Comic book creator hopes to change minds in India

Digital Originals

The first female Indian superhero is also a rape survivor.

Comic book creator hopes to change minds in India

“Priya's Shakti” follows a young Indian woman, a devotee to the Goddess Parvati, goddess of love and devotion, who is banished from her village after a brutal rape.

“Priya’s Shakti” follows a young Indian woman, a devotee to the Goddess Parvati, goddess of love and devotion, who is banished from her village after a brutal rape. Parvati sees her and the plight of other women on earth who face rape and violence and gives Priya the courage to fight against the crimes perpetrated against her and other women. She becomes a beacon of hope and empowerment for women to speak up in dark times.

Along with confronting the issue of gender violence, the comic takes the innovative technology of augmented reality to literally bring the comic to life. Characters, scenes and stories bursts from the pages of the comic, all through a smartphone device

The comic is the creation of documentarian and filmmaker Ram Devineni and artist Dan Goldman who was working in India when a woman was killed in a horrific 2012 gang rape on a private bus near Southern New Dehli.

The crime shocked the country and Deveni immediately protested the act and began researching how such an attack could have occurred. He was most shocked by a conversation he had with a local police officer.

“[The officer] said ‘No good girl walks home alone at night,’” Devineni recounted.

“At that particular moment, I knew the problem with gendered violence, and rape in particular, was not a legal problem but a cultural problem.”

While Devineni’s background is in film, he believed the best way to influence people was through a comic book. A large portion of his audience includes teenagers who are more receptive to the graphic novel form of storytelling.

“These are really difficult topics to talk about. No one really wants to talk about rape or acid attacks or any of these complex topics,” Devineni said.

“And the comic book format, especially having a female superhero, is a way for general audiences to come into these topics.”

As a character, Priya represents a mixture of different constructs from Indian culture, Hindu mythology, and Bollywood. She’s been likened to Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel, but Devineni bristles at such comparisons. The comic draws on traditional Indian archetypes. Priya flies around on her tiger called her Shakti, or power, who she takes control of in the first chapter.

When the first edition was released in at the Mumbai Comic Con 2014, the book was immediately successful. Globally the comic has been downloaded over 600,000 times globally and Devineni’s outreach has seen massive growth, resonating with millions of people around the world.

UN Women has also praised the book as a gender equality champion. He even partnered with the World Bank’s WEvolve initiative in his second book, “Priya’s Mirror,” which addresses acid attacks.

Devineni has also given Ted talks about the comic and exhibitions at the Tribeca Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

Devineni’s goal was to remove the social stigma that many survivors of rape and sexual violence face.

“It was important that rape survivors, who often want to get justice, are not allowed to because of society or patriarchy or everything surrounding them is preventing them,” Devineni said.

As part of his research, Devineni interviewed academics and NGOs working in gender violence. He also spoke to gang rape survivors and heard about how difficult it was to find support – from friends and family and from the legal system.

“This created this kind of vicious circle,” Devineni reflected, where this violence continued and few men were punished for it and felt empowered to commit more rape.”

A groundbreaking aspect to his comic is the use of augmented reality, which Devineni utilized before the rise and popularity of Pokemon Go.

Taking some inspiration from the Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, renowned for frescoes telling the biblical story of the Creation of Adam, the book incorporates the Blippar app and lets readers use their smartphones to bring the book’s images to life, directly off the page.

“I wanted to figure out a way to get deeper into these stories,” Devineni recalls.

“We were implementing AR not only in New York City but in the slums of Mumbai. We were going into really remote areas and created AR street art, comic books and a lot of other different elements to it.”

The next chapter will look at sex trafficking, following Devineni’s research and interviews with more than 30 sex workers at Sonagachi, the largest brothel in Calcutta.

In the meantime, Devineni has worked with multiple outreach programs in India to help more teenagers engage with the topics raised in Priya’s book. Some NGOs are even holding workshops for students to interview survivors and create their own graphic novels about gender violence.