Interactive comic book challenges misogynistic views that blame rape victims for their attacks
Ram Devineni vividly recalls the outrage that India and the world felt in December 2012 when a young woman died in New Delhi after she was gang-raped on a moving bus. He also remembers what a policeman said to him after the attack.
“He told me that no ‘good girl’ walks home alone at night, which implied that the woman deserved it,” says the New York-based Indian-American filmmaker and publisher. Shocked at this lack of empathy towards victims of sexual violence in India, Devineni decided to tackle the subject with an English-language comic book, called Priya’s Shakti (Priya’s Strength).
The concept grew into an ambitious multimedia project – a free-to-download digital version was launched on December 15 and the print version was released four days later at Mumbai Film and Comic Con.
Devineni co-wrote the comic with the poet, playwright and songwriter Vikas Menon. It is published by Devineni’s company Rattapallax, funded by the United States-based Jerome Foundation and grants from various organisations.
In the comic book, the title character calls upon the goddess Parvati for help when her parents and society declare her an outcast after she is raped. Devineni decided to use Hindu mythology as the vehicle for his tale of gender violence and misogyny because “as a child I read a lot of books with mythological tales in which people called upon various deities for help when troubled”, says the 41-year-old, whose film credits include The Russian Woodpecker, which will screen at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival this month.
The story, he says, “is symbolic of the action every rape survivor should take for her own sake”.
Blazing a digital trail
Priya’s Shakti is India’s first comic book with augmented reality available in both print and digital editions. So, while reading the comic, you can scan the pages with Blippar, a free-to-download, augmented-reality app for smartphones. As the panels come alive, you can click on them to read the story of a survivor of sexual or gender abuse. There are pop-ups, too, including hand-drawn comic strips by teenagers from Dharavi, a Mumbai slum, and others that nudge the reader to take a selfie with Priya and post it on social media. Audio files recounting stories of survivors of sexual violence who were rescued and looked after by Apne Aap – a non-government organisation that works against human trafficking – are embedded into the pages.
The accounts of two rape survivors Devineni met during the course of his research are told in their own voices.
“It was important to let the world know the real stories of sexual violence. With the reasonably high prevalence of smartphones in India, augmented reality looked like the right choice for it,” says Devineni.
Before finalising the storyline for the 32-page comic, Devineni visited India, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal to better understand Hindu mythology. On his travels, he also interacted with teenagers to understand how sexual violence affects them: “I wanted Priya to reach out to every teenager,” he says.
During his talks with rape survivors, Devenini found out that the lack of interest in seeking justice is more of a cultural than legal issue. “Survivors are discouraged by their families, friends and even the police to talk about their rape on account of the stigma attached to it. I decided to address that in the comic.”
For the American illustrator and designer Dan Goldman, illustrating characters from Hindu mythology was a dream come true. He devoured all kinds of material for inspiration, from books on classical Indian paintings to Bollywood films and bumper stickers.
“I went through a giant stack of books that grew and shrank for about four months,” says Goldman. “I then let everything cook slowly in my head until I was ready to apply it to the story.”
More than 3,000 copies of Priya’s Shakti were distributed at Mumbai Film and Comic Con. Copies from the next print run will soon be sent to bookshops, schools and children’s workshops, but the price hasn’t been decided yet. Devineni says the focus so far has been on promoting the free, downloadable digital version – 150,000 digital copies were downloaded in the past two weeks.
To further spread the message, walls in Dharavi and New Delhi’s Connaught Place have been decorated with augmented-reality murals based on the comic, which encourage interaction by passers-by.
Devineni believes this is “an ideal way to change mindsets”, and plans to introduce his public art to other Indian cities. “The point is to have people identify with Priya, this rape survivor, and stand behind her. With their support, all the ‘Priyas’ in our country will have the incentive to seek justice.”
He wants to bring to Indian schools workshops on sexual abuse awareness, again in partnership with Apne Aap, and is also in talks with production companies to produce a short-film adaptation of the comic.
For the filmmaker, this is only the beginning. “We hope to deal with other gender-based issues in future issues of Priya’s Shakti.”
• Priya’s Shakti is free to download on www.priyashakti.com, as well as iTunes, iBooks and Amazon
Updated: January 4, 2015 04:00 AM