From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
Today, more than ever, we need creators who leverage their voice to talk about important societal causes and Ram Devineni is one such creative. A documentary filmmaker, technologist, and founder of Rattapallax– a not-for-profit organization focused on documentary films, poetry, and transmedia storytelling, Ram has been named a “gender equality champion” by UN Women for creating Priya– India’s first female superhero who is a rape survivor. He is the co-creator of an award-winning comic book series based on this character.
In December last year, he released a new comic book and a short animated film based on this character titled “Priya’s Mask”. With a focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2-minute animated film shows how Priya befriends a little girl named Meena and teaches her about the sacrifices made by frontline healthcare workers while instilling courage and compassion during this difficult time.
For ‘Surabhi’s Notepad’, in this month of women, I interviewed this award-winning filmmaker to learn more about the creative process behind the film, his inspirations, the beautiful message of coming together of India and Pakistan amidst this health crisis, and more. I also speak to Rattapallax Producer Shubhra Prakash briefly to better understand the editorial process for “Priya’s Mask”.
I understand that the idea to create Priya came to you after the horrible 2012 gangrape in Delhi. Can you share more on why you felt the need to create this symbol and how you think it helps create awareness and empower women?
RD: The idea to create “Priya’s Shakti” comic book series came after the horrible gang rape that happened on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. I was involved in the protests in Delhi and I observed gender-based violence was a cultural problem. I also realized after talking to survivors that there was a lack of support among society for the survivors of gender-based violence. I created a female comic book character who can reach young audiences. My goal was to change people’s perceptions at a very early age about the role of women, and especially their perception of survivors.
Priya is India’s first female superhero and a survivor of gender-based violence. We created an empathic and powerful character that is relatable to both girls and boys. Priya challenges deep-rooted patriarchal views and the role of women in society, and through the power of persuasion, she is able to motivate people to change.
One of our main goals is to teach teenage boys with the series because they are going through a critical age when they are learning about gender relationships, violence, and sexuality. That is why we create a strong female character in a comic book format.
Can you share more on the creative process of conceiving the character Priya – her looks, her ride, and for Saahas: The Tiger – her voice, and traits?
RD: For both characters, we went through many different names and Priya just felt right. I wish I could give an elaborate answer, but the sound of her name resonated with many people. Her name also translates to “love” or “beloved” which was very important because her mission is out of love and not anger. In the first comic book, we did not have a name for the tiger, and only in the second comic book, “Priya’s Mirror” did we name the tiger Saahas. Saahas means courage and is Priya’s friend and inner strength.
We created a “look-book” for each comic book with a collage of images, colors, and aesthetics we want to feature in the stories- these helped the illustrators with the initial designs.
In the pursuit of fighting against crime against women and gender equality, Priya’s Shakti- the comic book has been also recognized by the UN. Priya is the first-ever Indian female superhero- why do you think no one thought of creating a female superhero before- what does that say about the mindset of creators in India today?
RD: I am surprised too because there are many strong female characters in Indian mythology and Bollywood films have a comic book melodramatic aesthetic to them. So, it was strange it took this long. Comics only recently had a resurgence in commercial mainstream media and Hollywood, so maybe it would have eventually happened in India.
Tell us more about Priya’s Mask- the new comic book and short animated film in this series. What was the creative process like and what was the inspiration behind this?
RD: Priya returns in the new comic and short animated film, “Priya’s Mask.” She has been re-imagined as a teenager, but still is fierce and strong. The new edition is for a younger audience and will dispel misinformation about Covid19. The pandemic has challenged everyone, and the level of fear and uncertainty is very high. Priya’s message has always been about conquering your fears in order to find strength. Priya shows us why it is important to work together to defeat the virus and basic safety practices like “wearing a mask for your safety and mine.” Lastly, we focus on the emotions children are going through during this turmoil.
I think Meena in the comic book expresses her anxiety really well about the pandemic — she has no one to talk to and share her emotions. Priya tells her that she needs to be strong so others can be strong. In these uncertain times, fear can overtake us — but stay strong so you can support your family and community. Things will change, and get better.
The entire team worked remotely in multiple cities in different time zones from New York to New Delhi. We organized the project on Zoom and then worked independently in our houses and apartments. Even the actors’ voice-overs were recorded remotely, and we finished everything in 3 months.
I understand that Rattapallax Producer, Shubhra Prakash wrote this comic book series. Could she share more on the writing and creative process?
SP: Priya aligns with my macro vision of mainstreaming the brown girl narrative globally it is something I am passionate about – so the connect was instant – her origin story is positive and empowering subverting the victim shaming syndrome usually associated – a desi girl with superpowers on a flying tiger, yet rooted and authentic to the core – in a climate where the gender and diversity dialogue is so activated someone like Priya brings with her so much relevancy and stands a chance to become a true role model – more importantly we need someone like her right now. And that visual of her on Sahas is a game-changer.
I live on my own and have been isolating since March 10 as I got a bit of a cough – just about the time when the first COVID case hit the city. The 1st month was blurry and fairly surreal and involved lots of Netflix and discomfort as one adjusted to domestic chores – the no help situation, the hygiene of the pandemic, and of course sorely missing family. Month 2 was about wrapping one’s head around the new normal – strange things such as ZOOM and House Party. Month 3 onwards somewhere I began to make peace with the situation, work conversations energized too around the same time which was a big help – from then it’s been weird but okay. Dealing with losses – our own or people we don’t know continues to be tough – so keeping one’s mind out of the rabbit hole is an everyday process. I did not bake banana or sourdough bread.
The 2-minute animated film features the voices of Bollywood and Hollywood movie stars including Vidya Balan, Rosanna Arquette, Mrunal Thakur & Sairah Kabir. How was it working with these artists and how is it helping with the reach of the feature film?
RD: Having a remarkable array of talented actresses bring the characters to life was critical, and we are lucky to have Vidya Balan, Mrunal Thakur, and Sairah Kabir voice the characters. Equally important that all the characters in the film and comic book are women. I saw Ms. Mrunal Thakur in “Love Sonia,” and her acting was powerful and compassionate, so the entire team envisioned her to voice Priya and bring the character to life.
The animation was something new for all of us, and very exciting. Although young people read comics, this is small in comparison to the number of people who watch animated films. So, it was important for us to take Priya’s journey to another level and a larger audience.
The comic includes Pakistan’s Burka Avenger (their female superhero)- a first where the two rival countries’ characters came together to fight the pandemic. This was a stroke of genius as it sends out a great message to the world that we all need to come together and fight this virus. How did this idea come along and what was the process like?
RD: I have known about the “Burka Avenger” for a long time and the amazing animated TV Series that has been playing in Pakistan. So, when we started this comic book we felt we needed to include her in the story. There are some obvious correlations — both are female superheroes who fight for women’s rights. Her name is Jiya and our character is named Priya.
Also, the virus does not respect borders so it was important two comic book female superhero characters come together to fight. The US Embassy in New Delhi helped arrange the meeting and it has been a pleasure working with the “Burka Avenger’s” team.
The comic book also uses AR. How important a role do you think technology plays today when it comes to creating awareness, spreading information, especially when the target audience is mainly children?
RD: Augmented reality is very popular now and much more than when we started in 2013. Especially for our main audiences which are teenage boys. We are able to embed a lot of information, interactive elements, and stories from survivors. I think it is a powerful and imaginative tool to make our comic book come to life. Augmented reality is still new in India, but becoming popular because of Instagram camera effects and Snapchat. We have an AR effect on Instagram called “Priya’s Mask” which people can try out. Lots of fun and important messages. AR turns a comic book into a pop-up book, so it makes complete sense.
On a technological level, we believe the use of augmented reality will have a significant impact on readers in India who are not as familiar with this approach. There is a huge “WOW” factor when readers first experience augmented reality. Our comic book was one of the first publications to use augmented reality in India and helped define the new frontiers of integrating books, exhibitions, and public art with augmented reality. We created augmented reality murals in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore on the sides of buildings that were seen by millions of people.
SP: Tell us more about Rattapallax.
RD: Rattapallax started as a poetry magazine and now produces documentaries and comic books. We also produce transmedia storytelling and one of the innovators of augmented reality and comics. Rattapallax produced The Russian Woodpecker, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Rattapallax’s most recent film, The Karma Killings, about the Nithari serial killings in Noida was out exclusively on Netflix worldwide. The Karma Killings is hailed as a “true crime watershed moment” in India (Arré)
SP: How do you think film and literature can contribute towards making society more resilient as we usher into this new year where in addition to political turmoils and social issues, we are still fighting the virus?
RD: Priya is a survivor of sexual violence. She is not a victim. She takes tragedy and overcomes fear to challenge herself and society. The big question is how will you come out of the pandemic? Will you be a survivor or a victim? This will determine your psychological state and the state of society.
SP: Any special message that you would like to give to India Currents readers?
RD: Overcome fear, and become the superhero you were meant to be.
You can follow Priya Shakti on Instagram at @powerofpriya and learn more about the character and comic books at https://www.priyashakti.com/.
Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram