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Malini Jeevarathnam: On Self-respect, Queerness and Finding her Feet in Chennai

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Tamil cinema is finally evolving and is on the verge of creating a space for the representation of queer people, says 30-year-old filmmaker Malini Jeevarathnam.

This gender-fluid director, whose documentary Ladies and Gentlewomen received top honours at various international festivals, like the Norway Tamil Film Festival, says that filmmakers have approached her recently for script consultation in terms of portrayal of queer characters.

“This is a welcome change. Tamil cinema has evolved from a position where assistant directors, technicians and artists would sit on the floor and take down instructions. Now we sit opposite the makers of the movies on chairs- on equal footing. This is especially true for persons who are openly queer,” she says.

Charting her journey from the town she was born, to the town that she found herself; Malini recounts her experiences, stresses on self respect and explains her cinema and future projects.

Where it began

Malini spent her formative years in Paramakudi, a town in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district. During her school days, Malini established herself as a strong orator and took part in several competitions. However, she says that childhood wasn’t an easy or comfortable stage for her.

“I underwent harassment and domestic violence at home. There was a strong need to break out of the cycle and search for freedom. I have often wondered what it would be like to have formative years filled with kindness.”

It was in Chennai where Malini found the space to come out and express her queerness, when she was 23-years-old.  Although she was fairly vocal on social media about coming out as gender fluid or androgenous, she says that she lost both her parents before she could speak to them about it.

She identifies with her late mother, who instilled in her the need for self respect, she says. Her surname Jeevarathnam is, in fact, her mother’s name.

“My mother was a really strong woman. She was also a great storyteller and would often modulate her tone while telling me tales at night time. This probably inspired me to tell my stories too,” she says.

In Chennai; she found the queer community, became an activist, and continues to contribute to the community here. She also learnt to tell the community’s tales in the form of the powerful documentary Ladies and Gentlewomen, focusing on the lives of lesbian women across the country.

Before she could create her own project, she assisted Director Pa Ranjith in the making of the 2014 film Madras. She also worked on the 2016 film Aruvi, directed by Arun Prabu Purushothaman. Each of these movies were part of the new wave of cinema, she says, adding that she would like to cement her position here.

She adds that in order to create better cinema, equality must start on the sets, off screen.

“One can talk communism in the film but can treat their technicians poorly. That is hypocrisy. It is often where mental health is compromised. We have lost several talented individuals because of their struggle with mental health and the insensitivity around the topic. Tamil cinema must discuss this more openly. In my part, I try to listen as much as I can, assimilate and create an accommodative space,” she says.

Going forth

Malini says that she has a number of exciting projects lined up, including a documentary on queer men which is in the post-production stage. She has also dabbled in the world of acting, she says.

Although she is widely recognised as a director, Malini says that she loves and enjoys dancing.

“I view it as a celebration and I enjoy it wholly. I had taken part in a couple of televised dance shows too. Modelling is another area where I express my body, particularly my gender fluidity.”

She adds that she would love to work on scripts that are sarcastic, funny and urge people to live live at its fullest.

“I love commercial films and hope to create mass entertainers with a range of queer characters,” she says.

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