of Richa Nagar, Nida Sajid, Roja Suganthy-Singh, Zenzele Isoke, Bhavana Goparaju, Nithya Rajan, Casey Kenney, and Liz Johnson.